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Hybrid cars in Florida to get solar charging – with shade

Hybrid cars have more than 60 charging stations in central Florida. WattNext is considering 'WattTrees,' where drivers can charge their electric and plug-in hybrid cars in the shade.

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A Nissan Leaf charges at a electric vehicle charging station this summer in Portland, Ore. One Florida company is building charging stations that rely on solar power. One premium: Some owners of electric and plug-in hybrid cars will be able to charge in the shade.

Rick Bowmer/AP/File

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Bill Ferree's plan to use solar energy to charge up electric vehicles across Central Florida and other parts of the Sunshine State is getting its day in the sun.

Ferree, 67, and the two partners with a company called WattNext installed a solar-powered station on Oct. 20 outside First Green Bank in Eustis.

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In the next couple of months, WattNext — which has already put in ChargePoint stations for electric cars across Eustis and surrounding areas — will be branching out to Orlando and nearby Sanford and Winter Park.

Ferree also wants to develop shaded structures called "WattTrees" that provide shade while generating electricity from solar panels attached to the roof. A prototype called a RubeStation already exists in Eustis.

"Florida is the Sunshine State," he said. "The weather may not always be perfect, but it's pretty darn good here."

Solar power isn't new to Florida, and other companies are claiming stakes in the industry.

Lake County, Fla., commissioners in February unanimously approved Lake Mary-based Blue Chip Energy's plan to build a 40-megawatt plant in a 200-acre cow pasture. It could soon become Florida's largest solar-energy farm, producing enough power for 8,000 homes.

The project would eclipse Florida Power & Light's 25-megawatt Next Generation Solar Energy Center in DeSoto County. Construction began in April on a 6-megawatt solar array at the Orlando Utilities Commission's Curtis Stanton Energy Center, east of Orlando.

Ferree said photovoltaic power generation through solar panels will help "eliminate a significant chunk of the state's demand for electricity and the financial drain on the economy."

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He says WattNext's future is in electric cars and plug-in hybrids.

Electric cars are cleaner and much cheaper to fuel over time, Ferree said. "However, there needs to be an infrastructure in place, and we are ready to provide that," he said.

WattNext, founded in 2009, has been at the forefront of solar energy distribution for powering electric vehicles.

It is the first for-profit spinoff from Lake County's nonprofit environmental technology business incubator, RubeLab.

WattNext, under the name Sunlight Power Systems, in 2009 installed the RubeStation in downtown Eustis. It's an electric-car-charging station prototype that resembles a red and yellow shelter with benches. The cost: $30,000. He is working on developing a cheaper version.

Electric car owners can drive into one of three charging bays located beside the RubeStation, plug in and recharge their car batteries for free. For example, the Nissan Leaf with its 24 kilowatt-hour battery pack takes about eight hours to recharge. A fully charged electric car battery can last as much as 100 miles.

There are at least 64 charging stations in Central Florida.

Ferree said he envisions cheaper alternatives to the RubeStation called "WattTree Groves" that can be installed in parking lots, and charge car owners a premium for shaded spots, which provide car owners a cooler vehicle after a day under the sun.

FastPark & Relax in Orlando already uses solar panels on shaded parking structures and offers free electric-car charging stations at a daily rate of $7.50.

"The WattTree Groves provide shade, an amenity that is in demand, and it will draw customers," Ferree said. "People are willing to pay for that comfort and at the same time choose a better alternative for improving the environment and the state's financial burden on electricity."


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