Man charged up about plug-in cars

James Poch, executive director of Plug In Carolina, hopes that parking garages will be sites for future electric car-charging stations.

In the parking garage near the South Carolina Aquarium, a man pulling out of his parking spot asked James Poch a question recently about his modified Toyota Prius

"You really get 100 miles to the gallon in that thing?"

James Poch, whose nonprofit organization Plug In Carolina wants up to 14 electric car-charging stations installed in downtown Charleston by December, gets that question all the time. His answer is "yes."

Poch selected AeroVironment, a California-based company, this month to install between 60 and 100 chargers in Columbia, Greenville, Spartanburg, Rock Hill, Union, Charleston and the Myrtle Beach area.

"I'm trying to make it happen in South Carolina," Poch said. "I don't want us to be left behind."

With automakers, including Nissan and Chevrolet, planning to release plug-in electric vehicles like Poch's customized ride this year, cities from Phoenix to Nashville, Tenn., are working on the infrastructure to make driving those vehicles more convenient.

Plug-in hybrids, unlike most hybrids currently on the market, can be plugged in to recharge their batteries via specialized charging stations. Most of the charging can be done at home during non-peak, evening hours, Poch said. But what if you're downtown and running low on battery juice? Steven Gitlin, AeroVironment's vice president of marketing strategies, said cities need to get ready to support these vehicles.

"We're potentially on the verge of widespread adoption of electric vehicles, and along with those vehicles there's going to need to be infrastructure," Gitlin said.

Poch is looking for sites with what he calls "dwell time" -- conveniently located places like parking garages, shopping centers and movie theaters where people can park their cars and leave them to charge a while at industry-standard 240-volt charging stations.

Tim Keane, the city of Charleston's planning director, said placement is the main obstacle remaining for the $320,000 installation project, which already has secured funding from statewide electrical companies and a stimulus fund grant from the South Carolina Energy Office.

Initially, Poch said, the owners of charging sites will cover the cost of the electricity to recharge cars. In most cases, this will amount to only 40 or 50 cents per charge, he said, so the transaction would not be worth the cost of installing a credit-card swiper. This could change, he said, once high- voltage quick-charge stations are approved for consumer use.

In South Carolina, plug-in electrics will rely on largely fossil fuel-based electric grids. In effect, a consumer could go from driving a petroleum-powered car to a coal-powered car.

Still, electric-powered vehicles are three times more efficient -- in terms of energy used per mile -- than gas-powered, said Simon Mui, a researcher for the environmental advocacy group Natural Resources Defense Council. And as electric companies move toward nuclear and renewable energy, plug-in electric cars effectively will become cleaner.

"That's sort of the double-whammy you get," Mui said. "You can simultaneously clean up vehicle emissions and clean up the grid over time."

Still, Poch said he thinks the public won't adopt plug-in vehicles out of a desire to live green or reduce foreign oil dependency. With eye-popping mileage figures and the capability of sending your phone a text message when the battery is charged, certain models could capture the elusive "cool" factor.

"It's not just about the environment; it's not going to be just about national security," Poch said. "It's going to be about having a cooler thing than your neighbor."