The underground garage at Palo Alto City Hall is rarely a site for ribbon cuttings and celebrations, but the place was buzzing Tuesday afternoon (Oct. 18) when Mayor Sid Espinosa and Planning and Transportation Commissioner Arthur Keller pulled into a parking space in Keller's blue Nissan Leaf.
The city has recently installed five new charging stations, including two in the top level of the City Hall garage (others were installed at the Bryant Street and Alma Street garages). With a scattering of local technologists and dignitaries looking on, Espinosa and City Manager James Keene marked the occasion by talking about the need for the city to take the lead in the emerging trend of electric vehicles. Espinosa cited statistics from the California Energy Commissions, which projected that the city would have between 3,000 and 10,000 electric vehicles within 10 years. The transformation, he said, will be great.
"It's an exciting time," Espinosa said.
Such celebrations could become more commonplace in the coming months as the city proceeds with its ambitious plan to become a leader in the field. The private sector has already set an impressive precedent, with pioneering companies such as Tesla, Better Place and Fisker all establishing a local presence. Other companies, including HP, SAP, Westin and Creekside Inn became early adopters in installing charging stations for their employees and customers.
Now, city officials want to make sure City Hall doesn't get left behind.
To that end, staff has put together an ambitious plan aimed at supporting the trend and making the transition to electric vehicles easier for the local population. The plan includes installing charging stations, simplifying the permitting process for customers wishing to install chargers at their homes or businesses, providing outreach about the environmental benefits of switching from gas to electric, and encouraging developers to include charging stations in their projects.
The City Council's Policy and Services Committee discussed and unanimously endorsed the plan Tuesday night.
Debra van Duynhoven, assistant to the city manager for sustainability, said the trend toward electric vehicles has been gaining momentum in Palo Alto, with about 20 customers requesting permits for charging stations every month -- a number that she says has been progressively growing.
Van Duynhoven estimated that there would be about 25 electric or hybrid models on the market by 2012. In a new report, she wrote that the city "recognizes EVs as a potentially important part of the solution for reaching its greenhouse gas emission reduction goal, and so has an interest in encouraging the use of EVs throughout the community."
"We are the high-tech center, we are the innovation center, and everybody likes EVs," van Duynhoven told the committee Tuesday.
In some ways, the city is preaching to the choir. Van Duynhoven and Assistant City Manager Pamela Antil said residents have been contacting the city in recent months and proposing ideas to support the trend. One recently placed a charger in the planting strip by his house and held an open house to showcase his innovation. Staff is now considering whether the city should allow such installations on a wider basis.
"We are in fact leading the effort and we want to decide if we want to be at the cutting edge," Antil said. "We do have folks in the community, because of the nature of this community, who have a lot of great ideas."
The committee, while backing the proposed "Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Policy," acknowledged that the road to adopting this policy is fraught with uncertainties. Councilman Larry Klein voiced skepticism about a proposal to explore allowing curbside charging stations in residential neighborhoods. Klein said he was "leery about maintaining the sanctity of our R-1 (single-family residential) neighborhoods," given the added traffic these facilities could generate. These impacts would be greater if the charge is provided at no cost to the driver (as is currently the case at the city garages).
"With people from all over migrating to his station -- if I'm his next door neighbor, I'm not happy with this," Klein said.
Councilwoman Karen Holman had a different concern: the aesthetics of the new charging stations. She called on staff to proactively explore design guidelines for the new stations. While Klein disagreed, saying it should not be the city's role but the private sectors to come up with the best design, the other two committee members -- Chair Gail Price and Councilman Pat Burt -- agreed with Holman that aesthetics should be an important consideration.
"Trying to do good does not need to instill negative feelings or negative reactions," Holman said.
Burt also said the city should expect "unanticipated consequences" and cited Denmark, where an aggressive push toward promoting electric vehicles led to a steep decline in gas-excise taxes -- an important source of revenue.
"I think this is a great opportunity," Burt said. "We want to be real smart about it -- that's why I want to, upfront, have us look at the unanticipated consequences and make sure we aren't trying to reinvent the wheels that others have invented."
Klein noted that "there aren't going to be neatly tied answers for years to come" but said the new technology is well worth supporting and said he hopes the city will "go forward expeditiously" with the new policies.
"I think this is an area that's going to be fast-moving -- at least I hope it is," Klein said. "I'm pleased that we're a leader."