STAMFORD – An issue in Stamford illuminates the tricky road ahead for Connecticut’s electric vehicle ambitions.
The city received nearly $560,000 from the state to install 22 charging stations in the Stamford Government Center parking garage but, since August, elected officials have refused to approve the grant, which requires a $300,000 city match.
Board of Finance members said at their October meeting that they have been holding off because they want the Office of Operations to estimate the cost of electricity for the charging stations. A condition of the grant is that the city must provide free electricity for the first three years.
It’s one of the state incentives designed to encourage Connecticut motorists to drive electric cars.
Office of Operations Director Matt Quinones brought to the board meeting two new city employees, Director of Facilities and Sustainability Scott Butch, and Energy and Sustainability Manager Brandon Mark. Quinones said their duties include analyzing initiatives to support sustainability – developing without depleting natural resources needed for the future – and identifying grants the city can pursue toward that goal.
Much about electric vehicle use is uncharted, said Mark, an energy engineer, so he had to build assumptions into his calculations.
“Mass installation of electric vehicle charging stations” is new, Mark said. “We don’t see a lot of municipalities doing it at this scale.”
The state grant would allow Stamford to purchase and install 20 dual-port Level 2 chargers, and two dual-port fast chargers in the government center garage – a total of 44 charging spaces.
No chargers, no cars
The government center now has no charging stations, and the city has no electric vehicles, city Fleet Manager Bill Klous told the board. Installing the stations “will allow us to start purchasing vehicles,” Klous said.
Only two models are available now under the state contract for fleet purchases – the Nissan Leaf, which is affordable, and the Mustang Mach-E, “which is over $50,000 per unit,” Klous said. A small electric SUV, the Chevy Bolt, will likely join the list soon, but the city would “probably start with eight to ten Nissan Leafs for the pool fleet,” Klous said.
It’s difficult to estimate how much electricity the charging stations would require because no one knows how many motorists will use them, and how often, Mark said.
Since there are so few electric vehicles on the road – only about 1.2 percent of the nearly 3 million vehicles registered in Connecticut – there is little data to help engineers predict motorists’ habits, such as how much car batteries will typically need to be charged each time they plug in.
Add to that the supply rate charged by energy provider Eversource, which is allowed to change each January and July.
“There are a lot of unknowns,” Mark told the finance board. “We can only create our best-guess scenario.”
Butch factored in another variable – the city is eligible for reimbursements from Eversource.
The Eversource rebate is up to $40,000 for each of the four floors of the government center that would have Level 2 charging stations, Butch said, and up to $250,000 per floor with fast chargers. That could, potentially, amount to $660,000, Butch said.
Besides that, the city could be eligible for grants from the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, Butch said. That plus the Eversource rebates could potentially total $1.2 million, Butch said. The city would have to apply for the reimbursements, he said.
“It would be a significant reduction in costs,” Butch said.
‘A sucker’s play’
Board of Finance Chair Richard Freedman, however, focused on the cost of the free electricity the city would have to provide if it accepts the state grant.
Using the different cost scenarios provided by Butch and Mark, Freedman concluded that the three-year electricity expense would range from $814,000 to $1.4 million.
“For that, we get a state grant of $560,000,” Freedman said. “So my question is, why wouldn’t we just pay for (the electric vehicle stations) ourselves … and charge people for the electricity? Because then we will accomplish the same thing and it will cost us so much less money.”
It seems like the state grant “is a sucker’s play, because they’re requiring you to pay for the electricity for three years,” Freedman said. The state “is saying we’ll give you all this money … so you can put in chargers at a greatly reduced cost to you, but then you have to pay for electricity for three years. The numbers just don’t seem to make any sense.”
Butch said if the city pays “the upfront costs and makes up the money by charging for electricity, there could be a 15- to 30-year payback period.”
Freedman concluded after the October meeting that he was more concerned about the conditional grant than he was at the September meeting.
“A lot of the numbers are estimated or modeled. It’s way too complicated for us to come to any kind of conclusion this evening,” the chairman said. “Can we run an analysis of the costs if we pay for it ourselves?”
The finance board then voted unanimously to hold the item for the third month in a row. The Board of Representatives, which follows in considering such expenditures, has been taking its cue from the Board of Finance, also holding the request from Mayor Caroline Simmons since August.
Delay is not denial
Stamford was selected to receive the grant as part of a legal settlement with Volkswagen, which was charged with violating the federal Clean Air Act and admitted in 2015 that it had installed software designed to cheat emissions tests in nearly 590,000 Volkswagens, Audis and Porsches sold nationwide.
About 12,000 vehicles were sold in Connecticut, and the state was awarded almost $56 million to be distributed over 10 years. The money is to be used for measures that offset the pollution emitted by the vehicles with the illegal software.
In June Gov. Ned Lamont released $6 million from the legal settlement to fund 54 electric vehicle projects across Connecticut. The electric charging station grant is a reimbursement, so recipients must complete the project and demonstrate payment before receiving it.
Lamont’s office has also initiated the Connecticut Electric Vehicle Charging Program to provide incentives to build a charging grid. The rebate program is administered by Eversource and the state’s other energy provider, United Illuminating.
Last year the U.S. Department of Transportation announced Connecticut would get $52 million to build electric vehicle charging stations. The money must be used primarily along major highways over two years.
To further the push toward electric vehicles, Lamont in July announced a plan to phase out the sale of gas-powered cars by 2035, joining a number of other states with similar pledges.
During the finance board meeting, member Geoff Alswanger said he wanted to clarify the reason for another delay in the grant approval.
“I’m not hearing that (the board is) against electric vehicles. We’re trying to make it make sense,” Alswanger said.
“I agree,” Freedman said.