Granite Geek: Keene Designers Imagine the Infrastructure Behind Electric Vehicles

Apr 25, 2017

In the early 1990s, a group of engineers, architects, planners and designers attempted to figure out what it would take for electric vehicles to thrive in Keene. And their ideas came pretty close to what emerged in other locations across the country more than two decades later. Granite Geek David Brooks covered this group in Keene when they first won a design contest in the early 1990s and he’s revisiting the idea now in his column this week in The Concord Monitor. He spoke with NHPR’s Peter Biello.

What did this group come up with back in the early 90s?

This was a contest prodded by California, which had zero-emission standards. Massachusetts had some as well, and it was obvious to a lot of people back then that vehicles with no tailpipe emissions would have to exist to make that happen. This was almost a quarter century ago. Back then, electric vehicles didn’t exist. There were a few demonstration models full of lead-acid batteries.

But people realized that, if yo’re going to have electric vehicles, you need infrastructure. So this contest was about designing infrastructure.

So the folks in Keene entered in the “Small City” category and they looked at what would be necessary in Keene.

And what did they think was necessary?

They thought that batteries were the bottleneck, even moreso back then. The range anxiety and concerns of an electric vehicle would have to be met, but they also realized the big benefit. Unlike gasoline or diesel cars, you have options for how to fuel electric vehicles. I have to go to the gas station now. That’s my only choice. But with an electric car, I have multiple choices.

So they set up what they called “parallel activities”—ways you can charge during different activities in life. There’s the home charge. Then there’s the medium level charges, which are the most interesting, and then the large-scale chargers, envisioned as a multi-fuel station, where you could get gas or electrons to put in your electric car. And they designed it—really nice stuff they did—put it down Route 9 and, you know, home chargers, and then all the ones for the downtown.

And how close did this idea come to the reality that we see in some locations today?

One thing about this is that they said all this would happen by 2005.

Not quite.

Didn’t quite make it. And they said that if this happened, roughly 15 percent of the cars on the road would be electric. That’s off by an order of magnitude. This wasn’t a prediction, but they did say that, within these parameters, this could happen.

This has mostly not happened, with one exception. When you drive around, you see almost no public charging stations. You don’t pull into a gas station to see an electric option. People who have bought electric cars, usually a Leaf or a Tesla, will have some sort of charging at home. So that aspect has happened.

But the intermediate ones—there’s a few, for example, hotels, a few restaurants that have some electric charging that you can do while you’re there, eating, but not much.

But that middle level was most interesting.

Middle level being…

Being: going downtown, how can you charge up your car while you’re shopping, and how can you use this to revitalize downtown. Remember, this was the early 1990s, when what they called the “Walmart Juggernaut” was helping to kill downtowns, so they saw this as a way to bring people back downtown.

They designed several clever options, including putting them on inertial reels up high on streetlights, so when you pull into your parking spot on the street, you can just pull the reel down and plug in your car and charge right there. Keene also has some funky little alleyways and they designed what I think of as down in Texas, the “Brew Thrus” where you drive through and get beer. In this case, you’d get electricity in this covered alleyway. It would be charged up and driven out when you’re done shopping.

So they had a number of options like that and developed a logo. A consistent look would help people identify these electric charging stations.

You mention that there’s a chicken and egg situation that drives the dollars and cents behind electric cars. Which comes first? The cars, or the infrastructure to support the cars?

That’s why the only thing that exists is from Tesla. Tesla has done the latter. They’ve managed to convince these venture capitalists to give them bazillions of dollars, so they said they’d just build the infrastructure and that will cause people to buy Teslas. That’s why the only places you can get these multi-fuel stations they envisioned nearly 25 years ago is by the Hooksett welcome center. You can get your gas and see six Tesla charging stations. Trouble is, those are only for Teslas. They won’t work for your Leaf or the Chevy Bolt, which is a really interesting electric car coming out.

So nobody else has done this yet. Nobody else has decided to cough up all the bucks to solve that chicken and egg problem. So that’s a real obstacle.