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CHARGE IT

An electric-car charging station unveiled by the city of Boston. An electric-car charging station unveiled by the city of Boston. (Essdras M Suarez/Globe Staff/File)
By Robert Knox
Globe Correspondent / October 13, 2011

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If you build it - a state network of electric vehicle charging stations, that is - will the new battery-propelled electric vehicles come rolling in for a fill-up?

The state’s Department of Energy Resources is behind an effort to address what officials call a “chicken or egg’’ problem by installing almost 150 electric vehicle charging stations in public places such as shopping malls, MBTA stations, Logan Express bus stops, and library parking lots. Since drivers are reluctant to buy cars that rely on electricity rather than gasoline if charging facilities are not available, new charging stations are being awarded, free of charge, to communities that sought them.

Two of those charging stations will be built in Kingston, and two others in Hanover.

“It’s important for us to build the necessary infrastructure to support this technology, much like building gas stations was important for that technology,’’ said Mark Sylvia, commissioner of the Department of Energy Resources. “The bottom line is to get the charging stations made available. We’re encouraging green transportation.’’

The larger goal is to advance the state’s ambitious plan of reducing the production of greenhouse gases that cause global warming by 25 percent by the year 2020 by promoting nonpolluting electric vehicles.

“We know that 26 percent of CO2 [carbon dioxide] is caused by transportation, and we need to grind away at that,’’ said Stephen Russell, the state’s Alternative Transportation Program coordinator, who is working with communities on siting the charging stations.

Green transportation supporters say the charging stations are coming just in time, as at least four carmakers plan to offer electric vehicles in the Massachusetts market within a year.

In Kingston, plans call for one charging station at the commuter rail stop and one at Independence Mall. Town Planner Tom Bott said the sites were chosen with an eye toward the time required - approximately three hours - to charge the battery of a fully electric car.

“You have to spend a couple of hours to charge a vehicle,’’ Bott said. “Where do you have some spots like that?’’

Local people taking the train to work - Bott calls them “give a hoot, don’t pollute commuters’’ - or Cape Cod residents driving to the nearest place to take the train to Boston can return to the station to find their vehicles fully charged.

Or, electric car owners can drive to the shopping mall and go to a movie or have lunch and do some shopping while their vehicle is being charged. “Be green and spend some green,’’ Bott said, a view of the future shared by the operators of Independence Mall, which is currently sprucing up its image by building new stadium seating in its movie theaters.

Like Kingston, Hanover is one of the state’s “green communities,’’ a designation that requires a local energy-saving plan and gives the town priority for grants. A piece of Hanover’s plan is the purchase of a hybrid police car.

“We’ve made a commitment to energy savings,’’ said Town Manager Steve Rollins. “Plug-in electric cars are part of our future.’’

Hanover will also partner with its shopping mall to site one of the stations. “It’s very jazzy, and also very smart,’’ Rollins said. The other proposed site is at the town library.

The state’s award calls for the stations to be in operation by the end of the year, a timely arrival for both carmakers and drivers interested in acquiring the new electric vehicles, known as EVs.

According to Russell, General Motors is expected to begin selling the battery-powered Chevy Volt, already available in some states, here in the last quarter of this year. The Nissan Leaf, a much-discussed compact electric vehicle option, and the Ford Focus are expected to join the market in Massachusetts in the first quarter of next year. BMW is planning to introduce its EV model to the Greater Boston market by leasing 100 of them next year, Russell said.

EVs may be the wave of the future, but according to the state Registry of Motor Vehicles, they’re little more than a drop in the bucket now. In 2009, the last year for which complete numbers are available, only 353 all-electric vehicles were registered in the state.

However, more than 41,000 hybrids - vehicles powered by both batteries and conventional gasoline engines - were registered to Massachusetts owners, many in south-of-Boston communities. The state has the sixth-highest number of hybrids per capita in the United States, a good indicator of potential demand for EVs, Russell said.

“The automakers think hybrids are the precursor to electric vehicles,’’ said Russell.

The state announced its award of 142 charging stations to municipalities in August. Another 25 will be given to the MBTA to locate at train stations, and approximately 20 more to Massport for airport and bus parking lots. Locations have not yet been determined by those agencies.

The state’s Green Communities agency combined a $380,000 judgment won in a dirty-air lawsuit with a grant valued at about $500,000 from Coulomb Technologies of California, the charging stations’ maker, to pay for the stations.

Cities and towns are also being given $1,000 per station for installation costs. Installation cost estimates run from $400 to $2,200, depending on location and other factors, Bott said. The expense is greater the farther a charging station is from a power source.

For one of the state’s first EV drivers, Don Bowen of Beverly, the time has come for both electric vehicles and the charging stations that serve them.

“What we’re seeing is a lot of businesses and nonprofits installing charging stations to attract customers,’’ said Bowen, whose Chevy Volt was acquired for him by his company, Meridian Associates, a consultant for sustainable energy. Whole Food Supermarkets, for example, has begun installing the stations.

Bowen says his EV gets 50 to 55 miles from a charge (more than the advertised 40) through conservative, nonaggressive driving. He can charge the battery by plugging a cord into a wall socket of his house, but that takes 12 hours, so Bowen bought a level 2 recharging unit (similar to the new charging stations), which takes three hours to do the job. He estimates the energy cost at about 50 to 75 cents a day, at a time when other drivers are facing $70 fill-ups at the gas pump.

The car’s purchase price is high, from $41,000 to $43,000, minus a $7,500 tax credit from the federal government.

But whether they charge their cars at home or not, EV owners are likely to be on the lookout for places on the road to recharge.

Aside from Kingston and Hanover, drivers can expect to find municipal stations in Barnstable, Falmouth, New Bedford, and many other communities through the state grants.

Robert Knox can be reached at rc.knox2@gmail.com.