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Charging ahead: Treasure Valley gets more places to plug in your car

Idaho Power: 'We're the gas station of electricity'

Idaho Power has made a push to increase use of electric vehicles. It has installed charging stations near its Downtown Boise headquarters, making it easier for employees of the electric utility to charge their cars during the workday.
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Idaho Power has made a push to increase use of electric vehicles. It has installed charging stations near its Downtown Boise headquarters, making it easier for employees of the electric utility to charge their cars during the workday.

Are you someone who keeps leaving your electric car plugged into the Downtown Boise Whole Foods charging station overnight?

If so, we have some news: Idaho Power is onto you. The store manager sees a car plugged in when he works late sometimes, too.

But you know what? They aren’t mad. While the famously eco-conscious grocer and Idaho’s largest electric utility installed that charger for Whole Foods customers, the businesses believe it serves a greater purpose: It’s one more place where local drivers can fill the electric bellies of their Nissan Leafs and Chevy Volts.

A growing number of electric-vehicle charging stations has been installed across the Treasure Valley in the past few years. Just check plugshare.com or chargepoint.com to see how they populate the Valley.

Some of the latest growth has been spurred by a pilot program in which a business gets a $2,500 rebate from Idaho Power after installing a charging station for employees and customers to use. The six-month program ended in mid-November, having dispensed nearly $100,000 in rebates to nine participants and helping to finance new stations in 25 places.

“It’s in alignment with the core values that we have, and that our customers have,” said Bruce Green, store team leader at the Whole Foods Market.

Green said the company collaborated with Idaho Power about two years ago. He said the utility joined the Sierra Club and the Idaho Conservation League to fund installation, and Whole Foods has paid the electric bill ever since.

I think it’s a symbiotic relationship, so if we provide more chargers, more people will feel confident to purchase electric vehicles.

Bruce Green, Whole Foods Boise store team leader

The charger is free to use, and it’s in use “almost constantly when we’re open for business,” he said.

Idaho Power said the station gets more than 100 plug-ins per month, on average.

It typically takes four to seven hours to charge an empty vehicle battery at a 240-volt charging station, compared with 10 to 12 hours using a 120-volt charger at home, according to Idaho Power. Vehicles typically run 40 to 100 miles on electricity alone.

BRONCO CHARGERS

Boise State University was one of the early adopters in Boise. The university also took advantage of the pilot program to replace an old charging station earlier this month, on Bronco Circle near the Student Union Building.

The university installed charging stations on campus starting at least four years ago, said David Meredith, assistant director of the Department of Public Safety. There are two charging stations each in the university’s Lincoln and Brady garages.

Until recently, Meredith’s department could not pull data from the charging stations, so it had no idea how often they were used, for how long and by how many people. The upgraded Bronco Circle station tracks that information.

“We’ve had some complaints [of misuse], especially from Brady Garage, because basically ... someone who wants to charge their vehicle, they park it, plug it in, and they just stay there all day,” Meredith said.

The new machine near the Student Union Building — and perhaps eventually in the garages — can be programmed to switch at a certain point from charging the car to charging $10 an hour for parking. The garage chargers are free except for the cost of parking, for now.

“We’re hoping to at least replace the ones we have with better functioning, more efficient ones, but they’re about $5,000 apiece,” he said.

The university is buying more and more electric vehicles, he said. The fleet now includes about 10 small pickup trucks that are fully electric.

SIERRA CLUB LEADS WAY

The Sierra Club’s offices in Downtown Boise were the first in the neighborhood to offer free-to-the-public charging stations, starting about two years ago.

Zack Waterman, director of the Idaho chapter, said the club wants to “promote electrification of the transportation sector.”

One of the biggest hindrances to people buying electric vehicles is “range anxiety,” he said. Drivers in spread-out Idaho worry that an electric car will sputter out between charging stations. Many popular parts of Idaho have no charging stations.

But most families have more than one vehicle, he said. They can take the Subaru to Stanley and use the Nissan Leaf to drive to work, run errands, pick up the kids from school.

The more charging stations there are, the more people will be willing to buy electric vehicles, he said. “Electric vehicles are much cheaper to own and operate” than traditional combustion-engine vehicles, he said.

The Sierra Club’s station cost about $500, plus another $500 or so to install. Now it’s not uncommon for two or three people to charge their cars at the office every day. One of them is state Rep. Sue Chew, D-Boise, in her new Nissan Leaf, Waterman said.

“Idaho Power and the city of Boise have both been working to get more electric vehicle charging stations out there, and it’s a great start,” he said.

The city is replacing old vehicles with electric ones and announced in September plans to install more stations at eight locations, including the Library! at Cole/Ustick and at Bown Crossing, and at the Boise Airport and City Hall Plaza.

“We definitely need more charging infrastructure,” Waterman said. “We’d like to see strategic buildout for folks to drive to McCall and Sun Valley.”

MAKING A STATEMENT

Melissa Thom, communication specialist for Idaho Power, said the company is considering repeating the rebate. It also is considering giving customers incentives for charging at home.

Thom acknowledged that Idaho Power benefits, as drivers are paying for electricity instead of gasoline. A home charging station adds about 20 percent to a customer’s energy bill, but the customer ends up paying less for fuel overall, she said.

Several businesses told the Statesman that putting a charging station in their parking lots shows customers and employees that the environment is a priority.

$7,500 Maximum payment Idaho Power contributed per company or municipality, to cover half the cost of installing charging stations

United Heritage Insurance used the maximum rebate available. The program covered more than half the Meridian-based insurance holding company’s cost of installing three stations just outside its front doors.

“It’s our intent, over time, that your parking [spot] will be based on the efficiency of your vehicle,” said CEO Dennis Johnson. “Our employees have reacted very favorably.”

For now, any of the company’s 140 employees can fuel their electric vehicles for free. Johnson expects that as more electric vehicles start pulling into the parking lot each day, the company will add more charging units.

“We think that we build them, and they will come,” he said.

Audrey Dutton: 208-377-6448, @IDS_Audrey

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