Electric vehicles are as few and far between in Northwest Indiana as the charging stations that power them.
But environmental advocates and the Northern Indiana Public Service Co. are prepping for time when greener vehicles will be on region roadways.
NIPSCO filed an application with the state's utility regulator in April to provide incentives for early adopters who install residential charging stations, offer free off-peak home charging for three years, and install public charging stations around its service territory.
The utility is trying to get a handle on the potential growth of electric vehicles within Northwest Indiana that has already happened in areas in California, Illinois and New York.
"We want to craft and design a program that not only creates stimulus for economic development but a program that's ultimately going to improve the local environment," said NIPSCO spokesman Nick Meyer.
Under the initial plan, which is subject to change pending Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission approval, vouchers up to $1,650 would be available for the first 250 residential customers to buy and install 240-volt charging stations at their residences. For a period of three years, any customer who installs a separate meter at their home for vehicle charging could power their cars for free between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. Without the voucher, NIPSCO said the cost of installing a meter could be about $550.
The Merrillville-based utility wants a third party to complete a study by early 2012 to identify habits of electric vehicle drivers and the best locations for charging stations, Meyer said. After that, the utility would locate 10 public charging stations that are powered by renewable energy sources around the region. The utility is still determining whether the public stations would be free or have a nominal charge per use.
The second phase of the program could include NIPSCO providing matching grants to entice public or private entities to install vehicle charging stations or attract green technology businesses to the area. With the utility anticipating spending about $3 million over the two program phases, Meyer said NIPSCO is looking to provide an economic stimulus for the area.
John Gartner, research director of Boulder, Colo.-based Pike Research, said NIPSCO's proposal is "progressive" and unique from what other utilities around the country are doing. He said some of the larger utilities are working on identifying best practices in creating programs to serve as a blueprint for smaller companies or those that haven't yet developed programs.
The investments being made are a component of NIPSCO's pledge to improve its environmental profile as a result of a January settlement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency over Clean Air Act violations.
Environmental groups and NIPSCO don't always agree on issues, but Steve Francis, Indiana chapter chairman of the Sierra Club, praised the utility's leadership in promoting the vehicle infrastructure program.
"The more that we have utilities actually involved in providing these kinds of innovations from a customer or business perspective, the more we will be known for innovative thinking and technology," Francis said. "And that's what's going to be key driving the jobs picture in the industry going forward."
Michigan City Sierra Club organizer Virginia Shannon said the electric vehicle program, in addition to NIPSCO's net metering and feed-in tariff programs, are steps toward securing a viable clean energy future.
The Indiana Utility Regulatory Commission is hosting its next public meeting on NIPSCO's petition Nov. 30 in Indianapolis.