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Charged Up

electric car charger

LIGHT WHEELS AHEAD: Tidal Creek Co-op has partnered with Progress Energy to install electric car-charging stations in the parking lot. Photo by John Wolfe.

They look like something seen in an episode of Star Trek. Sleek and gunmetal grey, with buttons and blinking lights, they perch over two parking spaces at Tidal Creek Co-op like an invading alien force. But they’re not alien, nor are they science fiction; they might just be the future of transportation.

They’re two Plug-in Electric Vehicle (PEV) charging stations, which were recently installed at Tidal Creek by Progress Energy NC, who will monitor them to examine potential demand for other stations in the future. So far the charging stations haven’t seen much traffic, but Craig Harris, general manager of Tidal Creek, reminds that they were only installed three weeks ago.

“We’re ahead of the curve,” Harris says. “Right now, the technology in the charging station is more advanced than in the actual electric cars. Now, we have this in place, so when the technology catches up, we’ll be ready.”

Tidal Creek’s marketing department, led by Bethany Rogers, made the stations’ presence known on a new free app called CarStations, available for both iPhone and Android.  The data gathered will help Progress Energy determine the impact these stations have on the grid, as well as to plan for the possible wide-spread adoption of electric vehicles. The installation was funded by a smart grid grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.

These PEV stations are level-two charging stations, meaning they charge with a 240-volt circuit rather than the 120-volt outlet found in most homes. They can charge an electric car between three and five times faster than a standard outlet. Progress Energy has installed nearly 40 public access charging stations across North and South Carolina. Besides at Tidal Creek, motorists can find them in Wilmington at Mayfaire Town Center and at the city’s parking deck at Market Street. The company also installed 150 stations at private residences, as part of its “Plugged In” residential-charging research program.

Harris said the momentum for installing the stations came not from Progress Energy, but from the co-op. “We had been looking for [something like this] for a while, but it was hard to find the right source,” Harris says. “The initial interest came from the management in the building, who then presented it to the board of directors.”

Rogers said that, generally, the people who shop at Tidal Creek are receptive to innovative, green technologies. “Most of our customers are ‘enviro-minded,’” she remarks. “Many bring their own containers when they shop, [so as not to use plastic bags.] They don’t want to add more waste. They also want organic and locally grown foods.”

Co-ops are autonomous associations of people who unite for benefits to themselves and the group; reasons include cheaper housing, better banking or, in Tidal Creek’s case, healthier and more sustainable food. Formally incorporated in 1982, they don’t sell products with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), hydrogenated oils or artificial sweeteners. The especially put an emphasis on purchasing their products from local growers and small farms so travel time is lessened. Additionally, the co-op publishes a newsletter, hosts events, supports local charities, and provides a platform for connection in the community. Tidal Creek banned plastic bags from their stores four or five years ago. Now, says Harris, they hear of other stores doing the same.

“We want to provide alternatives and be trailblazers,” Harris says. “We’re more likely to make the step before others.” He hopes other businesses will follow their example and support alternative transportation, citing Wilmington’s air quality issues as a prime motivating factor. “I would like to see a station in every parking lot,” he remarks.

Directly across from the two charging stations is another manifestation of Tidal Creek’s devotion to providing alternative energy choices: the only biofuel pump station east of I-95. Operated by Piedmont Biofuel from Pittsboro, NC, the building is made of materials pulled out of or saved from entering a landfill. On the roof a garden is growing (or hibernating; it’s rather brown and inactive at present). The biofuel offered here comes primarily from restaurants and large manufacturers who would otherwise dispose of it in a landfill. The company recently patented a process for manufacturing biofuel that uses enzymes to clean the dirtiest grade of oil and convert it into fuel.

Unfortunately, all cars, regardless from where they get their power, are dirty. The electric car may not directly pollute, like most cars with internal combustion engines, but the electricity it runs on still must come from somewhere. Locally and luckily, we get most of our juice from the nuclear plant near Southport, but we still occasionally receive power from the Sutton coal-fired plant on the banks of the Cape Fear (see encore, September 4, 2012, “Don’t Drink the Water”). Although Progress Energy will be transitioning the plant to natural gas in 2014, fossil fuels will still be burned and released into our skies.

Still, some cars are cleaner than others. The PEV charging stations are a step in the right direction. “It’s a smaller individual carbon footprint,” Rogers says. “Big issues are hard to tackle, but on an individual level this makes a difference.”

Harris has high hopes for the future of electric cars in our area, citing models on the West Coast as examples. “They have chargers spaced so that it’s possible to drive from Seattle to San Diego,” he says.

While a similar feat is currently not possible on the East Coast, perhaps one day, as technology advances and environmental awareness increases, we could drive from New York to Miami cleanly, quietly, and efficiently. Don’t be shocked if it happens.

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