What Makes A Town An "EV Town" — Normal & Others Show Leadership

EV fleet car in Normal, Illinois.How come Normal, Illinois–about 150 miles south of Chicago–has ten times as many electric vehicles per capita than the U.S. average? (You’re right; it’s not just coincidence.)

A coalition of business, industry, nonprofits, all levels of government, and farsighted individuals has converged to transform Normal into an EV town.

And it’s not an exclusive community. The 300 or so plug-in cars loved by the small city come from all the major 100% emissions-free manufacturers, including Nissan, Tesla, Mitsubishi, Ford, and Chevy. And 276 of these are non-fleet cars, having one- or two-car owners. It’s not a corporate thing. There’s a wealth of local chargers, including almost 50 level 2 facilities, a CHAdeMO DC quick charge unit, and five long-term Tesla Supercharger stations. All the juice they supply is currently free, though that policy may change as the number of EVs increases.

By now, most of us understand the basic lure of the 21st century’s remake of Henry Ford’s triumphal motorcar. The electric vehicle has it all over gas-guzzlers. It helps slow drastic change in the world environment due to climate change. It also reinforces the national benefits of not using fossil fuels, with their huge cost fluctuations, uncertain international supply constraints, and unfortunate association with modern warfare.

More importantly, from many owners’ point of view, is the fact that electrics save a lot of money. Though diehards often cite battery life and driving range as disadvantages, battery technology is improving daily, and both leasing and long warranties are evening out the cost picture. Electric vehicles are starting to have greater dependability built in. With an electric car, fuel and maintenance expenses drop dramatically. A simpler drive train and braking system cut down on the need for repairs. The ride involves better performance in many ways, less stress, less noise, and less air pollution for driver and passengers as well as those of us outside the vehicle.

What makes all-electrics almost irresistible in this particular area of central Illinois?

It’s not only the federal government provision of an individual income tax credit of up to $7,500, and the less well-known incentives to business for charger development (which can total up to 30% of the price of charging stations).

Other substantial benefits to individual users come from state and local actions. Illinois offers a tax rebate that can equal 10% of an EV’s retail price, up to a maximum of $4,000. Also, the state’s Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity rebates installers of level 2 electric vehicle charging stations. Sales taxes also involve a rebate.

Additionally, the city of Normal waives the electric permit fee for local public or private charging stations and provides excellent EV infrastructure. Normal used grants to purchase the level 2 stations throughout the town and install the quick charge unit, and this year approved the Tesla Supercharger stations, which Tesla pays for. Because city officials believe that installing and maintaining a payment system isn’t justified yet by the relatively small number of EVs using the stations, owner charging is currently free.

Also, to direct public awareness, a coalition of government, corporate, business, and private citizens has sponsored an “EVTown Initiative.” You can see the EVTown video, which describes the partnership, below. EVTown does not endorse any vehicle or related electric vehicle supply equipment. In September, area electric vehicle drivers and enthusiasts gathered at an EV tailgate party at the Parks and Recreation parking lot for the third annual National Plug-In Day, an unofficial holiday celebrated by about 100 cities throughout the U.S.

Even the Normal Fire Department has its own EV.Even the Normal fire department has its own EV (photo: EVTown gallery).

As for the players, Mayor Koos attributes a large part of EVTown’s success to strong support by community and business leaders. “Mitsubishi, Illinois State University, Country Financial, and State Farm have all been present at the table from the start and have furthered the initiative by hosting charging stations, providing monetary support, and being ambassadors for EVTown.”

We should probably start with Mitsubishi–although not for the reasons you might think. Since 1985, Normal has been home to Mitsubishi Motors’ only passenger car assembly plant in North America. The Japanese automaker ranks sixth in workforce numbers (1,294) among local employers. Workers at the MMNA facility have assembled twelve different models of Mitsubishi cars–but not the i-MiEV, the star of the company’s electric vehicles and rated “the most efficient car Consumer Reports has tested” in early 2013, nor any other EV. And the Mitsubishi plant does not make lithium-ion batteries, either.

No, at Normal, Mitsubishi manufactures cars that burn gas. The Normal facility has other environmental credentials, however, including use of lead-free (EDP) base coat for automobile bodies and fully-recyclable polypropylene plastic; lowered volatile organic chemical emissions, water discharge of heavy metals, and CO2 emissions over the past decade; and preservation and restoration of plant and wildlife habitats around the Normal facility. Internationally, Mitsubishi has pioneered not only EV development but also new energy businesses like gas-to-liquid and biofuels.

Although the company’s Energy business segment (largely based on fossil fuels) is twice as large as its Machinery group, which includes the motor vehicle division, the consolidated net income for Machinery experienced a 60% gain over the past six months, compared to a 5% earnings increase for Energy. Also, Mitsubishi prides itself on activity “in a number of areas that help to combat global warming and secure sustainable supplies of energy, such as our renewable energy and emissions reduction businesses,” smart community projects, and manufacture of lithium-ion batteries. However, the company sees its overall strategic growth markets in nations such as Indonesia, China, and Russia, rather than the U.S.

Mitsubishi employees make up only a small fraction of the Illinois workforce, but their contribution is important to the state’s economy. Democratic Governor Pat Quinn (whose profile includes other environmentally conscious decisions, with the exception of edginess about the downstate’s interest in coal) cemented the relationship between Illinois and Mitsubishi by supporting American EV sales through the forward-looking state fiscal policies above.

Three other large contributors to clean transportation and environmental health in Illinois are State Farm Insurance, which is headquartered in Normal’s partner city of Bloomington and employs 15,000 people; Illinois State University, which has 20,000 students and almost 1,500 faculty, as well as other employees, in Normal itself; and Country Financial (CC Services and Country Insurance & Financial Services), a group of U.S. insurance and financial services companies with corporate headquarters in Bloomington.

State Farm has the third-largest nongovernmental alternative fuel fleet, as measured by Automotive Fleet magazine in 2010, and has cut its overall greenhouse gas emissions by 46% in the past decade. It has a motto of “A good neighbor is a green neighbor™” and positions itself as committed to “a future where environmental solutions are key to the way we do business.”

Illinois State University, founded 150 years ago as the first public university in the state, has been known for going green for at least 30 years. In 2006, the Illinois Green Governing Coordinating Council awarded ISU the Green Government Award for its efforts in energy efficiency and overall general achievements. The school established its Office of Sustainability at the Director level in 2010. Last December, Illinois State University was chosen over other educational institutions in the state for the Governor’s Green Award for Energy Efficiency and Conservation.

Country Financial, which began in 1925 as an agricultural organization providing fire and lightning insurance for farmers and has grown to serve clients in 14 states and offer products and services virtually nationwide, has 2,669 employees in Bloomington. Like State Farm, the highly rated company has provided the EVTown initiative with task force membership and active participation in its marketing and other decisions. A Country agent cosponsored the Normal National Plug-In Day event this fall.

Individual contributions

We’ve already noted some far-seeing central Illinoisians for supporting the EVTown Initiative. Key among them is the former city council member and longtime mayor of Normal, Chris Koos, whose current term runs until 2017.

Mayor Koos of Normal IL driving his personal EVHere’s the mayor driving his own family car.

Koos has green credentials dating back to the late 20th century, when he invested in and later bought the Vitesse Cycle Shop, which is the premier Trek and Giant bicycle dealer in central Illinois. An avid cyclist himself, Koos then established Often Running, a retail specialty business that sells sporting goods, especially running and jogging supplies. Since his first election 12 years ago, Mayor Koos has nurtured the city’s interest in clean energy and environmental responsibility.

Other civic leaders embrace the shift toward electric vehicles and back the EVTown Initiative. Momentum has also come from the educated and forward-looking perspective of a heavily academic community. Finally, individual car dealers have jumped on Normal’s EV bandwagon by offering near-irresistible lease deals on electric cars.

Potential for local EV use in other metropolitan areas

Normal, Illinois, is not alone in having characteristics that make a community and EV ownership a good fit. Just this past week, Mayor Cecil Gutierrez of Loveland, Colorado, a city similar in size to Normal that lies 46 miles north of Denver, announced a recent finding that Loveland’s current fleet of Nissan LEAFs saves his city money–about 41% overall compared to gas-powered vehicles. The city plans to add four more EVs to its fleet by the end of 2014 and eventually convert all of its light-duty fleet within a close distance of the city to EVs.

Olympia, Washington, the state capital and a major cultural center (pop. 46,478), just joined a long-term lease program that will bring more electric vehicles to its municipal fleet. A two-year arrangement with Nissan signals Olympia’s push to accommodate more electric vehicles in the public and private sectors. The city will obtain six Nissan LEAFs under a Municipal Lease Program. So far, three of the vehicles are on the road with three more coming in 2014.

With a smaller population (15,751) but part of the huge entertainment complex of greater metropolitan Orlando, Maitland, Florida, just voted to add an plug-in hybrid electric Chevy Volt to its fleet in the city’s first venture into alternative energy sources. Public Works Director Rick Lemke expects the Volt to save the city about $14,000 in gas and maintenance over its estimated 10-year life span.

Also last week, and at the other side of the population scale, city officials in fourth-ranked Houston, Texas, released a study that estimated the city’s 27 Nissan LEAF cars will save the city $110,000 annually compared to gas-powered vehicles. More are planned because of this pilot program’s success. The city has also installed 77 level 2 and 32 level 1 charging stations. Says Laura Spanjian, the city’s director of sustainability, “our new car sharing program FleetShare, which we developed with ZipCar, provides easy access to the vehicles for Houston’s employees.”

Lessons from the experience in Normal

The combination of factors that led to the Illinois city’s redefinition of “Normal” is hardly unique. It does not depend on the Mitsubishi connection. A few key factors contributing to Normal’s adoption of electric vehicles:

• 425 lane miles of streets
• Compact area of service (which includes Bloomington)
• Several large, eco-conscious corporate citizens
• Creative use of green funding opportunities
• Diverse employment base
• Environmentally aware population
• Leadership proactive about encountering change.

As stated succinctly in Green Car Reports, “Normal officials believe even a small amount of plug-in cars can make a bigger impact in a small town than they can in a big city.”

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