Downtown Athens going greener with electric car charging ports

By Luke Dixon

Athens, Georgia is getting greener both literally and figuratively.

Like many small cities and municipalities in the state, Athens is now in the electric car charging business.

Eight electric car-charging stations have been installed throughout Athens-Clarke County. Similar to the ports installed at the University of Georgia’s North Campus and South Campus parking decks, Green Power Technology’s Signet electric car charging ports are downtown at the West Washington Street Parking Deck, Hotel Indigo and The Classic Center.

The City of Athens, the Classic Center, and car dealerships have been the primary beneficiaries of the new bright green spaces so far. Drivers of electric cars in downtown Athens are able to park at the charging space and plug in while they go about their business downtown. The system works via credit card payment, and is controlled through an interactive touch screen.

Electric motorists are able to recharge to 80 percent within half an hour at the Classic Center station. Because of the expedient fill up, a new social protocol has emerged as a result of the new charging stations, according to Athens-Clarke County Central Services coordinator, Andrew Saunders, and it involves leaving your phone number on your car.

“For instance if you show up and go to a concert, and you’re going to spend the day downtown, you might charge and in an hour you might be done,” Saunders said. “If I can park in the spot next to you, I can either see that you’re done and charge my car, or if I’m in a bind, I can call you if you’ve left your number and coordinate that I can use the charger.”

Much of the benefit comes from tax credits offered by the State of Georgia and the Federal government. Purchasers of the electric vehicles can get $5,000 and $7,500 tax breaks, respectively. In essence this knocks off roughly 38 percent of the approximate $32,769 (Kelly Blue Book) price tag of an all-electric car.

The metropolitan Atlanta area has taken the most advantage of these benefits. Eighty percent of registered electric car users in Georgia live in this area, according to a previous article on OnlineAthens.com

Nissan, Hyundai, General Motors and BMW are the most recognizable car brands that have established a relationship with Green Power and types of vehicles, which can be recharged at the chargers in Athens.

The Athens Nissan dealership is the biggest player and business beneficiary of the new ports and spaces. They’ve sold approximately 10 electric vehicles per month as the electric car trend has grown in Athens, according to Saunders.

With 80 percent of Georgia’s electric car sales and owners in the Atlanta area, that would leave few Athenians among those outside that majority, but businesses like the Classic Center wouldn’t install the spaces if they didn’t see the financial benefit to having the spaces.

“It’s a 50-50 split between us and Athens-Clarke County,” Classic Center Assistant Director Philip Verrastro said of the deal the Classic Center and Athens-Clarke County agreed to.

Verrastro said that the Classic Center did not install the charging port to reap immediate financial benefits from the machine, but to serve their customers and patrons in an additional way.

“If we can get more of these things out there, we can get more electric cars out on the road,” he said. “We just wanted to be apart of that and help promote that to our customers as well. ‘Hey, you have an electric car and you’re coming over from Atlanta for a meeting, you can charge it while you’re here.’ It’s become kind of a win-win thing.”

A specific benefit for those who choose to host and install the electric chargers is Georgia Environmental Finance Authority’s rebate program called Charge Georgia. The rebate is offered to civic centers like the Classic Center and local governments like Athens-Clarke County and can amount up to $40,000, according to the GEFA website.

This incentive is what caused Athens-Clarke County to begin considering hosting the charging ports many years ago, according to Saunders. With the tax breaks and rebates available, there is only one issue that remains for the Athens government when it comes to electric charging stations – monitoring their usage.

According to Green Power’s website, the ports work on a subscriber function and you are billed through your card and plan each time you refill. The issue with this for Athens is they currently cannot get usage data from the ports. This is because there is no monitoring agreement in place between Green Power and Athens-Clarke County at the present date. Saunders said such an agreement is in the works and will be finalized soon.

“We’re still negotiating with them on the monitoring, but we will have them monitored and we will be able to tell the charge events in any given month,” he said.

There are benefits for the citizens of Athens, but it could be awhile before the stations help more than a niche industry right now.

“It’s definitely beneficial if you’ve got an electric car and live in Athens,” University of Georgia senior Nick Carlotto said. “I don’t have one, but if I did it would be nice because then I wouldn’t have to drive to Atlanta just to recharge.”

Downtown Athens Parking System (DAPS) could reap benefits, but only if more Athenians have electric cars, according to DAPS Director, Chuck Horton.

He said that so far he hasn’t seen many drivers plug up at the West Washington Street port.

Green Power estimates that it takes 1.8 chargers per car for every car to have access to a station. With Athens having a population of 120,000 and approximately 100,000 adults. If half the adults owned an electric car in Athens-Clarke County, that would call for approximately 90,000 units to be able to service the electric cars, according to Signet’s data of 1.8 charging units per car. That is an inflated number as many electric cars, like the Nissan Leaf, are sold with plug-in-at-home units. If electric car ownership increased, DAPS could start collect more immediate benefits.

Saunders is more optimistic and thinks despite being a little behind the initial electric car push in Georgia, Athens will continue to move in a greener direction and follow Atlanta’s lead in the electric car department, but on its own terms.

“I think Atlanta very quickly discovered the tax incentives and those vehicles are perfectly designed for Atlanta when you think of something that’s a 70-mile range and really gets the highest efficiency on in town driving,” he said. “They had a much earlier adoption, but that’s not to say we haven’t had people in Athens driving them.”

Even before the electric charging stations, Saunders said Athens was a very green and environmentally aware town.

“Yeah, I would certainly say that downtown Athens has been [green],” he said. “If you look, we’ve got the car chargers of course. The Classic Center is a LEED certified building. The new parking deck is LEED Gold.”

In his time at the Classic Center, Verrastro said he has seen Athens grow greener overall, but cautioned that there’s no way of knowing for certain where the electric car trend is heading. He said the addition of more electric charging ports is dependent on if the initial stations are put to use and if more are needed.

“Our [charging station] is very public accessed easily,” he said. “It’ll all be on demand. We’ll look at it annually and if the demand is there, then we’ll certainly look at others, but that’s way too early to tell.”

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