Outlets provide spots for students to recharge cars
Glistening in the sun on a warm spring afternoon, a small tower stands erect between two parking spaces in a parking lot on Busch campus.
Looking like a futuristic gasoline pump, it is sleek, with a small handle protruding from the side. But this pump does not dispense gas — it is used for charging electric vehicles.
Dunbar Birnie, a professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering, said the chargers’ hardware was provided at no cost, but the University had to pay the companies ChargePoint and Ecotality for installation.
“When we installed the chargers over here in Busch, we also had to run power lines from a nearby building,” he said. “They were high-power cables and the [total] cost was somewhere around $11,000.”
When the University installed additional chargers on Cook and Livingston campuses, they were designed with the new construction of the parking lots in mind, Birnie said. The chargers cost less because their cables and foundations had already been planned into Lot 105, instead of being worked into older structures.
Kevin Lyons, an assistant professor in the Department of Supply Chain Management and Marketing, said the University was originally skeptical of the hardware donation. He said ChargePoint, a provider of some of the chargers, wanted to team up with the research facilities on campus.
“We didn’t buy anything, so we had to determine why we were getting it for free, from a legal perspective,” he said. “We wanted to make sure what the University was getting was worth the value.”
Lyons said the company provided the chargers to the University in order to collect data. The data, in turn, could justify the expansion of the project and additional chargers on campus based on their usage.
Three campuses currently have charging stations — Busch, Cook and Livingston, Birnie said. While two separate companies provided the chargers, they will both work on any electric vehicle projects to come out of it.
“The chargers are universal, and the pump is called a J1772,” he said. “It is an interlocking, 240-volt plug that is high voltage, but because it interlocks there is no shock hazard.”
Right now, Birnie said the chargers are used almost daily, and he himself uses them for a research vehicle — a Chevy Volt. The Volt, paid for by state funding, is a part of a research project where he keeps a log of miles driven and electricity used.
The University has two electric vehicles — one driven by Birnie and the other kept at an off-campus center in Burlington, he said. The average mileage for the Volt, on pure electricity, is 35 miles. After that, it transfers its energy consumption to gasoline.
Birnie travels about 18 miles each way on his commute, barely using any gasoline by the end of his round trip.
“There is a lot of room for this project to be an incubator for more research,” he said. “We hope this leads to better batteries and extended range of the batteries.”
Lyons said the project did not face any opposition from the University, and the chargers’ placements are a part of a strategic plan.
“When the lots are full, and people see two open spots reserved for [electric vehicles], they will park there,” he said. “It’s more of a personal thing. Right now, tickets are not being issued, but it is annoying if you have an [electric vehicles] and need to charge up.”
Students and faculty who drive electric vehicles are welcome to use any of the four charging locations on campus, regardless of where their parking pass allows them to park, since the stations are used for research, Lyons said.
Along with students, anyone who has an electric vehicle can park at the University and charge up, he said. An interactive map online shows electric-vehicle drivers where current charging locations are so they never have to fear having a dead battery.
Brent Horbatt, a unit-computing specialist for the Graduate School of Education, drives a personal Chevy Volt to and from the University. While he understands the woes of commuters, he said choosing to drive an electric vehicle was an easy decision.
“With my old car, I was paying about $400 a month in gas. It only got about 20 miles per gallon,” he said. “Now, I charge at home and it costs me $1.50 in electricity, so I wind up with a savings of about $360 per month.”
Horbatt said he drives about 42 miles each way to the University, and during the colder winter months, he gets less than the Environmental Protection Agency’s estimated 38 miles per charge. Now the weather is warmer, and he can make the entire trip on a single charge.
He said the chargers are solar powered, so he does not have to pay for power.
Birnie said the chargers are 100 percent green because they receive their power from the solar panels on the Livingston campus parking structure. When the solar array was built, it was designed to sustain the chargers.
In the future, Lyons said electric vehicles will be able to not only inform drivers of how much of a charge they have left on their battery, but will also tell the driver where the closest charging station is located.