Sun fuels car chargers in St. Paul’s Como Park

  • Article by: ROCHELLE OLSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 15, 2012 - 9:57 AM

Two soon-to-open charging stations for electric automobiles will generate no air pollution.

Witness the harnessing of the mighty power of the sun at St. Paul's Como Park.

The city is set to fire up two solar-powered electric car charging stations at Como Lake and the nearby McMurray Fields. The official opening is expected within a couple of weeks.

The sites are the latest in St. Paul Mayor Chris Coleman's unfurling of the welcome mat for green energy, electric vehicles in particular. Several downtown city ramps have charging stations, as does the city-owned ramp at the Spruce Tree Center on the corner of University and Snelling avenues. Como, however, has the only solar-powered chargers so far.

The concept may be strange to some, but enthusiasm for electric cars exists both in government and the industry.

"What we're hearing from auto dealers is they're not going to sell the cars where there isn't the infrastructure," said Anne Hunt, environmental policy director in the mayor's office.

Drive Electric Minnesota is a partnership of state and local governments, industry and nonprofits working on the proliferation of charging stations. Electric vehicles run off batteries, but when the electricity comes from solar or wind power, no air pollution is created during the charging or use of the vehicle.

The diminished air pollution is increasingly important. Hunt said the federal Environmental Protection Agency is expected in the not-too-distant future to determine that the Twin Cities is out of compliance with air quality standards because of high levels of pollution caused by road congestion.

St. Paul used a portion of $2.8 million in federal stimulus for the solar stations. They cost $35,000 apiece, but get one-time rebates from Xcel Energy of $4,200 each. Each station has the capacity to charge two cars at a time.

"We've worked hard to be on the forefront of a number of sustainable innovations throughout our parks and recreation system, and these stations will only help further those efforts," said parks Director Mike Hahm.

While most owners of electric cars charge them at home, they also might need to top them off on the go. Hunt said the two Como sites were chosen because they are regional destinations, places visitors might drive a fair distance to visit.

"Everything I've been reading, electric cars are coming so we want people to have confidence they have a place to charge them," Hunt said. "We don't want people to not come to a Wild game or concert because they don't have a place to charge their car."

Tom Schmitz, general manager of Lupient Chevrolet on Southtown Drive, touted the electric Chevy Volt. "I've been selling cars for 30 years and this is by far the most fun car I have ever driven, and I have access to Corvettes and Camaros," he said. "It has instant torque."

He downplayed Chevrolet's temporary halt in Volt production as a routine stoppage to regulate sales. "Every manufacturer right now is electrifying their cars," he said.

Minneapolis is planning to install three chargers this spring at the city-owned Haaf Ramp downtown. There will be no charge to consumers, at least initially.

Chicago is installing hundreds of city-owned stations. Schmitz noted that businesses, too, are putting up charging stations, including Kohl's at Southtown.

Coleman called all the stations a "smart investment."

"This industry is growing, and St. Paul needs to be prepared," he said.

Rochelle Olson • 651-925-5035 Twitter: @rochelleolson

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