On Monday, Jersey City Times sat down with Jersey City Business Administrator Brian Platt, to discuss in detail the city’s plans for electric vehicles [EVs]. From charging stations to electric garbage trucks to electric bikes, the administration has big plans.
JCT: So, I’m sitting here with Brian Platt, Business Administrator for Jersey City, and he is heading up the effort in Jersey City to bring electric charging stations for electric vehicles to Jersey City, and I wanted to hear about what he’s been doing. So, Brian first of all, just by way of background, you’ve been Business Administrator for how long?
BP: Just over two years now, but I’ve worked for the city for seven.
JCT: And when you started with the city you were…
BP: I started in the mayor’s office and moved on to helping start the city’s first office of innovation. I was the founder and original director of that office, and I became the city’s business administrator two years ago. That position is sort of like city manager or chief operating officer for the city.
JCT: Now it sounds like you’ve kind of expanded that portfolio in that you’re not just the CFO [chief financial officer], you’re working on technology and operational issues. First of all, how do you find time to do both? I mean, it sounds like that’s a lot to work on.
BP: Yeah. I would say that the main part of the job is actually finding ways to make our government operation more responsive to the needs of our residents and also more sustainable and efficient in every way possible. And that includes not just the finances of the government—italso includes literally the motors and the mechanical tools that the city has as well.
JCT: When did you start working on electric vehicles and the infrastructure for them?
BP: Sure. For them, it was about three or four years ago that we started having very serious conversations about transitioning our municipal fleet to a more efficient mode of transportation. Not just the type of motor, but the size of the vehicles and the number of vehicles that we have as a city. We’ve been looking at how many vehicles we have in reducing that number. We’ve been looking at smaller vehicles, and we’ve been looking at electric vehicles, obviously. That’s not just passenger vehicles. You’ve seen outside city hall here that we have our first four electric vehicles that are passenger cars that operate at city hall. We’ve also been looking at police vehicles, heavy duty vehicles like garbage trucks and…and anything across the spectrum of types of vehicles that we have.
JCT: So, what were the first electric vehicles that the city purchased?
BP: The first four electric vehicles that we purchased were Nissan Leafs. We got them last year. We replaced eight gasoline powered vehicles at city hall with those four electric vehicles. The vehicles they replaced were 15-plus years old, SUVs, and not in the best working condition.
JCT: And who was using those vehicles?
BP: Employees in city hall. It was anything from an inspector in the tax assessor’s office to someone in the law department that had to go to court to defend the city in a case or something like that. So, varied quite a bit.
JCT: Just general purpose?
BP: General purpose…right, right. And one of the other initiatives that this includes is a car sharing system where instead of having eight or 10 or 12 vehicles at city hall assigned to individual people, we have a software-based solution that allows us to share the use of those vehicles over a broader number of people and increase the efficiency of how many people use each vehicle.
JCT: And you’ve had these Nissan Leafs for…did you say two years?
BP: It’s about a year, a year and a half, something like that.
JCT: How has that been? How is the reliability and cost?
BP: They’ve been great. We’ve had no issues with reliability at all. We’ve had zero maintenance, you know, electric vehicles in general have less maintenance. We’ve had zero things that we’ve had to do to the vehicles. They’ve sat there. We’ve had to wash them a couple of times. That’s about as far as we’ve gone with it. The adoption rate has been very fast and very smooth. We’ve had no issues with the users of the vehicles. They…after the first ride…they get it. It’s cleaner, it’s smoother, it’s quieter. And it’s simple to use. And, also we are now generating data that shows us how often employees are using the vehicles and when they’re using them. So, we now know a lot more about how many vehicles are really needed at city hall. It was harder before, for example, if I had a vehicle assigned to me, I used it once a week, maybe once every two weeks. Now I’m using a pool of vehicles that other people also use. So, yeah…it’s been a great transition.
JCT: Is there a plan to replace all of the ICE [internal combustion engine] vehicles with electric vehicles?
BP: Yeah. The mayor recently signed an executive order that aims to transition our municipal fleet to fully electric by 2030. The first phase of that transition is this year where 10 percent of all new vehicles will be electric where available. So, for example, there may not be a street sweeper or a certain type of cargo van or snow plow that we have a reasonable electric alternative that we won’t count in the number, but as many as we can basically are going to be electric.
JCT: So, this year, how many additional electric do we anticipate?
BP: At our last council meeting, we purchased eight more Nissan Leafs. Four of them are going to be general purpose or a variety of departments for them are going in to the police department as our first four police electric vehicles. We’re going to be using them in more of a support and backup capacity at first, just so we can get a good feel for them, how they’re used in the public safety perspective. There are of course, a lot of concerns and restraints around pursuit vehicles being electric across the country and across the world. So, we’re trying to work through all those issues.
JCT: And I assume you will be charging them using the city’s charging infrastructure?
BP: Yeah, so you’ll see behind city hall, we have four, well it’s two charging stations, four chargers for the four vehicles that we have at city hall. We have a handful of chargers already installed at our public works facility that will charge additional vehicles. And as we purchase more electric vehicles, we’re going to add more charters across the city. I should note also that the chargers at public works are powered by a 1.23 megawatt solar array on top of the building, which not only powers the building itself but also connects directly to those chargers.
JCT: So, talk to me a little bit about the cost so far. What do the Nissan Leafs cost the city?
BP: They cost a little more than a gas powered Nissan Leaf, but the maintenance costs and the usage, the energy costs are far lower, and they pay for themselves over just a couple of years.
JCT: Now, talk to me a little bit about the city’s plans when it comes to charging infrastructure for the city residents.
BP: I know you’re very interested in this.
JCT: I am.
JCT: So, we started this last year, installing electric vehicle charging infrastructure in public areas for public access as well. And you’ll see at city hall that one of the ways we’re doing this is pairing it with the charging infrastructure for municipal fleet vehicles. For example, behind city hall here, we have four charging ports for city vehicles and then two for public access. We have 12 spots across the city, right now, six chargers, each dual port that are designated for public access to charging. Some of them are still in the process of being installed, but for the most part, there are 12 across the city. The way that those spots work, we’re trying to incentivize and encourage people to purchase electric vehicles and own them in the city. And we do that by saying, as long as you are plugged in and charging, you can park there without any additional permits or fees associated with parking on the street. So, it’s…it’s in a sense a very low barrier to charge using our infrastructure on the street. We do charge a fee for the energy, but it’s a, you know, it’s a reasonable, it’s a dollar sixty an hour at this point.
JCT: It’s by the hour or…?
BP: By the hour…I think it’s a dollar sixty an hour.
JCT: And does one have to sign up for this…or go through a…
BP: They’re all on the ChargePoint network. So, you’ll be able to find them using the ChargePoint app if they’re being used or not. It also gives us…the ChargePoint app gives us great data as to who’s using them and when. And so, for example, at the charging station behind city hall with the two plugs we saw a very high adoption rate before Coronavirus, which led us to expand that location. We’re going to be shortly adding a second charging station because the usage was so high.
JCT: And there are different…there are different plugs for electric vehicles. How are you working that out? Tesla takes one type of plug, Nissan Leaf takes another, Chevy Bolt, takes another…
BP: We’re going with the standard ChargePoint level two plug…I forget the J-179…whatever it is.
JCT: And it works for…
BP: The adapters come with vehicles that would plug into that seamlessly. So, even if you have a Tesla, you’ll be able to very easily…the Tesla comes with the adapters and same with the Leaf. So pretty much any vehicle out there at this point will be able to use our infrastructure. It’s the level two…so it’s not the fast charge.
BP: The fast charge…the charging stations are much more expensive to install and, you know, we’re sort of taking it slow to make sure that there’s demand for this. So, we want to make sure that there’s a market and a base and users in Jersey City before we start to really spend a lot of money on this.
JCT: Now how many miles on average per hour of charge can somebody put in their car?
BP: Twenty five miles per hour.
JCT: For a level two.
BP: Level two. Our Nissan Leafs…they get about a 150-mile range. So, you know, a full charge is overnight. So that’s the idea that you could plug in, you know, when you get here in the morning, if you work here, and by the time you get out of work, you’ve got a full charge, and same thing at night. If you’re a resident here, you can plug in at night. The next morning it’s full and ready to go.
JCT: And so long as you’re charging, you can remain?
BP: So long as you’re charging you can remain there. Although, as I mentioned earlier, there is a fee for the energy at this point. The purpose for the fee is to incentivize a little bit of turnover in the spots, but also to help us pay for the infrastructure, and the way we’ve calculated the fee also allows us to pay off the cost of installing the charging infrastructure over a reasonable amount of time—about eight to 10 years—given the usage that we’re seeing.
JCT: So, the city is spending some money up front to get this system in place?
JCT: How many chargers does the city expect to have over what period of time?
BP: I wouldn’t say that we have necessarily a set target goal at this point, but we’re doing this more based on demand from our communities. If people are asking us for this and more vehicles show up and, you know, we’re seeing a higher demand, we’re going to install more of them. We didn’t want to force it in neighborhoods necessarily without having buy-in from the community. So, you’re not seeing it pop up in places where people don’t know about it. We’re asking our local neighborhood associations and residents where they are and where they would like these.
JCT: Is there anything beyond this 2030 goal of a hundred percent electrification of the fleet and the charging network that you’re planning on doing?
BP: Yeah, the other big thing that we’re working on here is the procurement of electric garbage trucks. We are going to be one of the first municipalities and government agencies in the country to have electric garbage trucks. We won a grant from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection about a year-and-a-half ago for over $2 million to pay for six electric garbage trucks for the city. And, and the reason why we are so focused on garbage trucks is… one is these are some of the oldest vehicles that we have, but also they’re the highest polluting vehicles that we have on the road. So, if there’s any way for us to reduce carbon emissions and reduce the most harmful types of emissions and the most toxic emission, it’s our garbage trucks and our heavy duty vehicles.
JCT: How many garbage trucks does the city currently have?
BP: The city only has eight right now in its fleet. We contract out the bulk of our waste removal and recycling removal operations to an outside vendor. But we do a lot of daytime service to fill in the gaps. We’ll cover the parks. We’ll come back to small business districts and do another round of garbage collection from the garbage cans. So, there’s a lot of other waste removal that we do in addition to the regular residential pickups.
JCT: Is there any plan to incentivize the outside carting vendors?
BP: Yeah, it;s an ongoing conversation if…we’re hoping to move in that direction at some point. We are currently in an RFP [request for proposals] process for renewing that contract, and we’re hoping to get something out of it. But we’ll see where it goes.
JCT: Where did these trucks come from? These electric garbage trucks?
BP: There are only two vendors that we know of in the world right now that are making electric garbage trucks. One of them doesn’t have a model that is ready for the U.S., and the other is BYD, which is a Chinese company, and they actually don’t even make the whole truck. Part of it…the loader…the rear loader part of it is a separate company. They only make the truck chassis, and then we have to retrofit it to become a garbage truck. So, yeah, it’s a Chinese company. They’ve been building chassis like this for a long time. The range on these is more than sufficient for the routes that we run, and they will connect seamlessly into our charging infrastructure at our public works facility, which again is powered by the 1.23-megawatt solar array on top of the building.
JCT: Do you have any idea off the top of your head what the cost to the city has been over the last couple of years for this electric vehicle initiative? And what do you think this is costing in total?
BP: You know it’s not a number that we’re tracking directly because although we’re investing funds upfront, over time we expect this to be a cost reduction. And we expect that because the ownership and maintenance costs of electric vehicles is lower. The energy cost is lower. The transfer of energy from energy to motion is much higher for electric vehicles. So, you know, there are a lot of benefits beyond the initial upfront costs that we see that makes it more valuable.
JCT: The grant for the garbage trucks, is that 100 percent of the cost of these?
BP: It’s over 90 percent of the cost. There were some remaining costs that we will cover related to some of the charging infrastructure that we’re installing there. But for the most part the grant does cover the maintenance.
JCT: Anything else that people should know?
BP: Yeah, we also have one grant for electric vehicle charging stations across the city, and we are installing them with the help of those grants. But those grants for approximately $5,000 a station are not nearly enough to cover the cost of the charging stations. So, we are using some city dollars, some city capital dollars to…
JCT: So, what does a station cost?
BP: The hardware itself that you see in the street is within the five [$5,000] to $8,000 range for the unit that goes on top of the sidewalk. The larger—the bulk of the cost is the electric infrastructure that leads up to that station. And depending upon where the power supply is in the street and how much excavation is needed to run the power lines into the stations, it could be, it could be 30 [$30,000] or $40,000.
JCT: For each station.
BP: Yes, for each station. So ,when you look at, for example, the Marin location behind city hall, you know, the excavation was only one dig. And then we actually recently installed two stations for municipal vehicles, and it will now be two for public use. So, the cost spread out over those four stations makes the per station cost a little lower, but it’s still…it’s not cheap.
JCT: But the idea is that the city gets a payback which covers the cost?
BP: Exactly, exactly right.
JCT: Over a number of years.
BP: And that dollar sixty an hour may…or may not sound like a lot, but over time it adds up, and it’ll help us cover the cost of the stations.
JCT: Anything else you can think of?
BP: Oh, yes. So, we, we also, I’m sure, you know, launched a few months ago a rideshare service powered by Via. And it’s a very unique transit option that we have in the city focusing on the outer neighborhoods of beyond Downtown and Journal Square. We’ve also committed to making that fleet electric as soon as feasible. We’ve started with…the system launched with over 10 percent of the fleet as electric. And we are hoping to get that to a hundred percent.
JCT: The via fleet is currently 10 percent electric sound electric?
BP: Yeah, 10 percent electric.
JCT: And these vehicles would be provided by Via?
BP: We have a turnkey solution from Via meaning that we pay them a flat amount and they, they handle procuring the vehicles, training the drivers, covering insurance, maintaining and managing the software, everything that’s needed to set…this software, this service up… yes… that’s all included in the cost of it. I will say also that there aren’t a lot of good passenger van options out there right now that are electric. In fact, there are no good ones. So, we’re trying to cobble it together with what we can find. It seems like in the next year or so, there’s going to be a few other options on the market. That’ll help us convert the full fleet to electric, right?
JCT: What about bicycles since we’re on this. Anything happening with the electric bikes though, or is that still in the planning phase? Cause I understand there’s a process with Hoboken going on.
BP: Yeah, we’re doing a new RFP for a bike share. Before the RFP process started, our existing vendor City Bike did commit to us that they would be bringing electric pedal-assist bikes to Jersey City as they did in New York. Assuming if City Bike wins this contract again, they would continue with those plans. But it’s too early to say right now given the contract process going on.
JCT: Is it safe to assume though that whoever wins the contract, there will be an electric component?
BP: Yes, we’ve asked in the RFP that whichever vendor is awarded this contract makes every effort to bring as many of those as possible to Jersey City.
Header photo by Aaron Morrill