NEW ORLEANS -- As a United Nations conference on climate change kicks off in Paris and world leaders call for lower carbon emissions worldwide, an Algiers Point resident is challenging the city of New Orleans to be more welcoming to zero-emissions electric cars.
Vlad Ghelase purchased an electric Nissan Leaf three weeks ago. Like most homeowners in the older parts of the city, he has no off-street parking, so he ran an extension cord from his house to his car to charge it at night.
A neighbor complained after tripping over the cord that ran across the sidewalk.
So Ghelase hired an electrician to install a curbside charging station, which sits about 4 feet high on a wooden post and connects underground to his home's electric meter. The Historic District Landmarks Commission approved the project, so Ghelase thought the electrician could proceed.
Not so, says the city. An inspector saw the finished charging station and said it was a private improvement to public land, which is not permitted. The city ordered Ghelase to remove it by the end of this week or his electricity will be shut off.
He said that's a flimsy argument when sculptures on neutral grounds, bike racks on public sidewalks, newspaper boxes on street corners and cable connections on power poles are all private improvements on public property.
"I think there's a lot stronger public interest in allowing 80 percent of the city's residents to own an electric car, more so than even getting Cox TV or looking at fish sculptures downtown," Ghelase said.
Ghelase and other alternative energy advocates say it's shortsighted for a city that has signed on to the Resilient Cities initiative to drastically cut its emissions, one that is the most endangered when it comes to sea-level rise and other impacts of global warming.
"I think Vlad's running into what any folks doing a new technology in a new market like this run into, in that they get to where the city's just never seen this before," said Jeff Cantin, whose company Solar Alternatives has an electric vehicle fleet and installed seven charging stations around town. "Fortunately we can look to other cities that are a couple years ahead of us to look, what have they done?"
Public charging stations are plentiful along the West Coast, and the city of Berkeley, Calif., has a detailed process for residents to install curbside chargers. In Philadelphia, residents and businesses can pay up to $550 to have the city parking authority install a charging unit for them and set aside an on-street parking spot.
Landrieu's press secretary, Hayne Rainey, said the city is looking into the issue, but current law does not allow residents to lease space on the curb for installing charging stations.
The lag in New Orleans is surprising because it's a progressive haven in a conservative state, Ghelase said, especially when it's the Republican-controlled State Legislature that provided a 36-percent tax credit for the purchase of electric vehicles and charging stations.
In fact, this year the Legislature voted to increase the tax credit to 50 percent for cars or systems purchased after June 30, 2018.
"It's ironic that the biggest tax credit in the country was coming from the Louisiana Legislature, one of the reddest in the country, and New Orleans, one of the most liberal cities in the country, has nothing to encourage solar panels" or electric vehicles, Ghelase said.
"They've had 10 years since the electric cars came out and became mainstream to come up with a policy to allow private curbside electric charging installs," Ghelase said.
The community of electric vehicle owners is still relatively small in New Orleans. Jeff Cantin, owner of rooftop solar installer Solar Alternatives and head of the Gulf States Renewable Energy Industries Association, said there are about 100 in the city, but the demand for charging stations is growing.
"There's getting to be a few more in town, so you see the need for more as they get more vehicles and people are asking around," Cantin said.
Solar Alternatives has helped install seven charging stations around town that use 240 Volts, including two at each of the Whole Foods locations in the city. That type of charge takes up to four hours to fully charge a typical electric vehicle, while converting the charge from a regular household 120-Volt outlet can take 12 hours for a full charge.
Solar Alternatives also helped get a donation from Nissan Motors to install the state's only DC fast-charging station at the Rouse's Market downtown. It can fully charge most electric cars – except the larger Teslas – in just 20 minutes. Those smaller cars can go about 80 miles on a full charge.
So far, most of the publicly available charging stations are free to use, with businesses like Whole Foods and Rouse's picking up the tab to provide the electricity. The basic etiquette is for the car owners to shop at the store while charging their vehicle there.
"It's interesting. You see a lot of the need for it when you go somewhere to charge and somebody's there," Cantin said. "You say, ‘Gee, I wish there was somewhere else I could go.'"
That's why privately installed charging stations on public property are so useful, Ghelase said. There's a smart phone application called the PlugShare App where anyone can find area charging stations on a map, with information about each one.
His is marked on the map with a note saying it's free to anyone, as long as he isn't using the charger at the moment.
It only takes about $1.80 worth of electricity to fully charge the typical electric car, Ghelase said, but it doesn't even cost him that much. He produces all of his household energy with his solar panels, and he said they paid for themselves years ago.
While the state's tax credit program for the nascent electric car industry is extremely generous, its progressive solar tax credit is far more popular, much more costly and therefore, about to come to an end. That's why Ghelase says it's high time for the city to step up to the plate.