Months before President Barack Obama called for drastically increasing the number of electric cars on the road, an informal group in Lawrence was meeting to find a way to do just that.
The group — with membership including Kansas University researchers, Westar Energy, government officials and a car dealership — is looking at what infrastructure needs to be in place to make the electric car a reality in Lawrence.
And according to the group’s members, that “Jetsons”-like image of plugging in at home to power up your car isn’t as far off as some would think.
By the end of this year, Kansas University plans to have the first recharging station in Lawrence. And Briggs Nissan, 2300 W. 29th Terrace, is among the third wave of car dealerships that would offer the 100 percent electric Nissan LEAF. Exactly when they will come to Lawrence hasn’t been determined, the car dealership’s business development manager, Chris Rowe, said.
“Being that Lawrence is a very green community, there is an advantage of having it in this community,” Rowe said. “I’m a firm believer it is going to work here.”
More electric options
Electric cars are slowly moving into the mainstream. During his State of the Union address, Obama called for a million new electric cars to be on the road by 2015. Helping achieve that goal are a number of electric vehicles being offered by major automakers.
Along with Nissan, Ford has plans for the 2012 all-electric Focus. And Chevy is offering the Volt, a hybrid that has an electric motor with a 40-mile range and a gasoline engine that kicks in for longer drives. Owners can charge the vehicle from home.
Nissan is operating on a different sales strategy than it does with its traditional vehicles. Interested customers put in a request online for more information. From there they can buy the car. Then the local dealership will come to the house to set up the charging system.
“This is a 100 percent consumer demand,” Rowe said.
The transition of electric cars from a roadway oddity to dealership showroom is, in part, due to improved technology that keeps the electric car running longer and faster. But it also has a lot to do with basic economics.
“Gas prices keep going up. And they are just not going back down,” said Eileen Horn, sustainability coordinator for the city of Lawrence and Douglas County. “And I think that is playing on people’s awareness.”
As new electric car models come on the market, communities must answer how they will be charged away from home.
Last fall, the city of Lawrence applied for a grant that would have allowed for construction of a charging station. It turned out the grant wasn’t quite geared toward that kind of project, so the city withdrew its application, Horn said.
“We don’t want to build one that doesn’t get utilized. We are in a holding pattern, waiting to see how quickly Lawrence residents adopt this new technology,” Horn said.
But Lawrence could see its first charging station soon.
It will be part of a 2,000-square-foot addition to the Chamney Farm on KU’s West Campus. The building, the construction of which is part of architecture professor Dan Rockhill’s Studio 804 class, will be a LEED certified green building that will be a space for demonstration projects on new technologies. The site is along Bob Billings Parkway, between Iowa Street and Crestline Drive.
Along with technology that creates, stores and monitors energy, the building will be able to charge electric vehicles, said Carey Novak, who is director of business relations and development for KU.
The charging station will be used primarily for electric vehicles designed by researchers at KU. Whether it will be available to the public is still being discussed, Novak said.
The local Nissan dealership also has plans to build a charging station once it starts selling the LEAF.
The city is keeping an eye on spots that would make for good charging stations, Horn said. Those sites will likely be where people congregate and where they can burn time while their car charges.
The informal Lawrence group has asked Lawrence Public Library, 707 Vt., to consider a charging station in its parking plans for the library expansion, Novak said. It also thinks it would make sense to place them at large stores such as Target, Best Buy, Walmart and Dillons.
Once there are several stations in Lawrence, the next step would be to set up a network of charging stations between Topeka and Kansas City so people can commute with electric cars.
“We could very easily with not a lot of investment have a 60-mile (electric vehicle) corridor. And Lawrence is right in the middle,” Novak said.
Embracing electric cars is one more way Lawrence can become a nexus of green-minded innovation, Novak said.
“We have got a wonderful opportunity in making Lawrence this huge test lab of developing technologies,” he said.