08/06/2012 04:13 pm ET Updated Oct 06, 2012

Half a Million Dollars in Tax Money Wasted, Electric Cars Delayed

It was a really good idea. One that would be a step in reducing our carbon emissions and dependence on oil. But the implementation essentially threw the money away -- $425,080 in federal funds and $167,000 in City of Boulder funds. (And odds are, this wastage has occurred in most of the other cities that made use of this program.)


Worse than the half million thrown away, the giant shame is that this has slowed the adoption of electric vehicles. A program that was intended to accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles has instead become a boondoggle that has no impact other than to purchase products and work that is not used.

The federal government had a great idea. Electric vehicles suffer from a chicken and egg problem -- without chargers people won't buy electric vehicles. Without electric vehicles cities and businesses won't install chargers. So the feds provided funds to install chargers. Great idea. The entire Denver metro area only needs about 40 chargers, in the appropriate locations, to solve this issue.

(Note: EV owners have a charger at home and therefore leave the house each morning with a full charge. They rarely need a charge, only when they travel more than 82 miles in a day. That's why solving this issue only requires a small number of chargers.)

Wasteful Requirements Added

So the City of Boulder (unofficial City motto: if it says green we'll do it) applied for and received approval from the DOE. With a project scope (page 1) that includes:

Some locations for charging stations will also be connected to existing and planned installations of solar photovoltaic systems along with battery storage systems.

With this requirement, it insured that three-quarters of the funds will be applied, not to seeding EV chargers, but to installing a small solar power and battery at each location. Why on earth did they do this? An EV charger requires a standard 220v 20amp power source. The same thing the refrigerator in your house has. Building solar panels and a battery specifically for that one 220v outlet is horribly inefficient and completely unnecessary.

And the wastage doesn't end there. The cost to the City to install a pair of chargers at a single location is (page 3) $34,176. Keep in mind this is basically running conduit and wiring for plugs for two refrigerators. When I had a charger installed in my garage (same requirements) the cost was less than $700 for labor and materials. So say $1,400 for two. The City spent four times that amount just on project management (which was probably someone driving out and going "yep, they work").

Location, Location, Location

And all of that is irrelevant. Because the City placed the chargers where no one would use them. That's right, after all that money and effort, the end result is the same as if they had done nothing. Half a million down the drain. Why?

Remember that Electric Vehicles are charged at home and so they leave the house every morning with a full charge. Unlike a gas-powered car, an EV owner will never be charging close to home. A Boulder resident does not need a charger in Boulder, he or she needs one when they drive 35-plus miles somewhere outside of the City and need a charge while they are elsewhere. So chargers are not needed at rec centers, libraries, city hall, supermarkets, drug stores, or any other local residents-only destination. And where did Boulder choose to place them?

So for the public charging locations, we have plans to put chargers at our rec centers, the municipal building (city hall) and at a downtown garage on Pearl Street since they have or will have solar pV and are tied to the Smart Grid.

Clearly they did not talk to anyone who understands where/when EVs need to be charged. And so they figured they were like gas-powered cars and sites based on that erroneous assumption. This is akin to newspapers assuming they could put their classified ads on the web and compete with Craigslist. How bad did they get it? They are reporting that over the last 60 days the two chargers installed at East Boulder Rec (the only ones installed so far) have been used a total of three times, each time for under an hour.

To repeat, forgetting the solar panels, batteries, overhead, etc., just the direct install cost of $34,176 has had a ROI over two months of $3. That's an ROI of 0.0001 percent. Of course I'm being unfair to only look at two months. If we spread that out to five years than that pushes it up to an ROI of ... uh ... 0.003 percent. This is pathetic.

Okay, they made a dumb mistake, but the City was watching how it was being used so they could learn going forward and adjust -- right? Actually, no. When I asked for this information I was told:

I received your request, referenced above, on July 16, 2012. Under the City's policy on Access to Public Records, you will need to pay the attendant costs. I estimate the cost of research, retrieval, compilation at 4 hours @ $35 will be $140.

They apparently never intend to actually look at usage. (Also, four hours to find it was used three times? Really? Suggestion for the city -- go to Reporting Software Info and get a system to automate this.) Rather, they were going to continue merrily on their way. And in fact may well choose to continue with their present plan even with this additional knowledge (I have a question in to them).

What Next?

We're now another year down the road and the fundamental problem of no chargers still exists. Even worse, Electric Vehicle sales are slowing down, in large part because there are no chargers located to enable long trips. I, like most Leaf owners, get asked three to five times a week by someone about to get a new car if they should look at the Leaf. And I have to tell them that at present, only if they'll never take the car over 75 miles round trip. And I'm not the only one saying this. As far as I can tell, there is not a single EV charger in the Denver Metro area located where it would be of use. It works as a second family car if you can always use the first car for longer trips. (Longer defined as Denver International Airport if you live in Boulder.)

These chargers do need to be seeded to make EVs successful. That will require a couple of things. First, Congress needs to provide the same funds, for the same purpose, but tell the DOE to implement it competently this time. Second, the DOE needs to suppress the urge to pile on every requirement turning it into a green energy wet dream. Limit it to EV chargers. Third, local governments need to site the chargers where they are needed. And that is rarely on City property.

It's a shame that a good idea, well-funded and very needed, was turned into a total waste by poor decisions each step of the way.