Electric cars? Bring ’em on, St. Paul is ready

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You can test drive a Chevy Volt today over at the corner of Highway 35W and County Road C. Just ask for Aaron. At press time, Rosedale Chevy’s lot had just one electric vehicle, surrounded by rows of new Suburbans. But more are on the way, including a Chevrolet hybrid Tahoe SUV and a Silverado pickup. Toyota’s Prius plug-in hybrid is due to be released next year.

What once seemed a lost cause—have you seen the activist documentary Who Killed the Electric Car?—is now solid reality. In fact, not only are electric vehicles rolling into showrooms, there’s a sequel to that documentary arriving in the Twin Cities next month: Revenge of the Electric Car.

As car manufacturers begin stocking local dealerships with their electric vehicles (called EVs), buyers will be looking for charging stations, to be sure. St. Paul is ready.

Planners for the City of St. Paul joined federal and local stakeholders to help provide start-up infrastructure for the new electric vehicles. Thanks to a creative combination of energy-efficiency funding, gap financing and public/private partnerships, public EV charging stations are cropping up all over town.

Como Park Pavilion will host two ChargePoint plug-in stations come December. The stations will use solar arrays and service will cost $1 an hour. Downtown St. Paul has seen stations pop up in parking garages. The Spruce Tree Ramp hosts a public charging station on the second level (at a cost of $1 an hour), while RiverCentre off Kellogg Boulevard and the Smith Avenue Ramp each have two stations that will cost $3 for a “charging session” of up to four hours.

Monthly commuters can enjoy several downtown parking choices. Lowertown Ramp off Sibley Street offers two stations for monthly contract parkers. The World Trade Center Ramp off Wabasha also plans to serve its monthly clients with two stations. The Lawson Ramp off of Sixth Street will have four charging stations. And more are coming.

By May 2012, charging stations should be available near Harriet Island (at Water Street), on Grand Avenue near Macalester (at Fry Street) and on Ford Parkway at Highland Village (at Kenneth Street). Some businesses are rumored to be revving up to offer convenience charging in parking lots, including the Mall of America, Cub Foods and Walgreens. It pays to stay tuned, as things unfold.

Are electric cars really “new”? No, they aren’t. Electric cars have been part of the mix since the earliest years of automotive innovation. Along with Stanley Steamers (steam-powered vehicles from the early 20th century), they took a back seat to gas-powered vehicles for most of the last century. But with the price of gas flirting at $4 a gallon and deep concerns about the environment, these cars are looking more attractive.

What is an EV? It’s not simply one kind of car but a spectrum of technologies. Consumers will have choices. While there are caveats in buying an EV, including sensitivity to the kind of cold weather like we have in Minnesota, handsome federal tax breaks will reward early adapters, and rebates from manufacturers are geared to ease the cost of installing home-charging systems.

Here’s some information you should know:

A plug-in hybrid like Chevy’s Volt features both a gasoline engine and an electric motor. These cars can be charged overnight using a typical wall outlet or in a few hours using a dedicated 240-volt charger. For the first 40 or so miles—a distance covering typical daily trips—the car uses electricity only. The hybrid’s gas engine kicks in after that, extending the range of a tank of gas upward to around 1,000 miles.

An all-electric vehicle, on the other hand, has no gasoline engine, but its battery is beefy enough to go 100 miles or more without recharging. Nissan’s Leaf, for example, is 100 percent electric, as is Ford’s new Focus BEV, a car line that also includes a commercial van model. The Mitsubishi-i, or iMiEV, has already been road-tested in Japan and will be available here.

For the well-heeled among us, look out for BMW’s Mini-E, already tooling around on the coasts. Meanwhile, Tesla’s Roadster luxury EV sports sedan is rumored to have a range of up to 245 miles. Toyota’s upcoming RAV4 all-electric SUV (which uses Tesla technology) will be on the road in 2012.

To find out more, here are some helpful websites:

D. J. Alexander lives and writes in Falcon Heights.