Westport plugged into a new era of alternative fuel use Monday with the launch of the town's first publicly operated electric vehicle charging station at the Saugatuck Metro-North train station commuter lot next to Luciano Park.

The Saugatuck charging station is the first municipal EV facility to launch as part of a study begun this year by Connecticut Light and Power that examines plug-in car recharging in New England. Recording charging times, the duration of charging sessions, and the type of cars that plug into the station, the information gathered from CL&P's Westport EV facility and other sites throughout the state will help the company to plan future EV infrastructure projects.

"This really is about Westport becoming one of the state's most environmentally friendly towns," said CL&P President and Chief Operating Officer Jeff Butler. "It's very important to us to understand how our customers want to use charging stations to charge their vehicles."

CL&P will cover the $3,000 installation cost of the station, while the town will run the facility and pay for operational costs. Connected to CL&P's electric distribution system, the 240-volt station can fully charge a Chevy Volt in four hours, about half the time needed to charge the vehicle with a 120-volt wall socket. Customers can also use the facility for shorter "top-off" charging sessions, which could consume as little as 25 cents worth of electricity.

The installation of the charging station shows the town is among the leaders in promoting electric vehicle use. Earlier this summer, a pair of privately operated EV charging stations opened at a commercial building at 495 Post Road East, while six more EV charging sites could open in the near future, according to Building Official Steve Smith.

Headlining the new crop of plug-in facilities could be 20 new solar-powered EV stations on the New Haven-bound side of the Saugatuck station. The town has secured about $110,000 in state funding for the project and could open that charging center by the end of the year, pending approval from the state Department of Transportation.

"Westport has always been a leader in promoting green initiatives," said First Selectman Gordon Joseloff. "We're committed to energy conservation."

Downtown Westport is also a strong candidate for a new EV station. Tony Eason, owner of Westport-based Elektron Solar, told the Westport News on Monday that his company hopes to open within the next three to four months two EV chargers at the Baldwin parking lot that would include solar panels and be leased for free to the town.

Westport's EV charging station is the first in the nation to use a mobile payment format. Customers can call a service number and enter the charger code and their requested charging time or send that information via text message or through Mobile Now LLC's ParkNOW! smartphone app. After the charging request is processed, the customer will be sent an authorization code by text message or smartphone app. The customer will then enter that code on the charger's keypad, which will begin the charging session. Payments for the charging station can be made with a credit or debit card, PayPal account or ParkNOW! digital wallet.

The EV station will initially be available for free, although the town will begin within the next few weeks to charge users to cover operational costs. Smith said a two-hour charging session could cost $3, but said the town had not yet determined usage rates.

The unveiling of the charging station also attracted several local EV drivers, including Robin Tauck, the former president of her family's Tauck World Discovery travel business. Rolling in to the station in her Tesla EV, she noted that the station's opening coincided with a time of growth for plug-in vehicles.

"What I'm excited about is that in 2012 there are so many cars coming out. The [EV] Nissan Leaf will be available in Connecticut," she said. "This is just the right timing for Westport."

Smith said that he envisioned that Tauck and other customers would generate daily use of the charging station.

"I'm excited about this," he said. "There's demand. This is a viable project."