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Sonoma County's fledging 'electric trail' expands

Dave Head, the fleet operation manager for the county of Sonoma, walks past the charging stations for the county's hybrid fleet, Friday Feb. 8, 2013 in Santa Rosa.

(Kent Porter / Press Democrat)
Published: Saturday, February 9, 2013 at 2:39 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, February 9, 2013 at 2:39 p.m.

Sonoma County's “electric trail,” a fledgling network of charging stations for electric vehicles, continues to expand.

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Dave Head, the fleet operation manager for the county of Sonoma, walks past the charging stations for the county's hybrid fleet, Friday Feb. 8, 2013 in Santa Rosa.

(Kent Porter / Press Democrat)

It's part of a plan to draw more people in electric cars to the county and also make it easier for locals to recharge theirs when they drive from town to town.

“Our goal is to get charging stations throughout the whole county and start to market the county as an EV (electric vehicle) destination,” said Dave Head, the county official who oversees the program to install more public charging stations.

“We want to get people to come in electric vehicles from Sacramento, or the Bay Area, or fly in and enjoy our county, but do it in an electrical vehicle,” he said.

Head described the Bay Area as a “hotbed” of electric vehicle sales and predicts their popularity will increase as a result of government mandates to increase auto mileage and reduce green house gases.

“It isn't like tomorrow when you wake up everyone will have an electric vehicle,” said Alan Soule, head of the North Bay Chapter of the Electric Auto Association. But he said the more charging stations that are free, the more it will encourage people to buy electric cars.

Electric vehicles represent a small fraction of the 14.5 million new vehicles sold in 2012.

Still, sales of plug-in electric and hybrid cars have tripled, from a little over 17,000 cars in 2011 to more than 50,000 in 2012, according to TheStreet.com.

For 2013, the prediction is that 125,000 such vehicles will be sold.

But Head said there are state projections that in the next five to 10 years, as many as 1.5 million plug-in vehicles could be sold in California.

In Sonoma County's network of charging stations, some are free while others typically cost $1 or $1.25 per hour.

This week, the Healdsburg City Council approved the installation of two public charging stations that will be available at the City Hall parking lot.

Initially, there will no cost to use them. City Council members agreed to monitor the cost of providing the electricity.

Terry Crowley, the city's electrical director, estimates only four to five vehicles will use the charging station per month initially and that cost is negligible.

The Windsor Town Council has approved the installation of several charging stations bordering the Town Green, although none are yet operational.

One of the challenges with all-electric vehicles is the limited range of the more popular, affordable models, somewhere between 70 to 100 miles on a charge, depending on how they are driven.

Town Councilwoman Debora Fudge said she would like to buy an all-electric car, but acknowledges the range makes it problematic. “It takes a lot of management to own an electric car now, unless you drive short distances,” she said. “If you really want to take a car out, you have to plan a network.”

There is a web service, Charge Point America, that maps all the charging stations in the country and provides billing services for outlets that require payment.

But Fudge said she'd like to be able to drive from Windsor to Santa Cruz to visit her parents, a distance of more than 130 miles. “I'm waiting for the electric car market to improve,” she said, adding that she is leaning toward a Toyota Prius plug-in electric, which combines an internal combustion engine for greater distances.

Head said many people drive just 30 to 40 miles a day. Electric vehicles can be optimum for that distance and also cost less per mile than gas and diesel-powered vehicles.

Another issue is how quickly a car can be recharged. Soule said that eventually all chargers — other than those at motels where people stop overnight — will be “fast chargers” delivering 80 percent of battery capacity in 15 to 20 minutes.

In Sonoma County, the charge stations being installed might take as long as seven hours to fully charge a car, Crowley said. But someone who drives a relatively short distance, say from Santa Rosa to Healdsburg, can plug in for an hour and “top off” their battery, he said.

By the end of this year, there should be more than 50 active electrical charging stations available to the public in the county that are government-funded, according to Head.

The network will stretch from Petaluma to Cloverdale, from Sebastopol to Sonoma.

The county also wants to extend the public charging stations farther west to Guerneville and Bodega Bay and perhaps up the Sonoma Coast.

“We've been working on this for about two years,” Head said. “It's nice that it's finally happening.

The program is funded by $450,000 in government grants, including some administered by the Northern Sonoma County Air Pollution District. Some funding also comes from participating cities.

Currently there are more than 55 charging stations in Sonoma County, but those include sites put in by private companies, such as wineries and retail stores, for their customers to use.

The Santa Rosa Plaza and Coddingtown shopping centers, for example, have electric vehicle charging stations.

(You can reach Staff Writer Clark Mason at 521-5214 or clark.mason@pressdemocrat.com.)

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