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Cities Drive Charge for Vehicle Electrification

Electric vehicles are becoming more popular in the United States as a way for drivers to save money on gas and long-term maintenance while reducing carbon emissions. 

While the mileage range of electric cars and trucks is improving, the vehicles still need frequent charging, and charging stations, unlike gas stations, are not yet in plentiful supply. 

That’s where cities and towns are stepping in to offer residents and visitors places to charge up — usually for free. Cities are also using these charging stations themselves as they look to replace older vehicles with newer electric models. 

In Greenville, drivers can find three dozen charging stations scattered throughout the city’s parking garages, said Michael Frixen, assistant to the city manager and sustainability coordinator for Greenville. The garages provide parking to shoppers, visitors, downtown office workers and residents in downtown apartments. Once drivers pay for access to the garage, charging is free. 

The Greenlink Transit fleet has four electric buses with plans to add six more in the coming year. 
Photo: City of Greenville. 

Frixen said the city paid to install the charging stations, and the electricity used is included in the total bill for each garage. The city installed several of the stations in the past few years. There are some private charging stations available in the city as well, including a hotel that offers Tesla superchargers located off Interstate 85.

Greenville’s push into vehicle electrification isn’t just charging the cars of residents and visitors. The city also has a fleet of six hybrid Ford Escapes, powered by electricity and gasoline, and five electric motorcycles, used mostly by police to patrol the greenways. 

The city’s bus fleet includes four Proterra electric buses, with plans to add six more electric buses in the coming year. The city’s electric bus fleet is refueled overnight by charging stations next to its Greenlink maintenance facility and plans are underway for a new maintenance facility.

“We are starting to add more electric vehicles to our fleets,” Frixen said. “We are adding them as we start to replace and update some of our older vehicles.”

Even so, the city is not yet able to go all-electric.

“We don’t have the charging infrastructure, and we don’t have the mechanics,” he said. “There would need to be some redesign for garage workspaces and bays. It’s a different class of maintenance and mechanics we would have to find or train.”

On a smaller scale, the City of Union has been working on its support for electric vehicles for more than a decade, installing its first charging stations in 2010 as part of the Plug-In Carolina initiative, said City Administrator Joe Nichols.

The city now has eight charging stations — two each at city hall, the University of South Carolina Union campus, Spartanburg Community College and a softball-baseball sports complex. The charging stations are free for drivers to use, and the electricity costs the city about $60 a month. 

“As the years went by and more people started buying electric vehicles, people who work at banks, the courthouse, were plugging in,” Nichols said. “Then the university started using them. People charge their car while they walk at the sports complex. In four or five years, I’d say usage has doubled.”

The charging stations are marked on internet listings, and also show up on GPS maps for travelers. 

While Union does not yet have an electric vehicle in its fleet, Nichols says it is a goal of his to get one. The city had hybrid electric vehicles in the past, but efforts to use them were hampered by mileage limitations. Nichols thinks an electric vehicle could help the city save money on employee travel to conferences and other out-of-town locations.

“They have become much more efficient,” he said. “Travel times between charging is up to 300 to 400 miles. The battery life and range has improved.”

Nichols added that residents have been supportive of the city’s efforts, which could include adding electric bicycles that people could use to ride across town.

“Most people now are pretty much energy conscious,” he said. “They want to be green.” 

Newberry’s charging station serves as a draw to downtown shops and events. 
Photo: City of Newberry. 

The City of Newberry is just dipping its toe into the electric vehicle world, installing one city-owned free charging station in March 2021. 

From October 2021 through February 2022, the city had fewer than 50 charging sessions that averaged about four hours each and that used less than 500 kilowatt hours, for a total cost of roughly $60, said Tim Baker, Newberry’s utility director. 

“Our software estimates that it saved the equivalent of 95 gallons of gasoline,” Baker said.

Part of the goal of the charging station, which is located in the Newberry County Public Library parking lot, is to offer a perk to people coming downtown. 

“We chose that location because of walkability to downtown shops,” said Elyssa Haven, public relations coordinator for the city. “It’s a public parking lot and the city has the needed infrastructure nearby.” 

It’s also part of the reason a medium-speed charger was selected. 

“We want people to spend that two to three hours while their car is charging in downtown Newberry, shopping or seeing a show at the Opera House,” Haven said. 

With the possible exception of students at Newberry College, Haven said folks stopping at the charging stations rarely are there for a “fill-up.” More often, they are simply “topping off” their charge while running errands or shopping.

The city is looking into grant funding for future charging stations, which would also be located in strategic areas to encourage visitors. 

Newberry also plans to test a city-owned electric vehicle, purchasing a car to be used by the city’s information technology team, which has to drive all over the city to handle IT issues. 

“Newberry has always been viewed as progressive while maintaining our small-town Southern charm,” said City Manager Matt DeWitt.