Program could spark Columbia's green efforts

Columbia officials are preparing to install charging stations for electric or partially electric cars in seven city parking garages - and let electric car owners use the juice for free over the next three years.

Columbia is one of four S.C. cities being offered part of a $240,000 federal grant to install the charging stations, on the condition that city taxpayers pay for the electricity for the first three years.

It will cost about $1 a day for each car to be charged, said John Spade, Columbia's parking services director.

"I could see how plug-ins would want to park there, so I think it would pay for itself," in the long run, Columbia Mayor Bob Coble said. "Also I think it is an indication of being a green city, an innovative city, that is relatively easy to do and inexpensive."

The grant is enough money to install eight charging stations in each of the four cities - Columbia, Greenville, Charleston and Spartanburg. Greenville and Charleston officials have committed to participating in the program. Spartanburg officials have not decided.

Columbia City Council members could commit to the program Wednesday, when they are scheduled to vote on sending a letter of intent to Plug In Carolina, a South Carolina-based nonprofit dedicated to promoting the benefits of electric, or "plug-in," cars.

The letter lists seven parking garages where city officials are considering installing the stations:

-- Arsenal Hill garage at 1812 Lincoln St.

-- Lady Street garage at 1100 Lady St.

-- Lincoln Street garage at 820 Washington St.

-- Park Street garage at 1007 Park St.

-- Sumter Street garage at 1400 Sumter St.

-- Taylor Street garage at 1100 Taylor St.

-- Washington Street garage at 1100 Washington St.

Spade said he does not know how many cars will be able to charge at the same time at each garage. It depends on how various technical requirements are met at each location, but Spade said more than one car will be able to charge at each location.

If City Council members approve the program, it still could be several months before the stations are installed, Spade said, because he is waiting on the American Society of Automotive Engineers to set a standard for all electric cars.

The standard will allow the city's charging stations to work with all electric cars and not just certain models, Spade said.

Over the next four years, car manufacturers plan to release at least 12 models of electric or partially electric cars, according to Plug In America, a California-based group not affiliated with Plug In Carolina.

"It's more than just charging stations. We're trying to get municipalities to have policies that encourage the adoption of plug-in vehicles," said James Poch, executive director of Plug In Carolina. "The charging stations themselves are more of a highly visible education of the options that are out there."

Most electric cars have a range of 100 miles at most, which can hinder people from taking day trips to the Upstate or the Lowcountry. But officials in Greenville and Charleston both say they plan to install charging stations in their parking garages, using the same grant money available to Columbia.

"We are reviewing locations that would be available to the public, but would also have municipal use," said Brian Graham, greenway planner for the city of Greenville. "We'd like to place these in locations that our public works and parks and recreation vehicles could use or could be available to in the future."

Charleston officials plan to put some stations in a parking garage at 75 Broad St., which is next to Washington Park and across the street from Charleston City Hall.

"If we want people to convert and switch to electric vehicles because they have a lighter footprint, ultimately we need to help build the market for that," said Brian Sheehan, director of sustainability for the city of Charleston.

Most Columbia City Council members say they support the program, because it is affordable and would help reduce the country's dependence on foreign oil.

"I think it will encourage people to use the hybrid," Councilman E.W. Cromartie said. "It's another way of fighting al-Qaida.