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Driving Lessons: Charging Ahead in the Electric Vehicle Race

July 19, 2016 By Molly White in

Electric vehicles have a troubled past, with a false start in the mid-1990s that made some wonder if their return was nothing but another flash in the pan. But public power utilities that are investing in electric vehicle charging infrastructure know they’re now here to stay. No one is killing the electric car this time around.

Experts predict a major shift in adoption on the horizon as the cars themselves become more affordable and reliable, the Tesla’s Model 3 chief among them. The utility industry’s increased interest and involvement is a bellwether, too. With the widespread adoption of EVs comes some worry for grid operators — if customers plug in when they arrive home from work in the early evening, the grid could be burdened with more load during peak times. Utilities taking a hands-on approach now will make for a more reliable grid.

This is why public power utilities are not only installing charging infrastructure, but also investing in programs that create frameworks to measure the load from EV charging in their service territories, and incentivize customers to charge when it’s cheaper for them and easier on the grid.

A community approach in Austin
When Austin Energy in Texas first started installing electric vehicle charging infrastructure, the utility decided to own and operate the 113 stations it deployed through a $2 million U.S. Department of Energy grant. But its business model has shifted to one of collaboration with the community.

Property owners can work with Austin Energy to deploy chargers at their own sites. The utility provides incentives and monitors and maintains the charging stations. The utility also provides the subscription for EV drivers to use the chargers — unlimited access for $4.17 per month.

EVs in Austin are coming in greater and more diverse quantities, said Cameron Freberg, utility strategist. “Austin Energy, as a leader in the electric power industry, has been promoting transformation electrification initiatives since 2008.” Supporting EVs also goes hand in hand with the city’s climate goals while supporting potential load growth for the utility.

Austin conducted a pilot study to show that plug-in EV charging can be centrally managed within a demand-response platform to improve grid reliability. The pilot integrated thermostats and residential smart chargers. Austin is also piloting a residential EV time-of-use rate that gives customers more choices and greater convenience.

Utility: Austin Energy
Customers: 448,000
Charging stations installed: 250+
Timeline: 2011–present

Speed bumps: Education was the biggest hurdle for Austin Energy, as it usually is when adopting any new technology. To overcome the challenge, the utility has been aggressive with its marketing and outreach. A campaign called Charge Forth included print, radio, digital marketing, testimonials and community outreach events.

Driving lessons: Education and outreach are key contributors for a utility to successfully implement an EV program. Austin’s consistent interaction with key stakeholders, auto dealers and property managers was beneficial to its program.

Gaining speed: EV owners in Austin have convenient and accessible charging available to them at retail, workplace and multifamily properties. And thanks to Austin’s innovative model, the price for public charging is very low.

Charging ahead: As electric vehicle ownership grows, Austin sees the opportunity to continue to support its customers. The utility’s next big push will focus on DC fast-charging while continuing to deploy charging stations on multifamily properties where more than 40 percent of the city’s population lives.

Expanding customer options in Burbank
For Burbank Water and Power in Burbank, California, the electric vehicle charging proposal was an easy one: it was another way to enhance customer service.

Burbank surveys its customers periodically, and the feedback regarding EV charging stations has been positive. The surveys also help the utility improve its service offerings, including the charging stations.

“One of the biggest issues is charger availability and parking enforcement,” said Kapil Kulkarni, electric vehicle program manager at the utility. “As a result, we developed the curbside program, where enforcement can be done more effectively by the city than by a private party for a parking lot.”

Curbside charging hit some challenges and required outreach to the community. Kulkarni said more outreach about electric vehicles and a utility’s programs will help everyone as the technology advances.

Utility: Burbank Water and Power
Customers: 49,000
Infrastructure investment: $680,000
Charging stations installed: 28
Timeline: 11 charging stations were installed in 2011, 16 were installed in 2015, 1 has been installed in 2016, and an additional 6 are planned for installation through the year

Speed bumps: Funding can be a big hurdle — chargers are expensive, and the labor and installation can cost even more. Burbank was able to secure more than $300,000 in federal, state and local grant funding. Outreach was also a challenge as the utility expanded its infrastructure to curbside chargers. But outreach shows the benefits of the projects to the entire city.

Driving lessons: Electric vehicle infrastructure requires careful planning and coordination. Planning ensures the chargers will get used. Coordination ensures everything runs smoothly when other city departments, such as public works and the police, are involved.

Gaining speed: Burbank Water and Power gained a new load source by installing electric vehicle charging infrastructure. The utility also uses its EV activity to generate credits through California’s Low Carbon Fuel Standard program, which the utility can then use to expand its charging network.

Charging ahead: Burbank is studying the effectiveness of curbside chargers versus parking lot chargers to continue to expand the public charging network. The utility also plans to promote its residential and business rebate programs to ensure customers can charge cost-effectively at home and at work.

An easy sell in Clark County
Clark Public Utilities in Vancouver, Washington, found that getting support for its electric vehicle charging infrastructure investment was easier than anticipated. The utility director presented the idea to the county’s commission and general manager — both wanted to be proactive in implementing sustainable solutions for their community.

The utility has had electric vehicles in its fleet for about three years, and its employees were already making the transition. As a service provider, the utility found it made sense to add charging stations to support its community.

A third-party vendor, Blink, supports and maintains the chargers, but all the installation work was performed by utility line crews. The utility’s investment covered one fast charger, transformers, wiring, metering and labor, while Blink provided four additional L2 chargers free. The utility owns all the charging infrastructure, while Blink maintains and operates it.

Utility: Clark Public Utilities
Customers: 292,000
Infrastructure investment: $30,000
Charging stations installed: 5
Timeline: Completed August 2015

Speed bumps: Finding a partner to buy and maintain EV systems can be critical if that’s the business model. There are many EV system providers to choose from, but finding a partner willing to invest time and support can be hard.

Driving lessons: In researching this project, many peers looked at EVs as a trend that would soon pass. Now those same peers are asking Clark Utilities for advice on how to invest in charging stations of their own, and the utility has an experience to share.

Gaining speed: The Clark Utilities service territory has EV owners who have come to depend on the stations it installed and who let the utility know when they encounter challenges charging. The chargers support workplace charging, and customers have access anytime, day or night.

Charging ahead: Clark PUD wants to create a partnership with its customers and local businesses to share the experience of installing EV structure and to provide guidance.

Testing the charge in Fayetteville
The Fayetteville Public Works Commission in Fayetteville, North Carolina, installed four public EV charging stations in 2015. After exploring the idea, grant funding made it feasible for the utility to move forward, but it also created challenges.

To utilize the more than $35,000 from the North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center, the  utility had to follow rules regarding the charging station locations.

Customers are able to use the PWC’s charging stations for free. And usage is growing every month.

Utility: Fayetteville Public Works Commission
Customers: 80,000
Infrastructure investment: $43,849
Charging stations installed: 4
Timeline: Completed December 2015

Speed bumps: Finding charging station locations that met grant requirements took longer than expected. Coupled with the legal requirements of each site partner, the utility encountered delays.

Driving lessons: For future projects, the PWC knows to allow more time for negotiating legal requirements and the logistics associated with installing the stations.

Gaining speed: While usage has been light, the charging stations are seeing increased use each month. The PWC is able to provide the service to its customers for free.

Charging ahead: To determine future steps, Fayetteville plans to continue to monitor usage and expenses while it considers the overall benefits of installing the charging stations.

Full-scale deployment at Kansas City Power & Light
Kansas City Power & Light in Missouri has been called bold for its initiative to bring electric vehicle charging infrastructure to its customers in 47 counties throughout northwest Missouri and eastern Kansas. By the end of 2016, the utility will have installed 1,000 charging stations that it owns, operates and maintains within its service territory.

“EVs are here to stay,” said Chuck Caisley, vice president of marketing and public affairs for KCP&L, an investor-owned utility. “However, the industry can advance only if there are adequate charging stations throughout the country, similar to what we now have for gasoline-powered vehicles.”

KCP&L is located in the second-largest automobile manufacturing region in the U.S., Caisley said, making the service territory ideal to support the automobile industry’s future. But the utility stands to benefit, too, he said.

“KCP&L will get hard data on adoption, standards, customer experience and grid impacts, all of which can be used to inform state law and regulatory policy, proactively, rather than waiting until EV adoption increases and utilities and regulators have to react.”

Utility: Kansas City Power & Light
Customers: 835,000
Infrastructure investment: $20 million
Charging stations installed: 600 to date
Timeline: Ongoing, full deployment expected in 2016

Speed bumps: The three- to four-month lead time for regulatory and permitting requirements was substantially longer than KCP&L had anticipated. The utility collaborated with cities in its service territories to establish a process that will benefit the community as more charging stations are deployed.

Driving lessons: Host contract negotiations take time. The average negotiation period for one contract was more than 100 days. This resulted in much longer timelines before installation could begin.

Gaining speed: EV charging stations increase electricity sales, reduce emissions in the region, attract jobs through station deployment, and provide data to help the utility improve customer programs such as new time-of-use rates.

Customer response: KCP&L customers and EV drivers in the region have given the utility kudos for its investment in charging infrastructure. A Tesla owner in Overland Park, Kansas, told the utility that range used to be a problem, but with all the chargers popping up around the region, it isn’t anymore.

Charging ahead: KCP&L plans to continue to complete deployment of its Clean Charge Network and then use the information from the network to collaborate with stakeholders to develop policies and programs for the developing market.

By Laura D’Alessandro
Integrated Media Editor, APPA, July 1, 2016