Tiny Iowa town has the chargers, awaiting drivers

ELK HORN, IOWA - Hoping to see the U.S.A. in your Chevrolet Volt or Nissan Leaf? The tiny Iowa town of Elk Horn will have plenty of electric charging stations and no wait — if you can get there.

The town, more than 1,500 miles from the electric car mecca of California and hundreds of miles from the nearest charging station, has four of the devices ready to power up any electric vehicles that venture through western Iowa.

Mike Howard, the businessman financing a project that reflects his lifetime fascination with the possibilities of alternative energy, compares the plan to the Pony Express.

"They had to have stations to continue on to deliver the mail," Howard said.

"This is a modern-day Pony Express."

Howard envisions the farm town of 650 people, whose other main attraction is a historic windmill imported from Denmark, as the first host of charging stations he wants to install along the Interstate 80 corridor through Iowa and eventually from Denver to Chicago. Four more charging stations are planned for next year.

Americans have been slow to transfer their loyalty from the internal-combustion engine, and plug-in hybrids and electric cars make up less than 1 percent of vehicles on U.S. roads. One of the biggest factors slowing growth is "charge anxiety" — the fear of running out of juice and being stranded, said Phil Gott, director of automotive science and technology for the research company IHS Global Insight.

But concerns about global warming and our dependence on foreign oil are expected to push electric-powered vehicles to 2 percent of those on the road by 2015 and 30 percent by 2030, Gott said.

The Obama administration established a $3.4 billion grant program this year aimed at developing electric vehicles and upgrading the power grid, including money to help build a charging network. The focus was on Arizona, California, Oregon, Tennessee and Washington. No money went to Elk Horn.

Establishing a national network of charging stations is a daunting task, but one that must be accomplished before electric cars can become commonplace, said Pat Davis, program manager for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Vehicle Technologies. He acknowledged Elk Horn is far from the nation's electric car epicenter along the West Coast.

"He's definitely being progressive, but you know, somebody's got to be first," Davis said.

When all eight chargers are installed, there will be more in Elk Horn than there are now in all of Illinois. In fact, Iowa would be ahead of nearly everywhere except the West Coast, where there are hundreds of chargers in California and Oregon with more planned in Washington.

Iowa has more than 4 million registered vehicles but just 96 electric-powered ones, and many of those are akin to golf carts, the state Transportation Department said. Elk Horn itself has just one, a Chevrolet S-10 pickup converted by an auto restoration company Howard owns into an electric truck with 24 batteries and two solar panels.

The units Howard is installing — one solar powered and the others connected to the electrical grid — can produce the standard 110 volt or 240 volt charges. Each costs about $6,000, and Howard said he's spent about $30,000 on the effort this year. He plans to spend $50,000 next year and expand farther in Iowa and into Nebraska.

Howard declined to talk about his investment except to say it would take time to pay off.

"It's going to be slow at first," he said. "You're not going to see a large influx of electric vehicles out there everyday."

But the 57-year-old Howard, who began dabbling with solar power as a youngster in the 1960s, said he wants Elk Horn to play a role in the nation's future in electric cars.

"We have a dream about electric vehicles and we're going to make that a reality," he said.

Most major automakers are developing electric cars, and the Volt and Leaf are supposed to hit showrooms next year. The Volt, a plug-in hybrid, could go up to 40 miles on an electric motor before switching to a gas-powered engine. The Leaf is all-electric with a range of about 150 miles per charge.

Still, Elk Horn is taking a leap of faith — recharging would cost only $2 to $3, but it takes three to eight hours. Howard and others suggest people could take in the Danish attractions while they wait.

Glen Mechtenberg of Yankton, S.D., who stopped in Elk Horn to visit those sites, said the idea is intriguing — but he seemed doubtful.

"I applaud the person for taking the initiative doing this," he said. "It's obviously cutting edge, but who's he going to sell to?"

Troy Segebart, chief mechanic at Howard's Liberty Auto restoration business, said residents are impressed by Howard's ingenuity.

"It's more of a novelty thing right now," he said. "It's kind of like the mad scientist-type thing — what's he doing now?"


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