The news that Petaluma, Sonoma County’s second largest city, became the first in the nation to ban future construction of gas stations resonated around the country. True, they already had 16, and a 17th will be probably built at some point once it gets out of court, but the singularly audacious move of saying “Enough!” drew national attention.
It was against this background that Matt Metzler, a member of the Sonoma Community Services and Environmental Commission, spoke up at their March 10 meeting about a plan to install up to 14 new electric vehicle (EV) chargers in Sonoma, to meet the city’s climate priorities. “I want to express my fear that five or 10 years from now, we’re going to be scrambling and realize we didn’t build nearly enough EV charging stations,” said Metzler, predicting a future where there are very few gas-powered vehicles.
“Everyone is going to be clamoring for EV charging stations,” Metzler told the city’s sustainability coordinator, Travis Wagner, suggesting that the urgency “be forwarded to city council with all due haste.”
The commission was hearing a presentation from Wagner, the 59-year-old former professor of environmental science who joined the city just over a year ago in the newly-created sustainability coordinator role. The part-time position was added because of public interest and pressure from the Community Services and Environmental Commission itself for the city to create policies connected to climate action.
As Wagner said, “the city lacked expertise in that area of climate action,” and he was well-positioned to provide that expertise ‒ and, as a Springs-area resident, well-located.
To meet the need for EV charging stations, Wagner drafted an implementation strategy to roll out up to 14 publicly available high-voltage L2 charging stations (see sidebar) in the city over the next three years. The city council in November had asked Wagner to review six possible actions over the next three years, including identifying charging opportunities in the downtown; upgrading the existing chargers in the parking lot behind the Sebastiani Theatre at 152 E. Napa St.; and looking at the police station, fire station and Depot Park as possible locations for public chargers.
At present there is only one functioning city-owned EV charger, in the 152 E. Napa Street lot. Four other chargers are privately managed but accessible to the public.
Wagner’s report deflates some of the city’s suggestions, specifically pushing back on the police station on First Street West and the fire station on Second Street West, both of which he said were too expensive or impractical to meet near-term goals. Likewise the idea of providing Plaza-area charging stations ran up against the difficulty of supplying electricity to power such high-voltage chargers, and code requirements to provide a van-accessible charging station where four or fewer EV parking stalls are planned.
Only the Depot Park location proved practical, and only because a mid-2020 construction accident severed the gas line serving the Depot Park Museum. Since the gas line needs to be reconstructed anyway, it can be relocated farther from the electric panel and the panel rebuilt to allow for two L2 chargers nearby.
There was also the question of who such publicly-available and city-financed charging stations would benefit. While much of Sonoma’s economy is built around tourism, it’s a day-trip or weekend destination for most, said Wagner, and with the increasing range of all-electric vehicles, many visitors from the Bay Area may not even need to recharge their vehicles.
With the increased usage of gas-electric hybrid or electric-only vehicle sales, many car owners do much of their charging at home, either with a slow Level 1 charger that operates off a regular household 110-volt electrical circuit; or an enhanced Level 2 charger that runs on a 220-240 volt current (as do many electric stoves), which may need to be specifically installed for that purpose.
Among 2021 models, a Tesla S has a range of 379 miles, a Kia e-Niro of 282 miles, a Hyundai Kona of 287 and the Nissan Leaf of 239 miles, with several other models offering a range above or approaching 200 miles.
Wagner focused on three opportunities: adding EV chargers to the parking area near Depot Park; upgrading the pre-existing EV chargers in the East Napa Street parking lot – one of which is no longer functioning, and the other nearing the end of its viable lifespan (10 years); and installing workplace chargers for city employees, probably at the “corporation yard” on Eighth Street East. This would fit in with another city goal, to create an all-electric city fleet to help reduce the city’s carbon footprint of greenhouse gas emissions.
Another tactic, Wagner said, is to pursue an arrangement with Tesla to piggy-back on the company’s plan for eight new “super-chargers” for its network, tentatively planned for the Sonoma Community Center. Tesla chargers are the fastest available but they work only with Tesla vehicles (although Tesla owners have an adapter that allows them to use non-Tesla chargers as well). The plan is for the city to pay installation costs for two Level 2 chargers at the Tesla station, with the electric vehicle and clean energy company paying for the electric infrastructure to support them.
Finally, Wagner proposed developing a city-funded grant program to encourage homeowners or builders to develop additional charging stations through matching grants or a rebate program.
Should the city council approve, such a program could become up and running in July. It would coincide with the CALeVIP rebate program, administered through Sonoma Clean Power, that offers rebates for EV charger installation, with a higher rebate at multi-family dwelling units. “Thus, it is possible that with both programs, there would be very little cost to the charger host for L2 chargers,” said Wagner.
Additional opportunities include working with California State Parks to promote installation of high-speed L2 chargers at the Casa Grande and Vallejo Home parking lots.
The next step is for Wagner to take the commission’s recommendations back to the city council this spring so they can become part of the city’s budget planning for fiscal 2021-2022.
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