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National Grid tests pole-mounted electric car chargers in Melrose

The city is partnering with the utility on a pilot program that could dramatically expand the number of sites.

One of the power pole-mounted electric vehicle chargers that National Grid has installed in Melrose.National Grid

For residents of Melrose who own electric cars, this is something to get charged up about.

The city has partnered with electric utility National Grid to deploy a new kind of electric vehicle charger that’s mounted 10 feet above the street, on city power poles. Developed by Connecticut-based Control Module Inc., the charger uses an electric winch to lower the charging cable to street level, and then retract the cable once the job is done.

Since April, National Grid has deployed 15 of the chargers on nine power poles, including several locations that can recharge two cars at a time. It’s a pilot program that could dramatically expand the number of recharging sites for battery-powered cars, even as state and federal governments are pushing for a rapid transition from fossil fuel vehicles to electrics.

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Melrose Mayor Paul Brodeur said the charger program shows how cities can step up to address climate change without waiting for guidance from the federal government. “There’s really been stagnation in terms of proactive clean energy policy,” Brodeur said, “and so it’s going to have to come from the ground up.”

Control Module’s subsidiary EVSE LLC has been making electric car chargers for about a decade. The company designed a ground-based charger that included a winch to retract the charging cable after use, to ensure it didn’t get ripped out by passing snowplows.

Snow posed no threat when EVSE deployed some of its chargers in Los Angeles. But the company found that passersby would sometimes wreck the machines. So they found a new use for the cable winch. It let them mount the chargers high above the street, out of the vandals’ reach. Users fire up a smartphone app to lower the cable and charge their cars. When finished, the cable is pulled safely back into its box.

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So far, EVSE has installed about 215 of the chargers on light poles throughout Los Angeles. That city’s light poles are wired for 240-volt current, making them adequate for Level 2 car chargers, capable of fully recharging a car in several hours. But in Greater Boston, the light poles run on 120 volts. So the chargers can’t be connected to every standard streetlight. Instead, National Grid will deploy the chargers only on power poles that carry 240-volt cables. There are fewer such poles, but still enough to make a sizable dent in the demand for electric car chargers.

“There are 700,000 poles in our National Grid territory,” said Cassandra Vickers, the company’s senior clean transportation product developer. “Even if we hit one percent of that, that’s 7,000 more chargers that we are deploying.”

So far, the chargers have only been used about 400 times — not surprising since only about 240 electric cars were registered to Melrose residents as of June. But Martha Grover,the city’s sustainability manager, said that city residents have told her that they’re giving serious thought to buying electric cars because of the new chargers.

“Now they see this, half a block away from their home,” Grover said, “and they say ‘I can realistically see doing it.’”

Software engineer Ryan Batchelder, who lives in a two-family building without a car charger, had already purchased a Tesla Model 3. Still, he’s delighted to have some extra charging options.

“I actually use one of those quite frequently right downtown in the Shaw’s parking lot,” Batchelder said. “These seem like a great way to add chargers cheaper than a ground installation, and I’ve had a few people come up to me and ask about it when they see me plugging in.”

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Dean Spacht, Control Module’s vice president of sales and marketing, said his company’s chargers “[give] access to people who might not have access ― multi-unit dwellings and people in disadvantaged communities.”

Indeed, National Grid says it plans to deploy the chargers in 10 more Massachusetts communities. The cities haven’t been chosen yet, but five of them will be “environmental justice” communities. These are cities with lower-than-average incomes and a high percentage of minority residents. The goal is to make sure that people in such communities get an equal chance to own electric vehicles, as they become less expensive and a market for used electric cars begins to develop.

Already, National Grid has about 1,400 charging stations deployed in Massachusetts, with 40 percent of them based in environmental justice communities. The utility says it intends to deploy a total of 30,000 charging stations in the state.


Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.