Employees at General Motors' plant in White Marsh have an unusual workplace benefit. Anyone who drives an electric car can plug it in to charge while they work.
At the plant, which produces transmissions and electric motors, workers can park their electric vehicles — or EVs — in any of eight spaces under two solar-powered canopies in the employee lot.
"You encourage the use of EVs and give employees some benefit," said William Tiger, plant manager for General Motors Baltimore Operations.
It's not surprising that an automaker that makes plug-in electric vehicles is emerging as a leader in working to expand charging stations for consumers, starting with its own workers at company facilities in Maryland and elsewhere. But now other large employers are joining efforts to boost workplace EV charging, including Verizon, Google, 3M, GE and Eli Lilly and Co.
"We've got industry acknowledging that this is a mode of transportation for the future, and they're taking action to start to lay the groundwork," said Jill Sorensen, executive director of the Baltimore-Washington Electric Vehicle Initiative, a five-year-old nonprofit that works with local governments and businesses to promote use of electric vehicles.
Plug-in electric vehicles have been on the market only a couple of years, including all-electric models such as the Nissan Leaf and hybrids, which have small gas engines, such as the Chevy Volt. But last year, EV sales tripled, with Americans buying more than 50,000 electric cars. Automakers, counting on an increasing appetite for vehicles that can be refueled at home and for about a quarter of the cost of gas, plan to debut another 15 electric and hybrid electric vehicles in the next two years.
In the meantime, public charging stations have been cropping up — about 5,000 are available nationwide, the U.S. Department of Energy said. About 600 of those are in Maryland, Sorensen said, including at mass transit stations, universities, public garages and retailers such as Target and Walgreens. The workplace is seen as the next frontier.
Last month, the Energy Department unveiled the Workplace Charging Challenge, an initiative to boost the number of U.S. companies offering the benefit from about 50 to about 500 in five years. The plan stems from the government's EV Everywhere program, which aims to make EVs as affordable and convenient as conventional vehicles over the next decade.
Among employers, the concept "is not particularly prevalent right now, but there are great benefits that can be realized through workplace charging," said Pat Davis, director of the Energy Department's Vehicle Technologies Office. "Where is a place people spend a lot of time with their vehicles? The workplace is No. 2 [after residences], so the workplace becomes a charging opportunity."
Charging at work is seen as convenient because it can take some EVs six to eight hours to fully charge, using a standard 110-volt socket (less time with higher voltage offered at some stations). Hybrid electric cars can usually go about 40 miles fully charged, while some all-electric models can run up to 100 miles fully charged.
Companies that install the stations have done so to support corporate sustainability efforts and to attract and retain employees, Davis said. The hope is that companies that sign on to the Energy Department's challenge will be seen as trailblazers at a time when most consumers are still unfamiliar with EVs.
"Most people have never driven one," Davis said, so seeing a co-worker drive one can be a "visible demonstration of how these vehicles can work for you."
The first companies to join the workplace challenge include automakers, utilities and tech companies that already offer some stations, as well as companies still exploring the idea, Davis said. All have pledged within six months to assess the demand for workplace charging at at least one major company location and to install stations to serve those needs.
Since launching the program, the Energy Department has been approached by dozens of companies and expects the number involved in the challenge will grow, Davis said.
Verizon, which joined the challenge, sees workplace charging as an additional step the company can take toward energy efficiency, said John Columbus, a spokesman. The company already uses alternative-fuel vehicles, including electric-powered vans, in its service fleet, he said. The company plans to evaluate which facilities have the greatest number of workers driving electric vehicles and install charging stations where they would get the most use.
Its goal is to double the number of charging stations at its facilities by 2015. Verizon did not disclose how many charging stations it has now, but currently it has none in Maryland.
"This is about enhancing what we're doing for employees who are making eco-friendly choices," Columbus said.
GM has 239 charging stations for its workers at company facilities, mainly in Michigan and California, but also the eight in White Marsh, said Britta Gross, director of advanced vehicle commercialization policy for the automaker. It has hundreds more at Chevy dealerships and for testing purposes at plants, she said.
"Our goal is to keep pace with the purchase of the vehicles by our employees," Gross said.
Gross said strong sales of GM's electric vehicles have shown consumers like the cars. "The sales are starting to look really powerful, so now the question is what more can we do to ready the marketplace to commercialize the electric vehicle. Workplace infrastructure is really important. That is where we're at right now."
GM installed its charging stations at the White Marsh plant about 18 months ago. So far, the spaces are getting limited use. But demand is expected to increase among employees, and GM plans to add four more charging stations to the parking lot of a newly completed plant on site where workers have begun to phase in production of electric motors for the Chevy Spark EV. GM plans to introduce the all-electric car in several weeks.
Tiger, the plant manager, has been driving a Chevy Volt for several weeks and has begun using the charging station. He said he's used about a gallon of gas a week in the hybrid electric.
"It takes 10 seconds to plug it in and unplug it," Tiger said of his Volt. "It's easy and convenient to do. You can't mess it up."