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Getting a Charge

Dave Feehan

Last week, I bought a new plug-in hybrid Chevrolet Volt. I previously drove an all-wheel-drive Ford Edge because I was doing a lot of work in Pittsburgh, and the winter drive through the mountains from Washington, D.C. can be challenging. With that consulting contract winding down, I was primed for something much more economical but didn’t want to sacrifice comfort.

I looked at several hybrids and a couple of diesels, but the Volt seemed like the best option, especially because General Motors has spiced up incentives. With current tax credits, a $40,000 Volt can be purchased for well less than $30,000. After a week of in-town driving, I hadn’t spent a dime on gas, because I recharge every night. On the round-trip to Pittsburgh, I averaged almost 40 miles per gallon (mpg). The Volt handles much better than my Edge did, and because it’s a hatchback, luggage space for my wife and me was more than adequate.

The transition hasn’t been without its challenges, though. Places to recharge other than home are almost nonexistent–I couldn’t find a charging station in any of the parking garages I used. Charging seems like a great service for the growing number of customers with plug-ins, and it could be a money-maker for garage owners and operators. Why not reserve a small number of spots (next to handicapped spots, close to elevators?) for plug-in drivers? Why not advertise that your garage is “plug-in friendly?”

I’m convinced that many (if not most) of us will be driving something other than conventional, gas-powered vehicles within 10 years, especially if car manufacturers are going to meet federal corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards. Plug-ins such as the Volt seem to make a lot of sense because most trips are less than 50 miles and they can extend their range by switching to gas when necessary. Charging kiosks will, admittedly, be expensive to install, but the payback should be reasonable, and even with a surcharge for profit, most plug-in drivers would rather spend a couple bucks on a charge than $60 filling the tank.

Industry analyst Lisa Jerram estimates there will 150,000 public charging stations in the US by 2020. This looks like a great opportunity for folks in the parking industry.

The Times They Are A-Changin’


“The slow one now

Will later be fast…”

-Bob Dylan

Without a doubt, we are experiencing the birth of a multi-modal, poly-fuel future in which parking facilities will play a greater role as fueling stations and mode-shifting enablers.

I write this post from an Amtrak train on the way from New Haven, Conn., to Philadelphia, having walked through a New Haven Parking Authority garage housing scores of bicycles, a handful of Zipcars®, and an electric vehicle (EV) charging station in addition to the hundreds of cars long found there. The pace of what we will see in garages and how we will get to those garages is, shall we say, rapidly changing.

The latest sign of this is Tesla’s announcement of a highway rest stop-based fueling option for its battery powered cars that promises to be faster than filling your gas tank.  Planned to sit near the free fast-charging stations already in place on rest stop parking lots, the new premium battery swap stations will cost drivers $60 to $80 for 200 miles worth of fuel that’s ready to go in 90 seconds.

The luxury Tesla, awarded Consumer Reports’ highest rating ever, lost one point in that rating because of the hassle of charging for long-distance trips. With its 90-second battery swapping announcement, Business Week reports, “Tesla took a major stride toward getting rid of that downside.”

While few of us may ever be able to afford a Tesla, the life cycle of consumer good technology innovation has always been led by expensive, early-adopter products.  (Some of you may remember both the size and cost of the first cell phones to hit the market.)

And Tesla’s approach to feeding your car in the parking lot may not prove to be the approach that succeeds. CNET’s Car Tech blog criticizes the Apple-like proprietary nature of Tesla’s charging and battery-swapping approach as a “dead end” that’s good for Tesla but bad for electric car development in general, arguing instead for an open-source, universal approach that charges all electric vehicles.  Established auto manufacturers–whose cars most of us may be more likely to buy–are agreeing on charging standards to help the industry roll out; see, for example, the recent announcement of BMW and General Motors on a common fast charging approach.

The order may not (yet) be “rapidly fadin’,” but it’s clear from what we are seeing on the electric vehicle and hybrid front; T. Boone Pickens’ network of natural gas fueling stations for trucks; and Citi bike in New York City: transportation is becoming a many splendored affair. As we find new and varied ways to fuel our mobility, garaging our vehicles will be an increasingly creative undertaking.

Solar Roadways and Parking Lots

Isaiah Mouw

I recently stumbled across this video about Solar Roadways. The concept involves turning roadways and parking lots into solar panel road surfaces that generate electricity. Inventor and co-founder of the Solar Roadways project Scott Brushaw explains, “There are 25,000 square miles of road surfaces, parking lots and driveways in the lower 48 states. If we covered that with solar panels with just 15 percent efficiency, we’d produce three times more electricity than this country uses on an annual basis and that’s almost enough to power the entire world. Roads are collecting heat anyway; this thing collects the power and stores it.”

One concern was creating glass strong enough to support the heaviest loads under the most extreme conditions, but they believe they’ve created a weatherproof, high-strength surface that’s up to the task. But the biggest concern is, of course, cost. One of these solar panels (12’x12’) can cost up to $7,000, and the plans to cover the roadways would call for billions of these panels. Do the math.

The Solar Roadway project recently received a $750,000.00 grant to build the first solar surface parking lot. With an estimated industry average cost of $4,000.00 per space to construct a parking lot, this $750,000 is not as large as it first seems. These solar panels consist of embedded LEDs that can be used to create crosswalks or traffic warnings. They could also be used to mark parking spaces. Imagine being able to change your layout design any day of the week, depending on your demand. These panels will also have the capability to charge electric vehicles while parked. The system will warm itself during the winter to melt away any snow or ice. The Solar Roadways team should have the parking lot completed in November and will be presenting the results shortly after.

This is not just a sustainability issue. Yes, it is very sustainable as the renewable energy from the proposed Solar Roadways project would literally cut greenhouse gases in half. But it may also make economic sense sometime in the future. The cost of petroleum-based asphalt continues to rise, while solar power has been falling at a rate of 7 percent per year for the last 30 years.  As technology improves each year, the cost of solar technologies should continue to drop. Solar panel surface parking lots could pay for themselves quickly as they generate renewable energy in the future.

To me, solar road surfaces is an important aspect  of the future of parking. Not this decade or even the next, but down the road, I think we will all be parking on solar surfaces.