- Associated Press - Monday, February 23, 2015

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - A metallic monolith appeared outside Unity Church-Unitarian in St. Paul late last year, as if sent from outer space. Aliens had nothing to do with the hulking apparition - but it did have a powerful purpose.

The Summit-University congregation, which prides itself on being eco-friendly as part of its spirituality, has become a public electric-car charging location. In fact, this church is now one of eight such places in or near the Twin Cities with a new and superfast (albeit monolithic) battery-charging station.

This is a big deal for electric-car drivers, who would normally have to wait hours at slower charging stations to get a meaningful battery charge - maybe synchronizing work or nearby errands with the charging time.

But at Unity Church, electric-car owners can swoop into the parking lot, jack the vehicles into the monolith and sip Guatemalan coffee in the church for roughly 20 to 30 minutes while their batteries get replenished. Still admittedly longer than a stop at the gas pump, it fills a need for those who choose to drive electric.

The technology helps defeat so-called “range anxiety,” the mental anguish that out-and-about electric-car owners feel as their batteries run low. And Unity Church members feel a surge of pride about helping to fulfill their spiritual goal.

“This is part of the church’s mission, to honor the web of existence, and to walk softly on the Earth,” Dale Howey, a Unity Church member and eco-conscious Minneapolis landlord, told the St. Paul Pioneer Press (https://bit.ly/1AaDasx ).

Howey is among a core group of electric-vehicle owners and clean-energy entrepreneurs in the Twin Cities who are preaching the gospel of the “fast charger.”

Such speedy chargers have been available elsewhere in the country and the world for a while. They have just begun appearing in the Twin Cities. St. Paul’s Macalester College and the University of Minnesota each have one of the faster chargers. So does a Minneapolis gasoline station, an Eden Prairie car dealership and an electric-utility cooperative in Ramsey.

Howey has installed a fast charger at a downtown Minneapolis apartment complex that he owns, and was instrumental in having the church charger installed. The chargers run about $40,000 to $50,000, but the church defrayed part of that cost with an auto-industry subsidy and proceeds from a big raffle (the grand prize was an electric car).

More fast chargers are coming to the Twin Cities in relatively short order, said Matthew Blackler of Zef Energy, the Minneapolis company largely responsible for this effort. He declined to be more specific, citing customer confidentiality.

All the fast chargers are open to the public and can be accessed with the use of a key fob or phone app associated with car-charging service provider. A charging session typically runs $3 to $5, a bargain compared to getting a full gas tank.

Not every electric car can use the faster chargers. Some lack the required quick-charger circuitry. Examples of electric cars that are incompatible with fast chargers include the Ford Focus EV, the Mercedes B-Class EV and the Chevrolet Volt, which is a hybrid vehicle that includes gasoline propulsion as a backup.

Fast-charger-compatible cars range from the relatively affordable Nissan Leaf to luxury Tesla models.

The chargers are increasingly important as the number of Minnesota electric-car owners passes 3,000, said Jukka Kukkonen, a former Ford Finland engineer who helps run a local electric-car association called the MN Plug-In Vehicle Owners’ Circle. That group has about 400 people on its mailing list. A Facebook group associated with the local group has 292 members.

Most electric-car charging occurs in owners’ homes, said Kukkonen, but the public fast chargers “are a good option for getting a quick top-off when needed. This mitigates that range anxiety and encourages owners to use their cars more. It is nice to know the chargers are available even if in reality they’re not used much.”

Fast chargers are particularly important in Minnesota, where electric cars expend a lot of energy keeping their cabins warm and can run out of juice more quickly, said Ralph Jenson of Minneapolis, who drives a Nissan Leaf.

The zippier chargers’ performance improvement over the existing network of about 127 slower chargers is pretty dramatic, Jenson said.

The regular 240-volt chargers would take about two hours to charge the Leaf’s battery about 50 percent while a conventional 120-volt wall outlet would take roughly 10 hours, he said. By comparison, the new 480-volt fast chargers would do it in 20 to 30 minutes.

“My Leaf can go from 30 percent charge to 80 percent charge in 20 minutes instead of taking three hours,” he noted. “You can get a pretty decent charge even in 10 minutes - you just stop for a cup of coffee.”

Blackler, who also has a Leaf, said he manages about 103 miles on a full charge during the summer, and an average of 70 to 80 miles in the winter. On extremely cold days, he might eke out only 50 miles with the cabin heater on full.

Jenson said he sees roughly comparable range in the summer and winter.

A separate network of fast chargers can be found in and around the Twin Cities, and on interstates nationwide, but these are available only to users of luxury electric cars made by Tesla Motors.

The famed Palo Alto, California-based company, founded by entrepreneur and investor Elon Musk, has made deals with a trio of Twin Cities luxury hotels to install Tesla-ready chargers for use only by guests, who are advised to consult with the valet for access.

And for those headed out on cross-country journeys, the company has been building out a network of Supercharger stations that can get a Tesla Model S sedan to an 80 percent charge in 40 minutes. That’s enough juice to get the car to the next Supercharger station on the route. There are now Superchargers near Albert Lea and Worthington in Minnesota, and near Eau Claire and La Crosse in Wisconsin.

The Supercharger network is what permitted Blaine retiree Mark Hanson to hit the road with his wife in one of their three Teslas on a transcontinental odyssey to California and back, last summer, with each leg along a different freeway route.

“It was lovely,” he said. “The Superchargers are about 130 miles apart, so you drive for a couple of hours, then pull in. There’s no card to run, no payment. All you do is plug your car in, grab a bite to eat and stretch your legs.”

But Hanson notes that gaps in the Supercharger infrastructure mean that, for instance, he still can’t get from Minnesota to Texas.

“I can make it down to Illinois and St. Louis, but not much further south,” he said.

For Tesla Model S motorists who are extra-impatient, the car maker is unveiling robotic battery-swap stations that will quickly replace the sedan’s flat, low-slung battery instead of juicing up the depleted one. Battery swaps on a trial basis are now available between San Francisco and Los Angeles, Tesla Motors said. This service isn’t free like the Supercharger stations, but takes less time than filling a gas tank.

Teslas also are able to use the non-Tesla fast chargers, such as the one at St. Paul’s Unity Church - or any other existing electric-car charger.

The non-Tesla fast chargers haven’t been met with universal acclaim. When the hulking, upright box appeared alongside Unity Church’s building, some congregation members balked. They compared the contraption to “a big, overstuffed refrigerator,” said Barbara Hubbard, the church’s executive director.

So Hubbard is planning to move the fast charger to a different parking lot location, and entertaining the notion of decking the apparatus in a silkscreened vinyl wrap with children’s drawings and poems.

This is all for a higher cause, as delineated in the church’s strategic plan, Hubbard said.

“A stated value of the church is supporting the use of resources in a way that will create a sustainable world,” she said.


Information from: St. Paul Pioneer Press, https://www.twincities.com

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