Greg Bell is still waiting for his first electric vehicle, but when it arrives he won't have any trouble charging it up.
Bell is at the vanguard of what Palo Alto officials believe will be the next big trend for the city -- a push by residents to install charging systems in their homes. Last month, he became one of the first residents to receive a permit for a residential car charger. City officials believe he'll be far from the last.
Electric engines aren't new to Palo Alto, with fleets of Prius sedans constantly flowing through city streets, clusters of environmentalist engineers electrifying their conventional cars, and companies such as Tesla and Better Place leading the worldwide push to wean drivers off gasoline. The rollout of moderately priced sedans such as the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt in the next two months is expected to give this nascent field a major push and transform the niche market into a mainstream one.
Bell, who works as a website designer and shares his household with a wife, two children and a pair of traditional gas-powered cars, said he recently ordered a Leaf because he wanted an affordable and green option for short and mid-range drives. He noted that the Leaf would allow him to drive around for about 100 miles for just $3 or $4 in electric costs.
"People need to have an option other than depending on foreign oil, or any oil for that matter," Bell said. "I think electric cars are a great way for us to go green and get off oil."
Palo Alto officials expect their affluent and hyper-green city to be near the front of the pack and are bracing for an influx in applications for charging stations. Larry Perlin, the city's chief building official, said that while the city has received only a handful of applications thus far, the number of inquiries from the community has been picking up in recent weeks and said he expects the number of applications to start rising soon.
"There's no doubt that in Palo Alto electric cars will be in demand," Perlin said.
It also doesn't hurt that Palo Alto and its neighbors provide a home for legions of businesses and entrepreneurs specializing in electric vehicles and supporting technologies. Bell bought his vehicle charger -- a toaster-sized device that affixes to the wall and has a nozzle extending from its bottom, much like at a gas pump -- from Coulomb Technologies, a Campbell-based manufacturer of charging stations. For the permitting process, Bell drew on the expertise of Michael Mora, a Palo Alto resident who specializes in electric vehicles.
City officials hope its ongoing reforms will soon enable even laymen drivers with few connections in the high-tech world to get their residential chargers with ease. Perlin said the city is revising its applications to allow residents to get their permits after just one stop at the city's Development Center on Hamilton Avenue. Bell, as a test case, had a slightly more complex process and was forced to go back and forth a few times before he secured his permit.
The new application, Perlin said, would come with a handout that would tell residents exactly what type of information they will need to provide to receive their permits. The goal is to streamline the process and to remove the element of surprise.
"What we're trying to do is create a standardized, simple permit application form that could be downloaded and then all the information could be filled out and brought to the Development Center," Perlin said. "Ideally, for the residential charge stations we'd be able to review and approve those over the counter and people would be able to walk out the door with their permits at hand."
The simplified process would, however, only apply to basic Level 1 and Level 2 chargers -- which would enable residents to completely charge their vehicles in about eight to 10 hours (with Level 1, which is a basic wall outlet) or four to six hours (Level 2). Installing more powerful systems that could charge up a car in an hour or less would require additional hearings and reviews, Perlin said.
Bell, whose charger is Level 2, said it took him about two weeks to go through the process and get his charger installed. Now, he is on to the next step -- waiting for his new Leaf to arrive. With his son, David, about to turn 16, the timing for a new vehicle couldn't be better.
"I'm hoping he'll take his driving test in an electric car," Bell said.