Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Plugged into future

Avista plans to upgrade electric car charging stations

Duane Crockett stops to check out an electric charging station outside the Steam Plant in downtown Spokane on Tuesday, March 1, 2011. Other existing stations include one at City Hall and another at Avista headquarters.  (The Spokesman-Review)

Three charging stations for electric cars in Spokane will be upgraded in the coming weeks for faster service – in time for the first modern electric cars from major manufacturers to be delivered to Spokane customers.

Last year, Avista installed 120-volt charging stations, the same power as the typical wall outlet, at Spokane City Hall, Avista headquarters on Mission Avenue and the downtown Steam Plant, which is owned by the power company. The stations will be upgraded to 240 volts by April 22, Earth Day, at $1,000 per station.

Officials said they didn’t have data to say how much two of the stations have been used, though, anecdotally, charging has been insignificant. Cars connected to the City Hall charger have so far used $50 worth of electricity, said Spokane’s Environmental Programs Manager Lloyd Brewer.

But the use of electric cars is expected to increase dramatically in the next few years.

An all-electric Nissan Leaf was showcased at last month’s Spokane Auto Show, and about six of them will arrive in Spokane later this month or in early April, said David Biggs, general sales manager for Jaremko Nissan Saab in Spokane Valley. Another dozen on order will arrive in May.

He said he doesn’t expect to have a typical inventory in the showroom until next year.

“You can go online and have it here in six months,” said Biggs, who drove about 300 miles in a Leaf.

General Motors expects the Chevrolet Volt, an electric car that can switch to gas on longer journeys, to be available nationwide by the end of the year. Attempts made to reach managers at local Chevy dealers were unsuccessful, but Tom Wilkinson, GM’s news relations manager, said all certified Volt dealers likely will have at least one or two delivered this year. Appleway in Spokane Valley is listed as a certified Volt dealer.

David Holmes, Avista’s manager of applied research and development, said with so few electric cars in the area, he’s not surprised by the stations’ minimal use.

“It was more of a chicken-or-egg issue,” Holmes said.

He said a ramping up of electric car production should boost use of the stations.

“It’s going to start the floodgates opening,” he said. “It’s the real deal.”

Avista estimates that as many as 16,000 electric cars will be in the region by 2016.

Rick Woodbury, president of Commuter Cars Corp. in Spokane, said he used the City Hall charging station to check it out. His company makes the Tango, an electric commuter car.

Currently, the stations aren’t powerful enough to be useful for folks who want to charge up while shopping downtown.

“It was a nice gesture, but it’s pretty useless, frankly,” Woodbury said.

With the upgrade, however, the stations make more sense, said Woodbury, who has ordered a Nissan Leaf to replace the Subaru he uses when he needs a car bigger than the Tango.

Holmes said the stations have the ability to accept payment, but there’s not been enough use to make it worthwhile. The company is exploring whether it should be in the electric car charging business and is talking with developers who have approached Avista about installing stations.

“If there’s a need, we’ll probably want to step up and help with it,” he said.

Perhaps the biggest user of the stations so far is Graham Smith, who manages Avista’s project management office. He converted a 1993 Geo Metro into an electric car and often charges it when he’s at work.

Smith lives on the West Plains and has a 17-mile commute to Avista headquarters (though he doesn’t drive it if it’s too cold because it doesn’t have heat). He gets about 40 miles in a single charge.

The charging stations are meant to alleviate “range anxiety” – the fear running out of power and becoming stranded.

Ron Wells, a Spokane developer, drives Chrysler’s Global Electric Motorcar and said he pays about 2.5 cents a mile in electricity to operate it. He’s used the Steam Plant station to “top off” his charge.

Once drivers get used to the cars, that fear will fade, Wells said.

“I’ve been driving one for five years and I don’t have any range anxiety,” he said.