KALAMAZOO, MI - Western Michigan University opened four electric vehicle charging stations to the public during a brief ceremony March 21 on the Parkview Campus in Kalamazoo.

U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow drove up to the ceremony with WMU President John M. Dunn in the first Chevrolet Volt bought in southwest Michigan. Before addressing the crowd, the two received a quick tutorial on how easy it is to use the new charging stations.

Earlier this year, Stabenow introduced legislation called the Charging America Forward Act. The legislation provides consumers with a rebate up to $7,500 at the point of purchase to help spur the sale of plug-in electric vehicles. Her bill also extends and expands a current tax credit for investments in plug-in electric vehicle charging stations.

"Having the capacity to do the battery innovation and manufacturing and then to build these wonderful automobiles and add the infrastructure is all part of a strategy," Stabenow said during the WMU ceremony. "...This is a strategy for us that is about jobs in Michigan. It's about innovation. It's about getting us off of foreign oil and having a strategy for controlling our own destiny in terms of energy. And we're on a campus of people that are very smart who are contributing to this both in the innovation and the vision for the future."

Anyone with a special card may use the chargers for free, since much of the expected electricity use will be offset by WMU's existing renewable energy resources -- a wind turbine on the Parkview Campus and a solar array atop Wood Hall on the main campus. If usage is more than expected, university officials will re-evaluate keeping the service free.

Dunn said the charging stations support WMU's sustainability goals as well as the Southwest Michigan Regional Sustainability Covenant. He also noted that the stations' installation is consistent with ongoing research at the university.

"I could not think of a better place or better company in which to celebrate these wonderful new resources. Our College of Engineering and Applied Science is a center for research that focuses on the battery technology that makes the electric vehicle possible," Dunn said. "Our Center for Hybrid Electric Applied Research -- the CHEAR Lab -- is a partnership between WMU and Eaton Corp. The $1 million lab was opened last fall, and we expect hybrid-electric vehicle drive and battery technology to take a significant leap forward as a result of the work being done here."

WMU had several vehicles on hand at the unveiling event. The Volt was borrowed from Todd Bannon of Kalamazoo, who pre-ordered the car last October and picked it up March 19 from fellow alumnus Jason Sellers, a salesman at DeNooyer Chevrolet in Kalamazoo. Also on display were plug-in vehicles owned by Professor John Patten and by WMU. The university's growing fleet of energy-efficient vehicles includes two that are all-electric and about 50 that are flex-fuel capable. They are used by the public safety, maintenance and custodial units.

WMU is the first Michigan university to place a public charging station on its main campus. The EV charging stations at WMU can each support two vehicles. While one car charges at the traditional 120-volt rate, the other can plug in for a 240-volt quick charge.

WMU received its four EV charging stations at no cost from their manufacturer, Coulomb Technologies, through an equipment grant from the company's ChargePoint America program. The program is part of a federal government demonstration project to encourage adoption of plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles.

ChargePoint America is helping to build needed infrastructure for the cars by providing about 5,000 networked stations free of charge to organizational and residential applicants in 10 U.S. regions, including Michigan's Lower Peninsula. All of the stations are expected to be installed by this coming October. During the following two years, the program will collect anonymous, real-world data regarding the stations' usage and potential impact on the nation's electrical grid.

The $37 million ChargePoint America program was made possible by a $15 million grant funded by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act through a U.S. Department of Energy initiative. The program also involves a partnership with three automakers -- Ford, General Motors and smart USA, part of Daimler AG Co. The companies have committed to delivering electric vehicles to ChargePoint America's 10 designated U.S. regions.

WMU's four charging stations have been positioned next to public transportation bus stops. They went online March 17. Because they are part of the ChargePoint America network, they cannot be used without a ChargePass card or credit card.

To obtain a ChargePass card, those interested must go to the ChargePoint America Web site at chargepointamerica.com and create an account. Users can opt to receive an e-mail or text message telling them when their cars are fully charged. In addition, anyone can use the Web site to find out which ChargePoint America stations across the country are unoccupied and navigate to them.

At slightly more than 50, Michigan now has more public charging stations than any state in the Midwest. In addition to WMU's four Kalamazoo stations, the state's west side has five stations in Traverse City, two in Holland, and one each in Grand Rapids and Muskegon.

The state's only other public stations are located at Schoolcraft College, a two-year institution in Livonia, and the Michigan Alternative and Renewable Energy Center in Muskegon, which is operated by Grand Valley State University.