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Town stalls on going electric

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Around the country, people and towns are transitioning — often at a glacial pace — from traditional gas-powered cars to electric models.

According to the online publication City Lab, published by the Atlantic Monthly, “less than 2 percent of the vehicles Americans buy are electric. But within the next three decades, some automotive industry experts expect electric vehicles could make up the majority of U.S. and global car sales.”

On Shelter Island, it’s estimated the number of electric car owners is in the single digits, but like the rest of the country, the Island looks poised to at least partly embrace a more electric future.

Three years ago, the town installed its first electric car-charging station at police headquarters. The station, which can charge two cars simultaneously, was purchased via the New York State Municipal Zero Emission Vehicle rebate program. The town paid $16,140 upfront for the unit and installation, but will get back 80 percent of the cost with the rebate.

Andrew Cogan, a long-time summer resident, said after buying an electric vehicle about a month ago, the car is now his preferred mode of transportation around the Island.

“This is the first car I’ve had which turns heads,” Mr. Cogan says.

Mr. Cogan strongly believes the town should acquire an electric fleet. He cited the money saved in maintenance and gas costs and the reduction in all sorts of pollution that traditional cars cause.

“Noise pollution is a real issue on this Island that a lot of people talk about,” Mr. Cogan said. “Electric cars not only get rid of car pollution, but they also don’t make a sound. It’s as quiet as somebody riding a bike.”

According to Councilman Jim Colligan, the charging stations were first set up to encourage owners of electric vehicles, like Mr. Cogan, to drive more frequently. But Mr. Colligan told his colleagues at the July 9 Town Board work session, that adopting an electric municipal fleet (police cars, building department cars, etc.) should be “on the radar.” He added that he and his colleagues “want to do right by the environment, but also do right by the budget.”

According to a study done by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, “The great majority of New York State’s GHG [green house gas] emissions came from fuel combustion, which primarily represents the burning of fossil fuels (e.g., coal, natural gas, petroleum products) as an energy source to support various economic activities, including transportation, electric power generation, and heating and hot water needs for homes and businesses.”

Combustible engine cars make up a total of 33 percent of New York State’s emissions, the report study stated, and electric cars, if used in large numbers, have the potential to eliminate an enormous amount of New York State’s carbon emissions.

Shelter Island, like other municipalities around the world, has found substantial hurdles to going totally electric for public purposes. Primarily, these barriers are the significant upfront cost in buying new cars, installing the infrastructure to service them, and the relatively limited range and speed that the batteries will allow. There is also the factor of political will to make the effort.

Councilwoman Amber Brach-Williams notes that the limited range of electric vehicles hinders the town’s ability to change its entire fleet. Ms. Brach-Williams cites the fact that, unlike most private individuals, some of the town’s services, such as the police, drive long distances throughout the day and need to be anywhere on the Island quickly and reliably. The fear is that electric vehicles don’t have the battery life to sustain long stints on the road before being recharged.

Ms. Amber Brach-Williams also questions the savings brought by new electric vehicles, noting that older vehicles tend to be passed down to other departments, saving the town the cost of replacing vehicles with new ones.

Mr. Colligan and Ms. Brach-Williams said it’s a real possibility the town will at least partly transition to electric vehicles. Especially for some public officials on the Island, who make short trips, like the Building Department and Traffic Control Officers.

At the work session, Councilman Paul Shepherd was skeptical. He was in agreement with his colleagues that, even though Mr. Colligan said the issue was being considered, nothing will likely happen in the near future. There is no plan, no discussions scheduled.

“Carbon fuels are much maligned,” Mr. Shepherd said, adding that electric power may not be much better, noting that stripping the earth for minerals to make batteries is not an environmentally sound policy. He said he wanted “to look into it more , rather than get super-excited about the electric element.”

While Shelter Island has yet to adopt electric cars more widely, proponents of them remain hopeful that silent cars gliding toward their duties may one day undertake some public services.

Herb Stelljes a long-time Island electric car supporter and environmentalist activist said, “As for a ‘fleet,’ I’d be thrilled to see even one vehicle.”