In the parking lot of the Sonoma County Hall of Justice on a recent July morning, a small collection of county employees, public officials and local technocrats gathered to witness one step into the future, and it was electric. They were cutting the ribbon on Sonoma County's newest addition to public technology: two electric-vehicle charging stations.
The ceremony marked the beginning of Sonoma County's ambitious multiphase plan to establish a public infrastructure for electric-vehicle charging. In the next two years, the county plans to install up to 200 charging stations for both its growing fleet of electric vehicles and for public use. Seven stations are planned for this year.
So far, there are just three plug-in chargers available but for public information officer Jim Toomey, the future looks impressive. "When there are a hundred to a hundred and fifty of these things in the county, it's going to be cool," he says.
Cool is right. The "smart chargers," purchased from Coulomb Technologies, have an air of James Bond about them. All the chargers feed information back into Coulomb's ChargePoint Network, so that any given driver can know when and where a charging station will be available. The network will even send text messages to alert drivers when their cars' batteries are fully charged.
Besides the handful of hybrid plug-ins owned by Sonoma County, the current public need for charging stations remains unclear. "It's a question we'd really like to know the answer to," Toomey says.
Sonoma County fleet manager Dave Head also expressed uncertainty about how much the public actually needs charging stations, but emphasized the possible magnitude of gallons of gasoline saved. He estimated that with the conversion of all the fleet's cars into hybrid plug-ins (as opposed to hybrid combustibles, which don't plug in), the county could save 80,000 to 100,000 gallons of gas a year.
According to Head, the most important part of the initial phase of the project is to collect information. With GPS tracking devices in all the fleet vehicles, the county will have a wealth of data on how efficient the cars are in both cost and energy.
After the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Ron Gremban, founder of CalCars, a nonprofit dedicated to "getting as many vehicles as possible electrified," talked at length with local resident Melinda Hempstead about the future of electric vehicles.
"All the auto companies have projects in the works," Gremban explained. "By 2011, we should have several different types of hybrids."
Hampstead nodded and smiled enthusiastically. She was just passing through the parking lot when she stumbled on to the ribbon-cutting ceremony, a great discovery for a self-described electric-car enthusiast and member of the car-free movement. Indeed, as Gremban climbed into his Prius plug-in, Hampstead asked, "Can I bum a ride?"