Mass. gets ready to power electric cars

Plans are underway for charging stations

In September, the Charles Hotel in Cambridge installed an electric vehicle charging station, which is ready to power the upcoming Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt. In September, the Charles Hotel in Cambridge installed an electric vehicle charging station, which is ready to power the upcoming Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt. (Wendy Maeda/Globe Staff)
By Clifford Atiyeh
Globe Correspondent / October 16, 2010
Text size +
  • E-mail
  • E-mail this article

    Invalid E-mail address
    Invalid E-mail address

    Sending your article

    Your article has been sent.

Build them, automakers hope, and owners will come to plug in their cars.

With the impending arrival of the first electric cars from mainstream companies in more than a decade, Massachusetts utilities, businesses, and municipalities are preparing to open a wave of public charging stations over the next year.

At least five stations will be installed in the Springfield and Hadley areas by the end of this year, and another three are expected in Boston by the first quarter of 2011, according to officials. Currently, there are only three stations in the state, all of them at hotels.

Last week, Ian Bowles, the state’s energy and environmental affairs secretary, unveiled $200,000 in grants to fund charging stations across Massachusetts. No communities have applied for the money, but the Energy and Environmental Affairs office anticipates at least 100 stations will open next year.

Charging stations are the equivalent of gas pumps. In some instances, they can be set up for paid metering. A station costs between $1,500 and $8,000.

Automakers such as General Motors Corp. and Nissan Motor Co. have billions of dollars at stake as their long-anticipated electric vehicles finally trickle to market in a handful of states this fall. The Chevrolet Volt, a $41,000 plug-in electric hybrid, goes on sale next month, followed by the all-electric $33,000 Nissan Leaf in December. Chevrolet says it expects to sell about 40,000 Volts next year, while Nissan says it has already taken 20,000 preorders for Leafs. A federal tax credit of up to $7,500 is available for both models.

The Leaf runs off a lithium-ion battery and can travel up to 100 miles per charge, while the Volt uses a battery to power the first 25 to 50 miles. After that it relies on a gas engine to recharge and power the car at higher speeds.

Neither model will be available in Massachusetts for at least eight months. Initially, the Volt will be offered in six states, including Connecticut. The Leaf will debut only as far east as Tennessee.

The limited roll-out has Massachusetts utilities and officials cautious about investing too heavily in charging stations.

“It’s kind of one of the ‘Field of Dreams’ issues,’’ said Jim Hunt, Boston’s chief of environmental and energy services. “The market will dictate how fast and at what scale [electric vehicles] will be introduced.’’

Hunt said Boston will install three stations near City Hall, using parking spaces along Cambridge Street. But while other cities are offering perks for electric cars — such as free metered parking in Santa Monica, Calif., and excise tax waivers in Washington, D.C. — Hunt said Boston has not considered such incentives. The city prefers to promote the MBTA public transit system and bicycles as “even cleaner and more cost-effective’’ transportation options than electric cars, he said.

No one expects electric vehicles to catch on quickly locally. The electric utility NStar estimates that in the next 10 years electric and plug-in gas-electric vehicles will account for just 3 percent of the US auto market, roughly the current share of hybrids. And Northeast Utilities, which two years ago proposed opening 75 charging stations across western Massachusetts and Connecticut, has reduced that number to 25 after it was denied a federal loan.

Also, using taxpayer money to support pricey eco-friendly cars is a tricky proposition, according to Watson Collins, a business manager for Northeast Utilities. Collins said a utility risks a black eye if there are too many charging stations and not enough cars plugging in. He expects about 200 stations will open over the next two years — about one for every 100 electric cars.

“Let’s not go blind crazy and blanket the Massachusetts area with charging stations,’’ he said.

Charging stations have run into problems in the past. When General Motors discontinued its electric two-seat EV1 in 1999, the push for nationwide charging stations and any kind of plug-in standard disappeared with it.

Only in January — two years after Tesla Motors Inc. introduced its $109,000 electric Roadster — did the Society of Automotive Engineers approve a charging standard that is now endorsed by the majority of the automotive and electrical industry. Like other agencies and businesses, the Massachusetts Port Authority says it is considering using these new stations.

Last month, the Charles Hotel in Cambridge added a charging station to its garage, months after Boston’s Seaport Hotel wired a 220-volt outlet to a reserved parking space, painted neon green. And while it’s rare to see an electric car in either garage, hotel management says it’s just a matter of time.

“We wanted to make it a focal point,’’ said Matthew Moore, the Seaport’s director of environmental programs. “It’s going to take some time to get momentum.’’

Meantime, people who drive the few electric cars now on the road are always on the lookout for places to charge up.

When Peter Simonson bought his 2010 Tesla Roadster, he drove it about 1,000 miles from North Carolina to his home in North Andover, but only after researching RV parks along the way. The parks carry the high amperage necessary to recharge his sports car in a few hours, compared with a day or more on a 110-volt household outlet. While he’s never been stranded and stays within his car’s roughly 200-mile range, Simonson said he would like more restaurants and businesses to add charging stations.

“If you don’t plan ahead, you’re making a mistake,’’ he said.

For Brian Matheny of Epping, N.H., charging stations are “more of a confidence-building thing’’ than a necessity. An electrical engineer and past member of the New England Electric Auto Association, Matheny knows how to improvise. He’s used the club directory to charge his electric Dodge Ram 50 at members’ homes. Sometimes he has run extension cords into a business office, and in winter, he has used regular electrical outlets at the Prudential Center garage in Boston to plug in his 1979 Renault LeCar, along with a space heater.

“I’ve only had to wait for a charge about half a dozen times,’’ said Matheny, who is considering buying a Leaf. “I was surprised how easy it was and how accommodating people were.’’

Clifford Atiyeh can be reached at

  • E-mail
  • E-mail this article

    Invalid E-mail address
    Invalid E-mail address

    Sending your article

    Your article has been sent.