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New London - During the past week, workers at the Water Street Parking Garage have been assembling a mysterious machine with an enigmatic purpose.
The front of the machine says Juice Bar, which would seem to tell it all except for the fact that it's January, and who in their right mind would seek out an orange-mango concoction in a commuter lot at the foot of a downtown parking garage in the middle of winter?
On closer inspection, it all becomes clear: This juice machine isn't selling anything fruity; it's giving away electricity for alternative-energy cars.
"We're looking to make transportation cheaper, cleaner and more reliable for the public, and this will help take us there," Anne Gobin, chief of the bureau of air management for the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, said in a phone interview.
The machine, it turns out, is an electric vehicle charging station installed in one of the three locations in New London County that have won state grants to expand services for alternative-fuel vehicles. The others will be at Illiano's Grill on West Town Street in the Yantic section of Norwich and at Hendel's Henny Penny convenience store and gas station on Route 85 in Waterford.
The Water Street garage will actually have two "quad unit" charging stations, one inside it and the other outside, opposite Union Station in the city's transportation hub. The units each have two Level 2 chargers, which can fully regenerate a vehicle in a couple hours, as well as two Level 1 chargers, suitable for overnight rejuicing.
The stations will be officially unveiled Jan. 17, when they will be made available to the public at no charge.
"The parking facility is perfectly situated to provide electric vehicle charging services for parkers utilizing the train station, the ferry service and the downtown area," David K. Schmid, managing partner of Tolland-based Garage Juice Bars, supplier of the machines, said in an email.
Gobin said the Juice Bar concept is one of many being employed at parking garages and other facilities across the state. There are about 100 electric vehicle charging stations statewide, with plans to double that number by the end of the year.
"A parking garage is an ideal space for a charging station," Gobin said.
Gobin pointed out that workers downtown will now have a place where they can park their vehicles during their workday and be assured that the cars will be fully charged by the time they are ready to head home.
"Having a charging station in a transportation hub is great," she added. "We're really interested in making sure they are well disbursed throughout the state."
Gobin said there is no one charging standard. Some vehicles allow only for Level 1 charging, which is essentially plug-in regeneration off a normal electrical service, while others operate off Level 3 service, which can repower a vehicle in a half hour.
The state has a one-year, $200,000 plan to ramp up the number of Level 2 chargers throughout 2014, plus another effort to install high-level chargers at service plazas along major interstates. The goal, Gobin said, is to make electric vehicle charging stations "standard business" within the next three years, potentially converting the free hookups by 2017 to some kind of pay system that hasn't been fully explored yet.
"No one has a very good business model for charging," she said.
Joseph Celli, manager of the Water Street garage operated by ProPark, could not be contacted, but he previously told The Day that the chargers would be used as a marketing tool to bring people into New London. Electric vehicle owners would be encouraged to check out local shops and restaurants while their cars were recharging, he said.
New London received a $4,000 grant for the charger project. The city's Parking Commission kicked in another $12,000. State funding for the stations came out of a 2012 settlement between Connecticut and NStar related to the energy company's acquisition of Northeast Utilities.
The new projects are in addition to charging stations in southeastern Connecticut at Norwich Public Utilities, Crest Ford in Niantic, Old Saybrook Inn and Nissan auto dealerships in Groton, Norwich and Old Saybrook. The National Grid office building in Westerly also is outfitted with a charger.
Gobin said the charging stations are part of a comprehensive plan that looks at how energy is used in various sectors of the state economy to try to meet federal greenhouse gas and air pollution goals.
"The biggest contribution to air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions is the transportation sector," Gobin said. "We need cars to get even cleaner."