Erika Miller of the PBS Nightly Business Report prepares to go on-air about the electric charging station at the parking lot on Ninth Avenue between 35th and 35th Streets, which hasn't been used much.

Photo by: Marc Fader

Erika Miller of the PBS Nightly Business Report prepares to go on-air about the electric charging station at the parking lot on Ninth Avenue between 35th and 35th Streets, which hasn’t been used much.

Earlier this month, at Edison’s ParkFast parking lot on 9th Avenue, Mayor Bloomberg unveiled New York’s first public electric vehicle charger, a slender silver box that looks like a futuristic gas pump. Bloomberg charged an electric Smart Car at the event and, according to Bloomberg spokesperson Jason Post, another driver used it before the press conference occurred. But for at least the next week, the car charger sat mostly idle, parking attendants say, leaving a trail of disappointed media outlets seeking a car charging photo-op.

Richard Lowenthal, the CEO of Coulomb Technologies – the Campbell, California-based firm that won a $15 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy to install the charger and about 4,600 others across the country – says he’s not surprised that few cars have started using New York’s pioneer charger. In October, several new models of electric cars are scheduled to be released, he says. But there are only about 3,000 electric cars on the road in the U.S. right now. He’s not sure how many are in New York City, but says most of them are on the west coast. “Right now, the only production highway-speed [electric] vehicle is the Tesla Roadster, but this fall we’ll see cars like the Chevy Volt, the Nissan Leaf, and the Mitsubishi I-MiEV,” he said. “This will be a very interesting October.”

In October, Chevrolet, Nissan, Smart USA and Mitsubishi are planning to roll out several new electric vehicles and a January study produced by PlaNYC predicts they will be rapidly adopted. The study, called Exploring Electric Vehicle Adoption in New York City, found that early adopters of electric vehicles would likely purchase the entire supply of available vehicles over the next five years.

“This is going to take over very quickly,” said Paul Scott, vice president of the electric vehicle advocacy group, Plug In America. “The demand for [electric cars] outpaces production for many years. Driving an electric car is so far superior to internal combustion that, once people understand it, it’s just gonna take off like wildfire.”

One of Scott’s tactics for encouraging the purchase of electric cars is appealing to patriotism. He says people who buy brand new gas-powered cars in the coming years are “bad Americans.”

“Not all Americans are necessarily what you’d call ‘good people,’” he says. “Some people would prefer to pollute our air, prefer to give money to our enemies. Some people prefer to buy oil from different countries and send a billion dollars a day out of the country. But most Americans would rather not send money out of the country, not want to give money to our enemies, and not want to pollute our environment. Those are the good Americans.”

Electric cars are objectively better for the environment, according to a study conducted by the Electric Power Research Institute and the Natural Resources Defense Council. And it’s a lot cheaper to charge one up than to fuel a conventional car. On average, the electricity to drive 25 miles costs 75 cents, whereas the gas to drive the same distance would cost, on average, about $3, according to the California Cars Initiative, a non-profit that promotes efficient plug-in hybrid electric vehicles.

The batteries of electric cars also maintain most of their capacity over time, unlike the rechargeable batteries in today’s cell phones or laptops. Most of the handful of Toyota RAV4 EVs placed on the market in 1999 are still functioning and operating at about 85 percent capacity, Lowenthal says.

But, without federal tax incentives, the cars themselves are costly. It takes a $9,500 tax credit, to drive the price of a new Nissan Leaf – which has sticker price of $32,780 and a $2,200 charger – down to $25,480. In 2009, the average total cost for a new light vehicle was $28,966, according to Paul Taylor, Chief Economist for the National Automobile Dealers Association Industry Analysis.

Another potential problem is that charging one can generally be a slow, frequent process. The gas-powered Nissan Altima and the Toyota Camry can go 540 and 481 miles on full tanks of gas respectively. But a fully charged purely electric Nissan Leaf or Smart Car can only drive 100 miles or 120 miles without recharging, respectively. When their batteries die, recharging them also takes far longer than a gas-powered car. The Nissan Leaf can recharge 80 percent of its battery in under a half hour, but car batteries generally take at least a few hours.

But Scott said that the limitations of the battery won’t affect most people, because most people don’t need to drive for 100 to 120 mile stretches. Ninety percent of Americans drive less than 50 miles per day, he says and according to the U.S. Department of Transportation, an average driver only travels 29 miles per day. They commute to work and run errands, all things Scott says an electric car can do.

“For the time being, EVs fill a huge niche in how people use cars locally,” said Chris Paine, the director of the upcoming film Revenge of the Electric Car.

Those who need to drive for long stretches at a time will be able to use the ChargePoint America network, which aims to deploy 1,100 charging stations by the end of the year and another 3,600 in 2011, Lowenthal says. But for now, electric car batteries are big enough to retain sufficient charge for the average trip, he says. “Speed of changing [fuel] of a gasoline car, sort of the 90-second refueling, I don’t think we’ll see,” he says. “Instead what we’ll see is cars with batteries that are so big, that you don’t have to do that, you know, you just charge it while you’re sleeping.”

But for now, regular gas-powered cars sit next to the charging station at the 9th Avenue parking lot, as parking attendants go about their job with a stack of business cards from reporters sitting in their booth. A swarm of media members is expected the next time someone charges up.