U. welcomes electric cars, but wants them charged elsewhere
Law student Rodrigo Sagebin leased an electric Nissan Leaf this fall, assuming the University of Utah would accommodate students and employees who get around in low-emission vehicles.
The university's climate action plan, after all, embraces electric vehicles, or EVs, as a way to help achieve "carbon neutrality" and features photos of a charging station and electric vehicles already used to move staff around campus. It describes the stations as a "near term" goal.
But more than two years after the plan was adopted, the university has yet to establish charging stations for students and employees' personal vehicles, citing regulatory and bureaucratic obstacles.
Meanwhile, Sagebin's request to charge his Leaf with an extension cord at the U.'s East Village apartments, where he lives with his wife and young daughter, was met with a terse reply that cord charging is forbidden. Housing officials intend to fine him $30 every time he is caught running a cord the 20 feet from his parking place to a building outlet.
"The irony is huge," said Sagebin. The university publicizes its commitment to sustainability, he points out, yet hasn't installed the necessary infrastructure nor found an interim solution for him as an "early adopter" who lives in campus housing. But there are legitimate safety and practical considerations, according to Rick James, director of University Student Apartments.
"Our concern is the liability of it. What if someone tripped over it or the snow plow pulled the plug out of the car? There are so many things that can happen with a cord running over a lawn. We are trying to figure out something, but today we don't have a solution."
Sagebin argued that officials could install outlets on lampposts beside the parking lot, but James believes rigging such an outlet would be far more complicated.
"He knew when he moved in there weren't charging facilities," James said. "This 'easy thing to fix' can't be fixed in one day."
The next problem is figuring how to recoup the cost of the electricity EV-owning students would draw. Giving away the power would raise another set of problems, officials say.
"Would we have to provide other tenants gasoline for their cars?" James asked.
Sagebin noted that regularly recharging a Leaf would draw a similar amount of power as a dryer or other appliances tenants are allowed to bring to university apartments.
One reason the U. hasn't installed 240-volt recharging stations on campus is that Utah law allows only regulated utilities to sell power, according to Myron Willson, director of the Office of Sustainability. Officials would like stations where customers swipe a credit card, but that would require a change in the law.
"When they made the law there was no idea that people would want to resell electricity. So anyone who sells any amount of electricity will be regulated like a utility and that's crazy," said Sarah Wright of Utah Clean Energy. Wright and others have asked the Legislature to consider a measure to exempt EV charging stations, but a bill has yet to be drafted.
"The regulation is impeding the market for electric vehicle charging," said Wright, noting that Colorado passed such an exemption this year.
A full charge for most consumer EVs takes about seven hours on a 240-volt system to supply electricity that would cost between 50 cents and $1.50 at Utah rates.
Vehicles can recharge on standard 120-volt systems, but it requires many more hours. A Leaf can travel about 80 miles on a full charge.
Currently free charging stations are available at a few Salt Lake City retailers.
Sagebin is hardly the first to drive an electric vehicle onto campus, but he appears to be the first who has no recharge options. University officials pledge that help is on the way. Charging stations are the lead item on the agenda for this week's meeting of the board that advises the U. president on sustainability, according to Willson.
"We need to bring everyone together to work it out," he said.
Sagebin contends revenue considerations are "a smoke screen."
"These stations are being installed all over Utah. This isn't something no one has done before. They are using these excuses to hide the fact they messed up," he said. "If I wasn't a victim, I would find it funny."
The university has obliged itself to promote electric vehicle use, so making sure EV-driving students pay for every kilowatt they pull should not be an issue, Sagebin said.
"Part of the university's mission is to set an example. Your logic is not just revenue. They pride themselves to be a pioneer in these technologies," he said.