Electric cars: A waste of $5 billion?

4:12 PM, Nov 8, 2013   |    comments
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Photo of vehicle charging station courtesy GVSU.

GRAND RAPIDS (WZZM) -- WZZM 13's Watchdog team started out to do a story prompted by viewer questions about the use and cost of public car charging stations.

We investigated and found that the charging stations were just one very small part of what is, when you add it all up, a massive government effort to get us to drive electric cars.

President Obama set a goal to have one million electric cars on the road by 2015. We are now at 10 percent of that number. Despite that, the government continues to prop up the manufacture and sales of electric cars, beginning with lithium mines and ending with electric vehicle charging stations.

So are the taxpayer dollars being spent sparking interest or shorting out?

To date, the federal government has spent:

  • $28 million on lithium mines
  • $27 million for lithium salts.
  • $2 billion to battery factories
  • $3 billion to automakers
  • A $7,500 credit to car buyers
  • $15 million to install car charging stations

In all since 2009, U.S. tax payers have paid $5 billon in stimulus money to put electric cars on the road. But the plan hasn't really worked.

All one has to do to see Americans aren't embracing electric cars is to drive empty charging stations, from Grand Rapids to Muskegon to Holland.

Empty, lonely, spaces; sentinels waiting for you to plug into the future, proponents might say.

"I believe this is a tremendous asset for downtown, for other areas, I want to see them expand into neighborhoods, just like we see bike lanes, we see bike racks; they are very valuable assets," said Haris Alibasic, Director of the Office of Energy and Sustainability for Grand Rapids.

Others call the charging stations a waste of taxpayer money, pushing consumers where they don't want to go

"The lesson we need to learn is that when the federal government decides this is the direction we want to go, that doesn't guarantee success. We actually need a marketplace that's going there," said U.S. Rep. Bill Huizenga.

And the marketplace is not going there, not yet serious about electric vehicles.

Lisa Symons and her family love her Chevy Volt, an electric and gas car. "It's actually outperformed everything that I thought. everything they told me is doing better," said Symons. "I'm saving a ton of money, very surprised. I almost never use gas, almost always on electricity."

Symons believes public tax dollars should be used to charge her electric car. "I absolutely do," she told WZZM 13. "Electric cars are cheaper and if we invest a little bit of money in promoting that change, we would save a lot in the long run on these other things."

"Why don't you think more people actually buy a Volt or a Nissan Leaf?" Lee Van Ameyde asked Symons.

"I'm surprised by how many people don't know about it; a lot of people have a hard time with change," said Symons. "For the electric cars, if there were more charging stations, there would be less range anxiety that people have, they're afraid they will run out."

There are already 70 public charging stations across West Michigan, given to communities by a company called Charge Point. They got $15 million federal dollars to put more than 4,000 across the country.

Local entities did pay for installation of the machines. Local dollars that ranged from:

  • $4,000 for two charging stations in Muskegon.
  • $18,000 for seven stations in Grand Rapids.
  • $125,000 for 18 charging stations in Holland.

Why so much in Holland? 

"The board had a very lively discussion about it, it also went to City Council where they discussed it and decided that it was an appropriate thing to do," said Dan Nally of the Holland Board of Public Works.

As in most other cities, the public charging stations in Holland are free to customers.

"I think once again this is a long term investment; it hasn't gone as quickly as people would like, but I do believe it will happen and when we get to that point where they make up a larger percentage of the automobile, that we'll be in a good position to support that," said Nally.

And in Holland there's one other reason the commitment is high.

"We have two companies located in Holland: LG Chem and Johnson Controls, that make batteries for electric cars," said Nally. "Looking at the other businesses we support in Holland, such as Haworth and Herman Miller furniture, we looked at that as a small reason to support car charging stations in Holland."

Up the road, Grand Rapids, a much bigger city with fewer stations and a very big difference: It's not free to use a charging station, you have to pay.

"We can recoup the costs of the electricity that's being used at those charging stations," said Alibasic. By paying extra for the parking space. "We are charging a premium for a parking spot, so folks when they park have to pay an extra 50 cents per hour for that parking spot."

However, the revenue and usage numbers reflect how little the charging stations are used. In 21 months, parking revenue from the charging station spots was $3,447. That averages out to $172 per month. But that's at least enough to cover the 21 months of electric use, only $498.69.

The city calls it revenue neutral.

"So would you say revenue neutral has raised enough money to recoup costs of installation?" asked Lee Van Ameyde.

"No, it's been only a year and a half, but we continually monitor that; we are trying to make sure there is no loss to the city in installing the charging station," said Alibasic.

Not all charging stations sit vacant all the time. There's been a slow steady increase in usage and there's been a recent uptick in electric car sales.

If it happens at all, significant electric car ownership is decades away. For now automakers will have to rely on lots of tax dollars and a small but enthusiastic base of drivers.

"I feel almost like I have a little secret advantage over everybody else because of owning the car," said Symons.

Who will have no trouble finding a place to charge their vehicle.

Perhaps the most definitive indicator that electric car sales aren't where the government wants them to be. President Obama has asked Congress to increase the electric car tax credit from $7,500 to $10,000. Local governments will have to continue to play the odds, trying to be ready when or if electric cars become the norm, while not wasting taxpayer dollars if they don't.

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