Electric Highway Project Charging Up Sales, If Not Cars


Today’s affordable electric cars make great sense for cheap (and in most places, clean) commuting: There’s enough driving range to cover the average American commuter distance, and then some. But if the open road even sometimes beckons, beware: If you’re lucky enough to find a Level 2 (240V) charger, you’ll be up and running again in a matter of hours. Otherwise it’s down to haggling for an extension cord and facing a very long overnight stay—all to do another hour or so on the highway before the charge is gone again. What’s really needed to make EVs viable for long-distance travel is DC (Level 3) fast charging. Being able to achieve an 80-percent charge in less than a half hour, as Level 3 permits, is a game-changer. (Tesla’s Superchargers technically fall into the classification of Level 3 DC fast chargers as well, but use a Tesla-specific plug and can only be used to charge Teslas.)

Enter the West Coast Electric Highway. Back in 2008, transportation officials from Washington, Oregon, California, and British Columbia had uncanny foresight, at a time when electric cars being a part of the future vehicle market was definitely not a given. They set plans in motion to install fast chargers up and down I-5, all the way from San Diego to Vancouver B.C., with chargers spaced closely enough to permit even the shorter-range EVs on the market to make trips up and down part or all of the corridor.

Groundbreaking for the EV highway’s first charger installation, near Bellingham, Washington, took place in late 2011—only a year after first deliveries of the Nissan Leaf—while most of the construction for the network occurred in 2012.

West Coast electric highway charging station

The network, as it stands today, includes 13 chargers in Washington, 44 in Oregon, and 47 in California, for a total of 104 along the length of the highway. Charging stations are located on average every 35 miles; and while they’re considered supplemental to the already vast network of Level 2 (240V) chargers located throughout the states, they’re an invaluable convenience to some EV owners.

Even in 2016, huge portions of the U.S.—including major highways—don’t offer this possibility. For instance, follow I-94 west from Minneapolis, and you won’t find another fast charger until Spokane, Washington, nearly 1400 miles away.

This past week, officials from California, Oregon, and Washington were in Portland for a panel discussion about the past and future of the Highway project.

The project is a minor miracle, as policy-wise the three states aren’t quite in alignment. Oregon is a full California ZEV Program state—requiring automakers of a particular sales volume to sell zero-emissions vehicles in the state. Washington isn’t a California ZEV Program state; rather it’s a “ZEV observer,” as Tonia Buell, a project development manager at the Washington State DOT, nebulously put it.

There are some issues that the officials acknowledged. Support—especially for downtime and maintenance—is one of them. Officials learned early on to require 24-hour availability and remote-reboot capability for the chargers. Another hurdle is that users may have to juggle cards and passes, and make the occasional after-hours support call. Chargers along the electric highway are split among several different charging networks, each with its own payment methods; the states are working to make sure credit cards are easily accepted, but it’s still a work in progress.

Multiple Formats

Perhaps the greatest issue is that the network, which was commissioned prior to the adoption of the SAE Combined Charging Standard (CCS) fast-charging format, is mostly compatible only with the CHAdeMO format (employed by Asian OEMs and used on the Nissan Leaf, Kia Soul EV, and Mitsubishi i-MiEV); meanwhile CCS (used by U.S. and German automakers and installed on the BMW i3, Chevy Spark EV and Chevy Bolt, and Volkswagen e-Golf) is overtaking CHAdeMO as the more common of the two. Over time, the plan is for existing charging cabinets to be replaced by dual-standard ones, but it’s not clear who will pay for the new ones.

Although those highway-project chargers were some of the first fast chargers in the three states, the number has since expanded significantly, increasingly due to private efforts. Most significantly BMW and VW—through the charging company ChargePoint—are installing more stations in the proximity of I-5. And city efforts—in Seattle, for instance—are focused around charger availability for car-sharing networks.

But Are They Used?

Yet officials readily admit that some charging stations really don’t get a lot of use. While Oregon claims that motorists have suckled 551 megawatts of energy off its 44 state-allocated Highway charging stations and covered about 1.5 million miles, two-year-old data from Idaho National Laboratory (INL) showed some fast-charger installations within the Highway network averaging less than one charging session a day.

And those seldom-used chargers come at a cost. A 2014 paper from the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions summed the total cost for each of the project’s charging stations to be $109,500 to $122,000, including details such as site screening, leases, and labor.

Andrew Dick, Oregon Department of Transportation’s connected, autonomous, and EV advisor, defends remote stations as “indispensable” despite very low use—because of the sheer lack of other charging options in their proximity.

So how do you gauge the success of such a project? Tonia Buell, a project development manager at the Washington State DOT, says we shouldn’t dwell on individual station use, and that there’s only one gauge: car registrations. “Our ultimate goal is to sell electric vehicles, to advance the market,” said Buell. Washington has had, at times, the highest EV market share among states, and it’s set an ambitious target of 50,000 EV registrations by 2020.

And reassuring potential buyers that packing for a highway trip won’t involve an extension cord and sleeping bag is a big part of it.

from Car and Driver Blog http://blog.caranddriver.com/electric-highway-project-charging-up-sales-if-not-cars-2/

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