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As electric-car charging stations grow, critics wonder if need will match them

Tyngsborough Selectman Allen Curseaden unravels an extension cord at one of the town’s new charging stations to plug in his used Ford Th!nk. Tyngsborough Selectman Allen Curseaden unravels an extension cord at one of the town’s new charging stations to plug in his used Ford Th!nk. (MARK WILSON FOR THE BOSTON GLOBE)
By Katheleen Conti
Globe Staff / April 15, 2012
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Shortly after Chelmsford’s first electric vehicle charging station was installed on a Thursday in January, Gary Persichetti, public facilities director, and his staff had themselves a little laugh.

How long would it be, they wondered, until someone actually used the thing?

“And it was kind of funny,’’ Persichetti recalled recently. “One of my guys went out for coffee on [that following] Sunday morning and called me to tell me that there was one charging already.’’

That inaugural charge may have quelled some of those chuckles in Chelmsford, but skepticism about plug-in electric vehicles remains strong nationwide, despite aggressive marketing efforts, government incentives, and soaring gasoline prices. Still, the federal government has allocated billions of dollars toward the funding of advanced-technology vehicle research, as well as for the installation of electric vehicle charging stations in cities and towns.

Last year, Chelmsford was among 25 communities statewide to be awarded charging stations by the Mass. Department of Energy Resources, purchased with $500,000 in federal stimulus funds and $384,000 from Attorney General Martha Coakley’s office.

Chelmsford’s award came as part of a joint application with Lowell and Tyngsborough. While Salem was the only other community to be awarded a charging station north of Boston, other area cities and towns are exploring the possibility of adding them.

Combined with the additional installation of charging stations at various commuter lots and garages, the state will soon bring its total of public stations to 142, said state Department of Energy Resources Commissioner Mark Sylvia. Installation costs can range from $1,000 to $6,000.

“As of today, 60 percent of those have been installed and the rest are in process,’’ Sylvia said. “We’re really excited. . . . These car companies wanted to come to the Massachusetts market, and in order for us to be able to support those types of technologies, we need to make sure we have the necessary infrastructure built.’’

Recipients of the stations were required to have them installed in publicly accessible locations, as well as provide free charging for a year, Sylvia said. In Chelmsford, officials decided to place a two-car charging station at the public library lot, and another at North Chelmsford center, Persichetti said. The town received $2,400 to cover the cost of installation. The idea was not only to provide the stations, but to place them in areas where the drivers could spend their time and money.

“Because charging does take some time, people need to have some places to go, so they’re near restaurants and the library,’’ Persichetti said, adding that the stations also reinforce the town’s designation as a green community. “You take advantage of this stuff because we have a commitment to be green and stay green, and to do that you move forward. Any time that you can get something for nothing, or they’re helping you to install it, is not a bad thing either.’’

In Tyngsborough, which received four units and $4,000 for installation, the stations are seen as an asset to the ongoing restoration of the town center, said selectwoman Elizabeth Coughlin. Two have already been installed at the town’s highway department facility next to the park and ride lot on Kendall Road off Route 3, while the other two will be installed in the town center across from the old Town Hall, and in front of the library, she said.

Selectman Allen Curseaden, also superintendent of Tyngsborough’s Sewer Department, said they may not get much use now, but the charging stations are an investment in the future. He has been following the technological improvements of electric vehicles for years, and this year he decided to purchase a used Ford Th!nk, a battery-powered golf-cart-style vehicle, from the city of Boston.

“I have looked into the electrical future, if you will, and I think I’ve seen the long-range forecast by the government, where eventually we’re going to be driving highly evolved vehicles that are electric-powered,’’ Curseaden said. “The infrastructure needs to be there.’’

Lowell was awarded $1,000, along with one charging station, which has been installed on Warren Street and will be powered with electricity generated from the solar panels atop the adjacent United Teen Equality Center building, said Allegra M. Williams, the city’s neighborhood planner. Since it was installed in February, Williams said she hasn’t seen anyone using the charging station, but she said that could be because it’s located right by the UTEC building, which is currently under construction.

Adam Baacke, Lowell’s assistant city manager and director of Planning and Development, said although few people currently own plug-in electric vehicles, municipalities must be proactive and anticipate demand.

“There is a chicken-and-egg question around electric vehicles and charging stations,’’ he said. “In order for there to be demand for electric vehicles, there need to be electric charging stations. There needs to be that to stimulate demand.’’

But the “if you build it, they will come’’ approach is premature, said Henry Lee, director of the Environment and Natural Resources Program, and senior public policy lecturer at Harvard Kennedy School.

“I think it’s an incredible waste of money,’’ said Lee, who co-authored a discussion paper last year analyzing the impact of electric cars on the US market. “In a period when cities and towns are constrained financially for basic services, like police and teachers, spending money for charging stations that are not going to be used for the next couple of years doesn’t make much sense.

“We have three [charging stations] in the garage here in Harvard, and I’ve never seen a car there. They’ve been there about five years. . . Five years from now The Boston Globe will be writing articles about these mausoleums collecting dust on sidewalks.’’

President Barack Obama has embraced a goal of putting 1 million electric vehicles on US roads by 2015. But electric vehicles accounted for only 0.1 percent of the US market last year, according to Edmunds.com. It could take at least 10 to 15 years before electric vehicles have a share of the market, Lee said. Consumers’ reservations revolve around the high cost of the vehicles (the Chevrolet Volt, for instance, costs nearly $40,000 before a $7,500 tax credit), and the still-evolving battery technology that creates what is known as “range anxiety.’’

While electric vehicle charging stations may not encourage more people to buy electric cars, Lee said that if municipalities want them, they should look to the private sector for funding, not government. That is what Andover senior planner Lisa Schwarz decided to do once she realized the town missed out on the stimulus grants awarded last year. The town requested proposals from companies to obtain, install, sponsor, and maintain an electric vehicle charging station in Andover at no cost to the town, and got several responses.

“Our downtown is dense and walkable, and it has evolved into a smart-growth area of town. It just seemed like it was a good thing to do,’’ Schwarz said. “If you look online, you’ll see that in 2013, there will be more [electric vehicles] on the market, and in 2014 even more on the market. If people see there are charging stations here and there, they’ll feel more comfortable that if they’re running low and are out in Andover, and need to charge, they can.’’

Installing the charging station for the town will be Voltrek, an Andover company that was founded two years ago by local resident Kathleen Rosen and Michelle Broussard of Hampstead, N.H. Just a year and a half ago, the company, headquartered out of Rosen’s home, was struggling to find customers interested in electric vehicle charging stations, but after becoming a state-approved vendor, they’ve been busy installing them for municipalities and the private sector, Rosen said. Voltrek was selected by Chelmsford, Lowell, and Tyngsborough to install the stations they received from the state, and has done about 80 percent of the state jobs within the Route 128 belt in Boston, she said.

“In some communities like Boston, they’re starting to issue requirements [for electric vehicle charging stations] being added to building codes for developers and architects. Clients are asking architects about it, they’re talking to the planners and the engineers and saying, ‘Hey, are you guys looking at this?’ It’s here; it’s coming,’’ said Rosen, who drives a leased Chevy Volt. “I think it’s a sign of the times. . . . It’s a new technology, a new mindset.’’

Katheleen Conti can be reached at kconti@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKConti.

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