Portland hopes the “charging centers” will help apartment residents embrace electric vehicles

In recent years, the state has stepped up efforts to improve Maine’s limited electric vehicle charging infrastructure — especially in rural communities.

But charging can sometimes be a major challenge for city dwellers, as many residents do not have their own garages or off-street parking spaces, and are forced to rely on a limited number of public chargers.

But in Portland, local officials hope installing “neighborhood charging centers” will convince more apartment residents to use electricity.

When Nick Steinberg moved from New York to an apartment in downtown Portland about two years ago, one of his big concerns was how to charge the Tesla he parked on the street.

This story is part of our series “Climate Driven: A deep dive into Maine’s response, one county at a time“.

“And there wasn’t really a good place to charge downtown,” Steinberg said.

Even several months ago — when some new public chargers were installed — Steinberg said he would sometimes have to drive to South Portland, find a charger, shop for groceries, and kill some time.

“I’ll try to use about an hour of time to do all my grocery shopping and running errands in South Portland,” Steinberg said. “You really have to dig around. There are some dealers in the area that have Level 2 chargers. But with a Level 2 charger, for me to fill my car, if it’s really from 0% to 100%,” it takes about five or six hours. “So it’s not realistic to park somewhere where it’s not in a walkable area.”

It’s a situation that local officials say symbolizes the additional challenge cities like Portland face in transitioning to electric vehicles.

“People who live in apartments aren’t buying electric cars because they don’t feel comfortable with the combination yet,” said Sarah Mills Knapp of the Greater Portland Council of Governments.

a "Live shipping center" Electric cars on Spring Street in Portland.

Robbie Feinberg

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Who is the public?

A “live charging center” for electric vehicles on Spring Street in Portland.

Mills-Knapp said Cumberland County is currently going through what she describes as a “messy middle period” with electric vehicles. More electric vehicle chargers are being added, with the help of state and federal funding, with costs ranging from less than a thousand dollars for a home charger, to tens of thousands or more to install a public fast charger.

Officials say infrastructure is not up to scratch in cities like Portland, which has more renters and apartment owners who can’t charge their cars at home.

Part of the solution is trying to convince employers to install chargers in the office, Mills-Knapp said.

“So increasing the amount of fees, and getting employers to commit to workplace charging programs, is a big focus of ours right now. So we’re just starting a program in the state where we’re trying to recruit large employers to install charging stations in,” Mills Knapp said. Their offices, so people can charge when they get to work.”

Municipalities are also addressing this issue. Scarborough and South Portland have passed ordinances requiring new parking structures to have a certain number of chargers or spaces that are “electric vehicle capable,” meaning they are built so that chargers can be easily installed.

In recent years, some cities have launched their own large-scale charging efforts.

In a small parking lot near Portland’s East End Community School, Troy Moon, the city’s director of sustainability, shows off four electric vehicle chargers lined up on one side of the parking lot. Moon calls it a “neighborhood charging hub.”

“So the idea would be that people could come here and park during the evening, walk to their apartment or house, and then come back later and get it,” Moon said.

In a small parking lot near Portland's East End Community School, Troy Moon, the city's director of sustainability, shows off four electric vehicle chargers lined up on one side of the parking lot.  The moon calls it A "Live shipping center."

Robbie Feinberg

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Who is the public?

In a small parking lot near Portland’s East End Community School, Troy Moon, the city’s director of sustainability, shows off four electric vehicle chargers lined up on one side of the parking lot. Moon calls it a “neighborhood charging hub.”

In total, the city signed up to install 44 Level 2 chargers, as well as eight DC fast chargers.

Portland will still need more public chargers if it wants to eventually reach its climate goals, Moon said. But he hopes the effort will prompt more apartment dwellers to consider switching to electricity.

“No one will buy an electric car if they are afraid of not being able to charge it. So we want to build these charging centers around the city where there are a lot of apartments. So that people can have that convenience, so that I can buy an electric car,” Moon said. “I know I don’t have to look for a place to charge it, it will be near my house.”

It may already be working. Phyllis Reams, whose apartment overlooks the new East End charging center, said she never thought an electric vehicle was possible until the public charging center was installed.

“If I had known I would have to go somewhere else in the dead of winter to charge my car. I wouldn’t have even thought about it,” Reams said. “This is a complete game changer for me.”

Reams said she ordered a new Chevy Bolt in November, and the biggest challenge now is simply getting the car delivered. There is a huge demand for electric cars, and six months later, they are still waiting.

Phyllis Reams, whose apartment overlooks the new East End charging center, said she never thought an electric vehicle was possible until the public charging center was installed.

Robbie Feinberg

/

Who is the public?

Phyllis Reams, whose apartment overlooks the new East End charging center, said she never thought an electric vehicle was possible until the public charging center was installed.

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