A road trip to Nevada on the rapidly evolving charging network for electric cars
YUBA CITY, CALIFORNIA – On a warm November afternoon, I drove an electric car into a Target parking lot on my first road trip.
It was Thanksgiving week, one of the busiest travel times of the year. But since I left my Portland home, most of my charging stations – even along the busy Interstate 5 corridor – have been largely empty of vehicles. This target station was no exception, as only one other electric car tapped the eight available chargers.
In a quickly familiar ritual, I stick the prongs of a thick gray cable into the rear opening of our ID-4, an all-electric model launched by Volkswagen this year. Then my wife Ann and I helped my two basset hounds Blake and Maverick out of the back for badly needed pee breaks in the bushes on the edge of the asphalt.
Thirty-five minutes later, the battery was charged from 14% to 81%, which gave me a predicted range of over 200 miles. I helped the Bassets back into the car and we drove east to cross the Sierra Nevada and descend to Carson City, our destination in the high desert of western Nevada.
This road trip gave me the opportunity to take advantage of the rapidly evolving electric car charging network that is poised to receive a $ 7.5 billion infusion from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which President Biden signed in November.
The money is to be used to expand the network in order to prepare for a massive, decades-long change – driven by the urgency of climate change – from driving in vehicles with internal combustion engines, which are powered by fossil fuels from the oil companies, to electrically powered vehicles.
As early as this year, automakers launched a wave of new electric models, and the record-breaking temperatures of the summer and the scientists’ warning of an abrupt change of course made our individual decisions about our driving behavior more urgent.
The upcoming federal spending will provide the US taxpayer with a significant portion of this new alternative fuel system. The money will flow through the state transportation ministries, which award grants based on federal regulations.
The US public charging network as it exists today is dominated by private companies. Phone apps can even tell you in real time what booths are available.
Tesla is the giant, the top auto sales company in Washington state and elsewhere in the nation. Elon Musk’s company also has the largest network of around 4,500 North American stations equipped with special chargers tailored to their vehicles. Tesla’s “Superchargers” are capable of delivering a range of 200 miles in around 15 minutes. Others, like EVgo and Volkswagen-owned Electrify America, have enabled their stations to charge a wide variety of models.
In the Puget Sound area, these private companies now operate dozens of charging stations in Seattle and other communities.
But also in our region and elsewhere, public utilities and energy suppliers are owned by investors. They supply the electricity that charging stations use to fill up electric cars. Some are also developing their own networks of public charging stations, which represent an alternative model for corporate governance.
Seattle City Light, for example, has 17 of its chargers installed in seven different locations, which are managed with the help of two private companies, Chargeway and Greenlots. The cost averages about $ 170,000 per charger, with more to come in the years to come.
Seattle City Light’s Angela Song said the utility is trying to place the public charging stations in areas that are not served by private companies. “I think that’s a big role for us as a government agency … to fill those loopholes,” said Song. “The entire energy supplier is thinking about how we can improve access to these charging stations fairly.”
And the Washington State Transportation Department (WSDOT) is expected to follow a similar strategy when federal dollars arrive that would focus on public-private partnerships to fill in loopholes – sometimes referred to as “loading deserts” in the state network.
“We want to expand into different areas that the private sector would not invest in on its own because there is insufficient demand,” said Tonia Buell, a WSDOT official who will be involved in the funding process.
Electricity cheaper than gas? Not always
Most electric car owners find it cheapest to refuel at home.
At Seattle City Light, for example, these tariffs for private households range from less than 10 cents to more than 14 cents per kilowatt hour, depending on how much electricity the customers consume and where they live. On the lower end, this could allow an ID-4 owner to gain about 200 miles of range for about $ 5.40, which is significantly cheaper than gasoline. The Department of Energy calculates that charging private households in Washington is, on average, 72% cheaper than driving on regular gasoline for a corresponding number of miles.
However, this charging is difficult for residents with sometimes low incomes who live in apartments or other buildings without sockets. So if they want to own an electric car, they may have to turn to public chargers, which can cost double or triple for households.
At some fast charging stations, the most expensive charges can compete with or even exceed the cost of gasoline to travel an equivalent number of miles, such as two gallons, in a fuel efficient gasoline powered vehicle.
Some new electric car owners can at least temporarily bypass these fees. If we acquired With the ID-4, for example, Volkswagen has started charging free of charge at its Electrify America stores for three years. (They also introduced three years of free towing services that I hope I never need.)
Without such agreements, vehicle owners who charge through the West Coast Electrify America network typically pay anywhere from 31 cents (available to those paying a $ 4 monthly membership fee) to 43 cents per kilowatt hour.
At the higher tariff, my charge in Yuba City, which had a range of up to 200 miles, would have cost more than $ 23.
Electrify America officials say these prices reflect the significant cost of building these charging stations. They are also driven up by electricity costs, which include high “demand” fees that the company has to pay utility companies to handle an increase in cars during times of high network usage.
Even if these spikes happen only once, “you are still being penalized for that one event, and you have to pay a pretty heavy price,” said Rob Barrosa, senior director of sales and business for Electrify America.
To reduce these peak times, Electrify America has installed battery packs at 140 stations in California and other states. This enables the company to obtain electricity when the electricity is cheap and available, for example at lunchtime in California when solar parks feed electricity into the grid, and store it for later.
Ups and downs on the road
These investments are part of a broader Electrify America expansion plan that began during a difficult chapter in Volkswagen history. In 2016, the car company was exposed to civil and criminal investigations into the installation of “disconnection devices” that enabled fraud in the emission tests of diesel vehicles. As part of an agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency and California, Volkswagen agreed to spend over a decade on expanding the charging network, which currently makes 700 charging stations with more than 3,100 chargers available to the public.
Electrify America is forecasting 1,800 stations with 10,000+ chargers by the end of 2025.
Many of these stations are, for the most part, at least for the time being, simply constructed installations that are hidden in parking lots near shops so that you can charge the car while shopping.
The chargers are equipped with powerful software to regulate the flow of electricity and recognize customers who can pay with credit cards or apps. But they still have some snafus on occasion.
During my first Electrify America stop in Sutherlin, Oregon, my first refueling attempts failed because the charger didn’t seem to recognize my vehicle. I called customer service and a company representative was patiently able to walk me through the steps required to start charging.
Then another problem arose.
The car charged very slowly. It finally took 82 minutes to charge the battery from 20% to 78%. That was more than double the time it was supposed to take and was a daunting start.
Later in the trip, the chargers worked much better.
In Yuba City and most other stops, I got my 80% – 200 mile range – in 40 minutes or less. And the stops seemed more like welcome breaks than the long, drawn-out wait on that cold night in Sutherlin.
My confidence in the car and its range predictions also increased when I used an Electrify America app to locate my charging stations.
When the ID-4 first climbed Siskiyou Pass on the southern edge of Oregon, I became frightened when the stress of the climb caused the range finder to quickly reduce the forecast kilometers.
But when I got to the top of the pass and started rolling downhill, I was actually able to cover considerable miles and made it to my next charging station in Yreka, California with a lot of strength. My range has been increased in part by regenerative braking, which charges the battery.
On the way back from Nevada we left the Lake Tahoe Basin and crossed California, where the Caldor Fire – fueled by the drought and wind of that summer – had left a huge burn zone on both sides of Highway 50.
When we traveled west to return to I-5, I felt liberated from an internal combustion engine that was emitting carbon. I envisioned a future that would include huge parking lots in shopping malls covered with roofs of solar panels that provide shade and power for electric cars underneath.
But the nation still faces a long battle to move away from fossil fuels.
For the next decade or more, my road trips will likely be tied to recharging a western grid that still depends in part on electricity generation from coal and natural gas power plants. Even though my car doesn’t have a tailpipe now, their chimneys continue to emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.