UI goes green with $800k electric car charger

BY DORA GROTE | AUGUST 23, 2011 7:20 AM

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Locals will see a number of new university-owned electrical vehicles zooming around campus in the next year. And a brand-new solar/electric vehicle car charging station is one of the first steps in fueling that future fleet.

The University of Iowa is waiting to purchase more vehicles for new models to become available, but the charging station — located near the UI services building on Madison Street — is ready to go.

“The solar e-car charging station allows us to offset the power used to charge the electric vehicles with solar power,” said Liz Christiansen, the UI director of sustainability. “The facility is also a teaching tool that shows the practical application of sustainable-energy generation options.”

Polycrystalline solar modules, a type of solar panel, provide power to charge the vehicles, which can hold a charge up to three hours and travel 30 miles. The only process involved in charging the cars is to plug it in, just like charging a cell-phone battery. Eric Foresman, a UI Facilities Management energy engineer, said the department owns eight cars.

The car charging station is estimated to produce 64,00 kWh, which is enough energy to charge 37 cars. Foresman said using the cars saves the UI $9,496.64 per year in gasoline.

Once it expands to 37 cars — the total number the charging station can handle — the UI projects a total savings of $43,922 in one year’s time by switching from fuel to the solar/electric system. The 37 car would also save 166 tons of carbon emissions.

But the station is not without its costs. Funded by the Office of Energy Independence, Department of Energy, UI Facilities Management, UI Office of Sustainability, and UI Parking and Transportation, the project is expected to cost the UI a total of $866,197.81.

The College of Engineering is also partnering with Facilities Management on the project. Foresman noted that from a financial standpoint, the car charging station is not profiting the university in any way.

“… when we just count dollars, it’s a clear economic loss over an unsustainable solution,” Foresman said. “Our current economics just aren’t sophisticated enough to perceive the value of sustainability without some contortions to add in the externalizations.”

For one-tenth the price, purchasing an unsustainable generator would have been the university’s cheapest option, Foresman said. But without an unsustainable fuel supply backing that generator, “it’s a worthless hunk of rusting metal sitting in the parking lot.”

Officials would eventually like all university vehicles to be electric.

Glen Mowery, the director of Facilities Management’s utilities and energy management, originally developed the plan for the station. It was completed in January, but did not start producing electricity until March. When the cars are not charging, the power goes directly to the UI’s electric grid to help keep the university buildings running.

And cars are only the first step.

Ideally, Foresman said, all buildings will be run on solar-powered electricity one day.

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