Going the Distance the feasibility of electric cars in Syracuse

Most central New York residents are too afraid to make the switch to electric vehicles because of the long distance it takes to travel between home and work, a fear otherwise known as range anxiety. But a Syracuse University graduate student is hoping to change all that by putting a portable charging station on the market soon.

Photos by Morgan Bulman

“It’s easier than people think,” Syracuse University graduate student Josh Aviv explained while plugging a five-pronged charging cord into the front side of his car. “It’s not that big of a jump from gas to electric.”

And he should know. Aviv recently purchased a Chevy Volt, a hybrid electric car that also runs on gasoline, and says the move changed his life. But electric cars have more or less failed to penetrate the market in New York State, especially in Syracuse.

Photo by Morgan Bulman

“Syracuse has been known as a hard place for cars with smaller batteries — Leafs, Smart Cars,” said Aviv. “It’s been a little bit harder not just because of the harsh climate but because the infrastructure is just not here yet.”

Last year, however, Aviv won the Innovation Fund from the Syracuse Center of Excellence to jump start his own entrepreneurial venture: Spark Charge, LLC. During the final year of his undergraduate career, Aviv dedicated his free time to educating people about electric cars and discovered that the main barrier was a phenomenon described as range anxiety, or the fear of not being able to make it from point A to point B while driving an electric vehicle.

By the time Aviv graduates with a Master’s degree in information management and data science this May, though, Aviv is hoping to launch a solution: a portable charging station.

SparkCharge's portable battery will be small enough to fit into the trunk of an owner's car. Image provided by Josh Aviv from the SparkCharge website: spcev.com

The public charging stations located throughout Syracuse — downtown, Franklin Square, DestinyUSA, Westcott, Liverpool and Dewitt — are all Level 2 chargers, which means it takes three to eight hours for a battery to fully refuel. And after a visit to each of these sites, Aviv noticed none of them were being used. People came and went, but the stations remained untouched.

Level 2 charging stations located in downtown Syracuse are rarely accompanied by a car. Photos by Morgan Bulman

Clean Communities of central New York Coordinator Barry Carr isn’t surprised, especially since most owners do their charging at home. In fact, Carr estimates only 20 percent of public stations in Syracuse are actually utilized.

Not only has Carr been managing Onondaga County’s electric car scene for 11 years, but the Broome, Cayuga, Hamilton, Madison, Oneida, Oswego, Schuyler and St. Lawrence counties as well. Despite the lack of popularity, Carr remains hopeful, especially because of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s avid support.

“Cuomo has been pushing for electric as an alternative energy source heavily, especially for both state and consumer vehicles,” Carr added.

Carr, right, speaking with an attendee of the People's Climate March held Saturday, April 29. Photo by Morgan Bulman

Just last month, Cuomo announced a $70 million electric car outreach initiative called the Drive Clean Rebate as an effort to “put more electric cars on New York’s roadways,” according to the press release. The program will provide up to $2,000 to residents who purchase either a plug-in hybrid, all-electric or hydrogen fuel cell car.

But just making the technology more affordable isn’t enough.

Earlier in March, the governor’s office also announced an additional campaign to support the Charge NY initiative — which has set a 2018 deadline to have 30,000 electric cars registered in the state — by installing 450 more charging stations, 150 of which will be located in workplace parking lots, according to The New York State Research and Energy Development Authority.

Aviv's plug-in hybrid, the Chevy Volt, charging at the Syracuse Center of Excellence. Photo by Morgan Bulman

In 2009, central New York received $13 million from the Recovery Act — the Obama Administration specifically invested money into electric technology — that enabled the Synapse Sustainability Trust to install 68 chargers. NYSERDA, along with National Grid, funded others later to establish nearly 200 charging stations in the area.

One of The Recovery Act charging stations installed in the Westcott Street neighborhood. Photo by Morgan Bulman

But there are only 300 electric cars registered in the region, which is small in comparison to a statewide number of 15,000 and nearly 224,000 in California. It’s the very reason why charging stations in Syracuse usually look deserted to those passing by.

“Right now we have enough charging stations for all the electric cars we have registered,” said Carr. “But we’re going to double or triple that amount in New York State because people have to see that there’s a place to plug-in.”

A charging station looking crooked and decrepit in Papa John's parking lot on Westcott. Photo by Morgan Bulman

In other words, the state is trying to address range anxiety, the same as Aviv, by making stations more visible.

The group of young entrepreneurs at SparkCharge, a collection of students and professors, was originally born out of an idea to provide the New York State Thruway with charging stations of their own. But the plan fell through.

Map of current electric charging stations sprinkled throughout Syracuse and nearby towns. Information provided by SolvingEV.com

“They didn’t think electric vehicles would take off, they thought it was somewhat of a fad,” said Aviv.

The interest in electric cars has grown dramatically, though, since 2014. A study conducted by Nissan found that charging stations will outnumber gasoline stations by 2020.

Afterwards, Aviv's team put their heads together about what to do with the extra stations and decided to donate them to Syracuse University. And just last month, the two were finally installed in the Booth and University Garages.

Charging stations donated by SparkCharge can be found at both the Booth and University Garages on Syracuse University's campus.

“We just realized this could be done so much better and we can solve this problem so much better by just making our own, portable charging unit,” said Aviv. “We basically were like: how can we still deliver on our promise to end range anxiety and solving our mission without needing to go through the thruway or the manufacturer?”

And so SparkCharge was born. Currently, Aviv is working on patenting a technology similar to that of a Level 3 charger — a whopping 480 volts of power — which is double, even triple, that of the Level 2 and Level 1 chargers.

In other words, Syracuse residents wouldn’t have to worry about being stuck or stranded during their daily commute.

“It will go into the trunk of your car, so you can charge your car anytime and anywhere you want,” said Aviv, who’s hoping to make electric travel as easy as gasoline travel. “You’re no longer restricted by a poll-based station and our charging stations are fast.”

The charging station at Booth Garage being utilized by an all-electric Mercedes Benz. Photo by Morgan Bulman

It’s estimated charging will only take up around 45 minutes with that kind of power.

Carr also argues charging stations need to be faster. A larger component of his job responsibilities include teaching people about the functionality of an electric car and the upkeep it requires. If people knew more, they wouldn’t be so discouraged to make the switch.

It’s why Carr helps run events like the one that took place on Saturday, April 29, at the Inner Harbor Amphitheater next to Onondaga Creek. At the end of the People’s Climate March in Syracuse, Carr organized a group of volunteers to show off different brands of alternative fuel vehicles, including the coveted Tesla.

Climate March attendees visiting the nearby electric car expo, featuring two Tesla models. Photo by Morgan Bulman

As the speaker series of the rally drew to a close, people mingled around the cars on display, striking up conversation with their owners — the kind of reaction Carr was hoping would happen. The more people know, the less intimidated they’ll be by new forms of renewable energy and modes of transportation, he said.

Aviv isn’t worried about the lack of an electric car market, either. Instead, he thinks it will work to SparkCharge's advantage and fulfill the startup’s initial goal.

The hoods of a Chevy Volt (left) and the Chevy Bolt (right) popped open for in-depth look. Photo by Morgan Bulman

“Syracuse is the perfect test bed,” said Aviv with a shrug. “For the cars that have range anxiety here, our mission is to actually end that.”

It seems like New York is behind Aviv's plan, too. Just last week, SparkCharge won $100,000 dollars at the New York State Business Plan Competition. The group also received an additional $10,000 dollars in the clean tech category of the competition, funds that NYSERDA sponsored.

And although Aviv’s lips are sealed as to what’s next, he mentioned the first round of beta testing received a lot of positive feedback. For now, Aviv is excited to be able to return ten or twenty years down the road and see his charging stations still being used on campus. It’s a legacy he’s proud to leave behind, as well as to start.


Morgan Bulman

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