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Columbus, Ohio, to Launch Incentive Program for EV Charging Port Installation

Smart Columbus is getting serious about promoting electric vehicle use, starting with encouraging more charging locations.

Charging ports for electric vehicles (EVs) could soon start popping up in apartment building parking lots and other areas in and around Columbus, Ohio.

The city will soon launch an incentive program to encourage the purchase and installation of some 1,685 charging ports over the next three years, according to city officials. The program will focus on commercial and multi-family housing facilities.

Kristian Fenner, Assistant Administrator in the Columbus Division of Power explained that the incentives are directed at multi-unit dwellings, and the chargers can be used to power public and privately owned electric vehicles.

“That includes workplace charging for employers to provide for employees as an incentive,” she said.

The incentive grants are designed to provide up to $25,000 per facility, though cannot exceed $3,500 per plug, to purchase and install either a Level 1 (120 volts) or Level 2 (240 volts) charger. The applicant has to provide a 35 percent cash match, Fenner added, "so they have a little bit of skin in the game.”

The incentive program is but one small part of a larger strategy by Columbus to implement new technologies and innovative techniques to improve its transportation system. Last year, Columbus was awarded a $50 million Smart City Challenge grant by the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT), which includes $10 million from Vulcan Inc. earmarked specifically for electric vehicle programs. Columbus has gathered an additional $277 million in local matching resources for its Smart Columbus program since winning the federal grant last summer, the Columbus Dispatch reported in February.

The competitive grant program was about catapulting forward local transportation innovation, deploying emerging technologies such as automated driving, connected vehicles and ubiquitous sensor technology on the ground in such a way that other cities can learn lessons and follow along. 

One of the key obstacles in the electric car movement, say officials, is infrastructure providing accessible charging opportunities.

“Studies show that 80 to 85 percent of EV owners charge at home,” said Fenner, using the shorthand for electric vehicles. “But for those living in apartment buildings or condos, they don’t always have access to an electric port in the parking lot or garage.”

Roughly 42 percent of residents in Columbus live in some form of multi-unit housing, said Patti Austin, administrator of the Division of Power.

“And a lot of them are the demographic that you would anticipate would be interested in EVs,” she said, pointing out that denser housing areas are closer to downtown, allowing for shorter trips. “These are the people that you really think are going to be really interested in the EV charging.”

By encouraging the installation of more charging ports, Smart Columbus officials hope to increase the number of electric vehicles in the seven-county Columbus region from a paltry 0.4 percent today to 1.8 percent in three years, said Norman “Bud” Braughton — an electrical engineer who serves as the senior project manager for the Smart Columbus program.

“So we have a lofty goal for the next three years. If you look at some of the market shares for EVs out west, they’re all around [2 percent]. We want to show that the Midwest can do this,” said Braughton.

As part of the push to put more electric cars on Columbus streets, the Smart Columbus program aims to convert both public and private fleet vehicles to electric power.

“We have a goal of over the next three years to have 780 fleet vehicles converted, 300 of which are going to be public,” said Braughton.

To get average citizens excited about replacing a conventional gas-powered vehicle with an electric one, the city has partnered with American Electric Power, a utility provider in the region, to host “Ride and Drive” events where residents are encouraged to get behind the wheel of an EV.

“People just aren’t aware of EVs and what the options are, or what the opportunities are,” said Braughton, adding that one of the key impediments to electric vehicle ownership is simply “familiarity.” 

"Many residents only think of either a Tesla or Chevrolet Volt as options for electric vehicles,” he said. “That’s just not true anymore. There’s a tremendous amount of new opportunities now for people to purchase an EV.”

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.