A Nevada road trip on the rapidly evolving electric car charging network
YUBA CITY, CALIFORNIA – On a hot November afternoon, I pulled into a Target parking lot on my first electric car trip.
It was Thanksgiving week, one of the busiest travel times of the year. But since leaving my home in Portland, most of my charging station stops – even along the busy Interstate 5 corridor – were largely empty of vehicles. This Target station was no exception, with just one other electric car exploiting the eight chargers available.
In what was quickly becoming a familiar ritual, I inserted the pins of a thick gray cable into the rear port of our ID-4, an all-electric model introduced this year by Volkswagen. Then my wife, Ann, and I helped my two bassets, Blake and Maverick, get out of the back for some much-needed pee breaks in the shrubs bordering the asphalt.
Thirty-five minutes later, the battery had recharged from 14 to 81%, giving me a predicted range of over 200 miles. I helped the bassets back into the car and we headed west across the Sierra Nevada range and down to Carson City, our destination in the high desert of western Nevada.
This road trip gave me the opportunity to use the rapidly evolving electric car charging network, on the verge of receiving a $ 7.5 billion infusion from the Investment and Jobs Act. in the infrastructure that President Biden signed into law in November.
The money is intended to expand the grid to prepare for massive change spanning decades – driven by the climate change emergency – from driving vehicles with internal combustion engines that run on oil companies’ fossil fuels to those fueled by oil companies. to electricity. Already this year, automakers have launched a wave of new electric models, and the record summer temperatures, along with scientists warning of the need for a sudden change of course, have added new urgency to our individual decisions on the the way we drive. .
Future federal spending will give the US taxpayer a significant stake in this new alternative fuel system. The money will flow through state transportation departments, which will provide grants based on federal regulations.
The US public charging network, as it currently exists, is dominated by private companies. Phone apps can even tell you which booths are available in real time.
Tesla is the giant, the number one company in car sales in Washington state and elsewhere in the country. Elon Musk’s company also has the largest network with some 4,500 North American stations equipped with specialized chargers customized for their vehicles. Tesla’s “superchargers” are capable of delivering 200 miles of range in about 15 minutes. Others, like EVgo and Volkswagen-owned Electrify America, have made their stations capable of charging a wide range of models.
In the Puget Sound area, these private companies now operate dozens of charging sites in Seattle and other communities.
But in our region and elsewhere, public and private services are also important players. They provide the energy that charging stations use to power electric cars. Some are also developing their own networks of public charging stations offering an alternative model to corporate control.
Light of the city of Seattle, for example, has installed 17 of its chargers at seven different sites, which are managed with the help of two private companies, Chargeway and Greenlots. Costs have averaged around $ 170,000 per charger, with more coming online in the coming years.
Angela Song of Seattle City Light said the utility is trying to install public charging stations in areas that are not served by private companies. âI think it’s a big role for us as a government agencyâ¦ to fill these gaps,â Song said. âThe entire public service is considering how to fairly increase access to these charging stations. “
And the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT), when the federal dollars arrive, is expected to pursue a similar strategy that emphasizes public-private partnerships to fill the gaps – sometimes referred to as “load deserts” in the country. the state network.
âWe want to expand into different areas where the private sector would not invest alone because there is not enough demand,â said Tonia Buell, a WSDOT official who will be involved in the grant process.
Electricity cheaper than gas? Not always
For most electric car owners, the cheapest way to refuel is to plug in at home.
In Seattle City Light, for example, these residential rates ranging from less than 10 cents to more than 14 cents per kilowatt hour depending on the amount of electricity customers use and where they live. At the bottom of the scale, it could get an ID-4 owner around 200 miles of range for around $ 5.40, significantly cheaper than gasoline. Federal Department of Energy calculates residential charging in Washington on average is 72 percent cheaper than traveling the same number of kilometers on regular gasoline.
But this home charging is difficult for residents, some of whom are on low incomes, who live in apartments or other buildings that do not have access to outlets. So if they want to own an electric car, they may have to turn to public chargers which can cost double or triple residential rates.
At some fast-charging sites, the highest charges can rival or even exceed the cost of gasoline to travel an equivalent number of kilometers in a fuel-efficient gasoline vehicle, such as a recent model of Prius capable of traveling more than 80 kilometers per hour. gallon.
Some owners of new electric cars, at least temporarily, can get around these charges. when we acquired the ID-4, for example, Volkswagen has included three years of free charging at its Electrify America outlets. (They also offered three years of free towing services which I hope I never need to use.)
Without such arrangements, owners of vehicles charging on the Electrify America grid on the West Coast generally pay from 31 cents (available to those paying a monthly membership fee of $ 4) to 43 cents per kilowatt hour.
At the highest rate, my charge in Yuba City, which carried up to 200 miles in range, would have cost over $ 23.
Electrify America officials say these prices reflect the considerable expense involved in building these charging stations. They are also being pushed up by the cost of electricity, which includes high âdemand chargesâ that the company must pay to utilities to cope with an increase in the number of cars during peak periods. network use.
Even though these flare-ups only happen once, “you’re still penalized for this event and you have to pay a pretty steep price,” said Rob Barrosa, senior director of sales and business for Electrify America.
To help reduce these costs during peak periods, Electrify America has installed battery packs at 140 stations in California and other states. This allows the company to tap into electricity when electricity is cheap and available, such as midday in California, when solar farms pour electricity into the grid and then store it for later.
Ups and downs on the road
These investments are part of a larger expansion plan underway by Electrify America, which was formed during a difficult chapter in Volkswagen history. In 2016, the automaker was the subject of civil and criminal investigations for installing “defeat devices” that allowed cheating on emissions tests on diesel vehicles. As part of an agreement with the Environmental Protection Agency and California, Volkswagen has agreed to spend $ 2 billion over a decade to expand the charging network, which currently has 700 charging stations currently open to the public with over 3,100 chargers.
Electrify America is planning more than 1,800 stations with more than 10,000 chargers by the end of 2025.
Many of these stations, at least for now, are largely rudimentary facilities tucked away in parking lots near stores so you can charge the car while you shop.
The chargers are equipped with powerful software to regulate energy flows and recognize customers who may use credit cards or apps to pay. But sometimes they still have snafus.
On my first Electrify America stop in Sutherlin, Oregon, my initial efforts to refuel failed because the charger didn’t seem to recognize my vehicle. I called a customer service line and a company representative was able to patiently walk me through the steps necessary to start the charge.
Then another problem arose.
The car was loading very slowly. It ended up taking 82 minutes to get the battery down from 20% to 78%. It was more than double the time it was supposed to take, and it was a disheartening start.
Later in the trip the chargers performed much better.
In Yuba City and most other stops, I got my 80% – 200 miles of range – in 40 minutes or less. And the stops felt more like welcome breaks than the long, endless wait for that cold night in Sutherlin.
My confidence in the car and its range forecast also increased when I used an Electrify America app to locate my charging sites.
When the ID-4 first climbed the Siskiyou Pass on the southern edge of Oregon, I became concerned as the tension of the climb prompted the forecaster to quickly cut the mileage planned.
But once I got to the top of the pass and started to descend, I actually regained some considerable mileage and made it to my next charging point in Yreka, CA with plenty of power to spare. My range has been increased, in part, by the regenerative braking that charges the battery.
On the way back from Nevada, we exited the Lake Tahoe Basin and passed through California, where the Caldor fire – fueled by drought and winds this summer – had left a large burnt area on both sides of the highway. 50.
As we traveled west to join I-5, I felt a sense of liberation to be freed from an internal combustion engine spewing carbon emissions. I envisioned a future that would include sprawling shopping mall parking lots topped with roofs of solar panels, providing shade and electricity for the electric cars below.
But the nation still faces a long struggle to move away from fossil fuels.
Over the next decade or more, my road trips will likely be linked to recharging a Western grid still partially dependent on electricity generation from coal and natural gas power plants. Although my car no longer has an exhaust pipe, their chimneys continue to emit greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.