Building a place for plug-in vehicles

In 2008, when President Obama first announced his ambitious goal to put one million electric vehicles on the road by 2015, Michigan took action. Building on its automotive heritage, the state has fostered a leading industry cluster of researchers, developers, manufacturers, and educational institutions that are all committed to advancing plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) technology. As models enter the market in the coming years, advocates anticipate that Michigan consumers will adopt PEVs as clean and convenient modes of transportation faster than most other states.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has made it a priority that, as the reality of PEV ownership takes shape, an accessible network of electric vehicle charging stations, dedicated utility rates and capacity, and standardized municipal policies are established to accommodate the unique vehicles.

Last year, as part of its Clean Cities initiative, the DOE awarded Michigan and 15 other states grants to support community planning for PEVs and their charging infrastructure. Ann Arbor-based Clean Energy Coalition (CEC) is administering the project in Michigan. They have partnered with Next Energy, Greater Lansing Area Clean Cities and over 40 other stakeholders statewide, including municipalities and utility companies to develop the Plug-In Ready Michigan Plan.    

The Plan, due out this fall, will address barriers to PEV adoption, including common misconceptions, cost, and most importantly, lack of charging infrastructure. It will also include planning tools, such as sample ordinance and master plan language, as well as uniform building codes and permitting for charging equipment. Heather Seyfarth, Project Manager at the CEC, hopes that the document will serve as a guide for local jurisdictions, businesses, consumers, and planners statewide.

One of the biggest concerns for potential PEV owners is "range anxiety," or the fear of driving beyond the vehicle’s range and running out of electricity before reaching a charging station. Just as gas-fueled car drivers keep tabs on the nearest gas station. PEV drivers need to know where they will be able to top up their charge. Right now, their options are limited.

"Our goal," says Seyfarth, "is to get the charging infrastructure out there so that we're creating a network of places where people can charge at. So that will ease the mind of people who own the cars, or may potentially own the cars."

Mark Rabinsky, also a Project Manager at CEC, says in order to create that network, "we have to make sure there are some standardized approaches. We have done a lot of planning and a lot of trials and errors in regards to installing charging stations in different places. We need to make sure the other municipalities around the state are learning from our ‘mistakes.'"

To do that, the project team is leveraging the experiences of their stakeholders, several of whom, with the help of federal funding and a network of partners, have already established themselves as national leaders in PEV preparedness; each using very different community-based approaches.

Michigan takes the lead

Among them is the City of Auburn Hills, who last July became the first in the state to pass a comprehensive electric vehicle ordinance. The policy encourages, but does not require, developers to install charging stations or the underground charging station infrastructure during construction. It costs very little to install the electrical conduits, but will potentially save thousands of dollars in construction costs if a station needs to be installed in the future. Since the ordinance passed in July 2011, all 12 of the developers who have done work in the city have voluntarily installed the infrastructure.

Director of Community Development Steven Cohen says that as the home of Chrysler, numerous auto suppliers, and several PEV related companies, Auburn Hills is committed to being a leader in this emerging industry. In addition to their ordinance, they have installed eight public charging stations and are participating in a demonstration project with Chrysler and the DOE to test four Dodge Ram hybrid-electric vehicles and four Chrysler Town and Country hybrid-electric minivans in their own fleet.

"We want to invest in our auto industry, which is our bread and butter. And if we don't lead, then places like California and Washington will," says Cohen. "All that money will go to them. All that investment in electric vehicle technologies will go to them. It belongs in Michigan. It should stay in Michigan."

Auburn Hills has also taken the lead in developing standardized signage for public charging stations. The city, along with consultant, OHM, has designed an easily recognizable symbol that clearly indicates the parking space is reserved for PEV use only. The Michigan Department of Transportation, as well as the states of Washington and Oregon have already agreed to adopt the signage; proof, Rabinsky says, "that Michigan is leading the way, and we should be leading the way."

While Auburn Hills anticipates a large PEV market due to its relationship with the auto industry, university towns like Ann Arbor, Kalamazoo, and East Lansing (among others) that have populations of wealthy, educated consumers also expect to be PEV hubs.


In Ann Arbor, the Downtown Development Authority recently installed 18 free charging stations throughout downtown, bringing that city's total to 26. The DDA also intends to launch a public monitoring website for the stations. Funded in part by a grant through the Clean Cities initiative (administered by the CEC), the new charging stations contribute to the city's goal of reducing overall emissions to 90 percent of 2000 levels by 2050. Washtenaw County already boasts over 7,000 alternative-fuel vehicles and is home to several PEV-related companies.

With 50 charging stations at 16 locations, Kalamazoo currently has the highest charging capacity of any Michigan city. Among those are 15 free, public, solar-powered charging stations installed in March of this year by Western Michigan University. The installation was funded by a grant from the CEC, which also allowed the university to purchase five all-electric Ford Transit Connect service vehicles for their fleet. WMU has already established a web-based monitoring portal that indicates how much energy each panel produces and how much energy each charging station uses.

In total, the DOE reports 167 public charging locations are already established in Michigan, most with multiple units at each site. Grand Rapids has 24, including five city-owned units installed earlier this year. Traverse City has 12. Cities in metro-Detroit, including Detroit, Warren, Dearborn, Novi, Rochester, and Royal Oak, also have charging stations installed. Some are considering developing an ordinance like Auburn Hill’s. And some have already, or are thinking of, purchasing PEVs for their own service fleets.

The CEC is pleased that so many communities are embracing PEVs. "You're seeing government really supporting businesses," says Rabinsky. "You're seeing municipalities really stepping up and recognizing the symbiotic relationship between the two and supporting it thus through policies." All things considered though, the stations are still few and far between, especially in northern Michigan. After the Plug-In Ready Michigan Plan comes out this fall, CEC and its partners hope more local governments will use the plan as a ready tool kit to implement electric vehicle infrastructure strategies in their communities.

Meanwhile, the network of stakeholders that coalesced for this project will continue to educate prospective drivers and find ways to make PEV ownership more practical. At the top of their agenda is advocating for more electric vehicle support at the state level. The federal government currently offers a $7,500 tax incentive for new PEV purchasers. Unlike California, where additional state tax incentives have helped boost sales, Michigan has no extra incentives.

"I think we're seeing the preparation at the local level starting to happen, which is really nice." But, says Rabinsky, "one of the key pieces of pushing electric vehicles is the cost and Michigan doesn't have any incentives for it… Why aren't we supporting our own economy by incentivizing them as well?"

Denise McGeen is a Detroit-based editor for two statewide Issue Media Group projects that address transportation and energy efficiency.

All Photos by David Lewinski Photography