More Floridians plugging electric cars, want state to facilitate use –

Posted: Sunday, December 13, 2015

The increasing number of charging stations makes longer trips easily manageable, Lococo said. Discussing a trip to September’s St. Pete Drive Electric Day on the Bay promotion from his home in Winter Haven, Lococo ticked off several charging stations he knew of off the top of his head near his hotel downtown — at Spa Beach, in a public parking garage, even at a Dunkin’ Donuts.

“It’s like when somebody asks you where the fire hydrants are. I don’t know where the hell they are, but I know they’re there,” he said.

As secretary of both the Sun Coast and Central Florida electric vehicle associations, Lococo traverses the state in his electric car. He’s even put his RAV4 on the Amtrak Auto Train here in Florida, then driven it from Lorton, Virginia, to Rhinebeck, New York, and back — 1,057 miles of highway driving.

Plug-in electric hybrids such as the Chevy Volt can operate battery-only, then switch to a gasoline powered generator when the battery runs out. The Volt can get 53 miles on battery-only, 140 total. The Volt can be fully charged for $1.70, according to the manufacturer. The cost depends on how much your power company charges per kilowatt hour. A standard 120 volt charging unit allows the car to be fully charged in 10 to 16 hours. A 240 volt charging station cuts that time to four hours.

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In his 2011 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama called for 1 million plug-in cars to be on U.S. roads by 2015. California and seven other states say they will ban new gasoline-powered vehicles by 2050.

There are only about 330,000 electric vehicles on the road nationwide, with about 150,000 of them in California. Florida had just over 10,000 as of 2014, according to the Florida Solar Energy Center at the University of Central Florida.

To increase that number, at least in Florida, the local advocates are focusing on three areas:

A state tax credit. The federal government already provides up to $7,500 in tax relief for buying a plug-in car, and a state credit could provide further incentive to buy what now are significantly more expensive cars. The five-passenger 2016 Chevy Volt goes for about $35,000.

Sen. Darren Soto, a Democrat from Orlando, has introduced Senate Bill 366 for the 2016 legislative session. It would make hybrid vehicles such as the Toyota Prius, in which an electric motor supplements the gasoline engine, exempt from the state sales tax.

But plug-in electric cars are not addressed in the bill. If they were, the break could knock an additional $2,100 off the price of that $35,000 Chevy Volt.

At least 20 states have considered legislation to promote purchase and use of hybrids and plug-in cars.

This year, any tax break on high-price cars would be “a pretty heavy lift,” said Sen. Jeff Brandes, a Republican from St. Petersburg who has been working with the alternative-fuel groups.

Ensuring that residents of apartments or condominiums are allowed to install charging stations. In other words, the advocates don’t like the status quo, where landlords or condo boards can prevent installation.

That could be a huge issue in Tampa and St. Petersburg, where thousands of millennials are expected to be flooding into new downtown apartment and condo towers that are on the drawing boards.

“If you live in an apartment building or you live in a town house, you should have the right to do what you would do if you lived in your own single-family home — and that’s to pay for an electrician to come in and install a 220 (volt) charging unit so you and your neighbors could charge,” Compton said. “A lot of folks who don’t own their own homes, they don’t have a place to charge. With a lot of apartment complexes and condo complexes, that’s an issue.”

It’s a challenging situation. Figuring out where charging stations can be located, who pays for the installation, who pays for the electricity and how it is charged to the customer all have to be negotiated.

The issue is at the forefront for Drive Electric Florida, a coalition of electric car manufacturers, governments and state utilities, including Tampa Electric Co.

“I’m not sure that anybody has the solution, but it’s more a matter of getting everybody around the table to find what the solution is,” said Kenneth Hernandez, program manager for alternative fuel vehicles at TECO. “The same thing goes for workplace charging, which is a very big initiative. How do we address where people live, where they work and where they play? That is where an electric vehicle driver needs the ability to charge.”

More charging stations, particularly fast-charging stations at interstate exits.

The website, which is not an official source but is widely used by local electric vehicle users, indicates there are about 150 public charging stations in the Tampa Bay area, including nine in downtown Tampa and 15 in downtown St. Petersburg.

There’s something of a “chicken and the egg” situation when it comes to cars and charging stations, said José Barriga, head of the Sun Coast Electric Vehicle Association and owner of two electric cars. Buyers are reluctant to turn to plug-ins unless there are enough charging stations, and providers of charging stations are reluctant to install them where there aren’t many cars.

“For me, I think if they would install more stations, more people would consider buying electric cars,” Barriga said.

Many municipalities have installed stations, but the advocates want the state to get in on the act, adding stations to interstate exits, rest stops and the like.

They may have to be patient. Brandes said he would like to see the Legislature consider a sweeping study of the electric car landscape, possibly involving the Center for Urban Transportation Research at the University of South Florida, that can serve as “a roadmap forward.”

“I’m not going to shoot in the dark and say we’re going to spend taxpayer money on what is not the most effective thing,” Brandes said. “Let’s not blindly legislate.”

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Lococo, the grandfather from Winter Haven, said there are plenty more battles for electric vehicle advocates to fight.

He said there are two inherent inhibiting factors to electric car sales, both related to the nature of the automobile business: Manufacturers sell parts, and dealers sell service. The low-maintenance nature of electric vehicles conflicts with the biggest source of dealer profit, which is their service departments.

In November, The New York Times reported on potential electric car buyers being redirected to gas-powered cars at dealerships and getting inaccurate information about the cars they were interested in. The newspaper cited a J.D. Power survey finding that electric car buyers were significantly less satisfied with their car dealer than were buyers of traditional cars.

That could be one reason Tesla is pursuing a company-owned store and service center model instead of the existing franchise dealer network.

Matt Berry, a sales professional at Maher Chevrolet in St. Petersburg, said gas-first isn’t the strategy at his dealership. Maher sells more Chevy Volts than any dealer in the Southeast.

“We jumped on the electric vehicle bandwagon back in 2011 when they were first released in limited markets,” he said. “There were no dealers that sold them, no public charging stations; we just jumped into it. … Everyone here at the dealership is an advocate for the electric vehicle and the Volt, from upper management on down.”

He said at least a dozen families of employees at Maher drive Volts, some of them multiple models.

Lococo takes heart in the fact that sale of electric vehicles has doubled five times in the four years they’ve been on the mass market — from roughly 25,000 in early 2012 to 50,000 later that year, 100,000 the next year and 200,000 last year — with the market now headed toward 400,000.

“We’ve got a long way to go,” he said. “But I think more and more people are being convinced.”

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