Howard County revs up electric car infrastructure

Howard County revs up electric car infrastructure

During the past year, Karsten Dahms has driven about 17,000 miles. His total gas bill over that period of time, however, stands at just $220.

Dahms drives a Chevrolet Volt, an electric car with a 38-mile battery range that can switch to gas when its electric power source is exhausted.

"The biggest beauty of an electric car is my 'gas tank' is full every morning," says Dahms, who charges his car overnight "like you would a cell phone."

In recent years, Howard County has been working to create an infrastructure for the growing number of electric vehicle owners like him.

There are 436 plug-in vehicles owned in Howard County as of September 2014, according to statistics from the Motor Vehicle Administration and the Maryland Department of Transportation. That number breaks down to 107 all-electric vehicles, like the well-known, costly Tesla; and 329 plug-in hybrids, like Dahms' Volt.

To charge their cars on-the-go, electric car drivers currently have their pick of just shy of 40 public charging stations at 14 locations in the county.

That number has been steadily climbing since Howard's first electric vehicle charging station was installed at the county's Thomas Dorsey building in Columbia three years ago, in the fall of 2011.

A recent County Council bill, passed during a pre-election voting session in late October, will add two new charging stations to the parking lot of the George Howard building, the county's headquarters in Ellicott City. The electric "pumps," which will be powered by solar panels, will join four charging stations already on the property.

There are charging stations popping up on private property, as well.

Just last week, several stations opened in the parking lot of Trader Joe's grocery store in Elkridge; and the new Whole Foods on the Columbia lakefront, which opened its doors this summer, also has a few for customers.

Another private sector-installed charging spot is at Maple Lawn, a residential, retail and office development in the southeastern county. One recent Saturday morning, a group of electric vehicle enthusiasts – those within the community shorten the term to EVs – met at Sidamo Coffee and Tea, a Maple Lawn cafe, to talk about cars.

Dahms was among the group, the MD Volt Inc. Meetup, which has members across the state.

Dahms lives in Rockville but works in Howard County as a computer programmer at Elite Spice on Route 1. He frequently powers up at a pump in the Supreme Sports parking lot in Columbia. "They love me" at the Starbucks next door, he jokes.

Mark Czajka, a Waldorf resident who started the MD Volt group, said many electric car owners are drawn to shopping centers where it's possible to charge the car while shopping or dining.

Friends of his, he said, "come to Maple Lawn to have dinner specifically because of the charging stations."

"I think more businesses need to catch up," said Dave Davidson, another member of the MD Volt group. The Glen Burnie resident makes it a point to shop at My Organic Market, where he can charge his Nissan Leaf while he spends $50 to $60 on groceries.

"I look at [charging stations] as advertising" for businesses, he said.

Electric vehicle infrastructure is "pretty good" in the Baltimore, Washington and Annapolis metropolitan regions, Davidson added, while he thinks the situation in western and southern Maryland, where there are fewer charging stations – which drivers can find using mobile and online apps such as Plugshare – is "not so good."

"We've got a ways to go," Jessup resident and MD Volt Meetup attendee Kwame Akoto said of Howard's EV infrastructure. He drives a Tesla, which he charges during the day in his office parking lot in Baltimore County.

Still, Akoto said, "I've found places [in Howard] where I didn't expect to see chargers."

Beyond expanding infrastructure, the next frontier for a county like Howard is to ensure that non-EV drivers don't park in charging spots, says electric car advocate Lanny Hartman, a Columbia resident.

Hartman worked with Councilwoman Jen Terrasa, a Democrat from District 3, to introduce legislation to prohibit non-electric cars from parking in spaces designated as recharging stations.

The law went into effect in September, making Howard just the second county in the state, after Montgomery, to allow for regulation of parking in charging station parking spots. But, Hartman said, "unfortunately, really no place has put up signs" yet to enforce the law.

Dahms said simply making people aware that parking in a space next to a charging station prevents a driver from using it could help make a difference. "We don't block a gas pump," he said. "Please don't block our charging station."

"It's really about getting effective signage," Hartman said, adding that he hoped that would be the next step in Howard's EV infrastructure expansion.

"But," he said, "it's all new. We're all still learning the ropes."

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