YUBA CITY, CALIFORNIA — On a warm November afternoon, I pulled into a Target parking lot on my first road trip in an electric car.
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 stopovers — even along the busy Interstate 5 corridor — were largely empty of vehicles. This Target station was no exception, with only one other electric car tapping into the eight available chargers.
In what was quickly becoming a familiar ritual, I inserted the prongs 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 basset hounds, Blake and Maverick, out of the back for much needed pee breaks in the shrubs bordering the asphalt.
Thirty-five minutes later, the battery had recharged from 14% to 81%, which gave me a forecast range of more than 200 miles. I helped the bassets back into the car, and we headed east to cross the Sierra Nevada range and descend to Carson City, our destination in the high desert of western Nevada.
This road trip gave me a chance to use the rapidly evolving electric car recharging network, poised to receive a $7.5 billion infusion from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that President Biden signed into law in November.
The money is intended to expand the network to prepare for a massive, decades-long shift — driven by the urgency of climate change — from driving in vehicles with internal combustion engines running on the oil companies’ fossil fuels to those powered by electricity.
Already this year, automakers have rolled out a wave of new electric models, and the record-shattering temperatures of the summer, along with the scientists warning of the need to abruptly change course, have added new urgency to our individual decisions about how we drive.
The upcoming federal spending will give the U.S. taxpayer a significant stake in this new alternative fuel system. The money will flow through state departments of transportation, which will award grants based on federal regulations.
The U.S. public charging network, as it now exists, is dominated by private companies. Phone apps can tell you even which stalls are available in real time.
Tesla is the giant, the company with the top position in car sales in Washington state and elsewhere in the nation. Elon Musk’s company also has the biggest network with some 4,500 North American stations outfitted with specialized chargers customized for their vehicles. Tesla’s “Superchargers” are able to deliver 200 miles of range in about 15 minutes. Others, such as EVgo and Volkswagen-owned Electrify America, have made their stations able to charge a wide array of models.
In the Puget Sound region these private companies now operate dozens of charging sites in Seattle and other communities.
But in our region and elsewhere, public and investor-owned utilities also are big players. They provide power that recharging stations use to fuel electric cars. Some also are developing their own networks on public charging stations providing an alternative model to corporate control.
Seattle City Light, for example, has installed 17 of its chargers spread across seven different sites, which are managed with the assistance of two private companies, Chargeway and Greenlots. The costs have averaged about $170,000 per charger, with more coming on line in the years ahead.
Seattle City Light’s Angela Song said that the utility is trying to put the public charging stations in areas that are not being served by private companies. “I think that’s a big role for us as a government agency … to fill in those gaps,” Song said. “The entire utility is thinking about how do we equitably increase access to these charging stations.”
And the Washington State Transportation Department (WSDOT), when federal dollars arrive, is expected to pursue a similar strategy that would put an emphasis of public private partnerships to fill in gaps — sometimes called “charging deserts” in the state network.
“We want to spread to different areas that the private sector wouldn’t invest in on their own because there is not enough demand,” 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.
At Seattle City Light, for example, those residential rates range from less than 10 cents to more than 14 cents per kilowatt hour depending on how much power the customers uses, and where they live. At the low end, that could enable the owner of an ID.4 to gain some 200 miles of range for about $5.40, substantially cheaper than gasoline. The federal Energy Department calculates that residential charging in Washington on average is 72% cheaper than traveling an equivalent amount of miles on regular gasoline.
But this home charging is difficult for residents, some of them low income, who live in apartments or other buildings that lack access to plugs. So if they want to own an electric car they may have to turn to public chargers that may cost double or triple residential rates.
At some fast-charging sites, the highest priced charges may rival or even exceed the cost of gasoline to travel an equivalent number of miles in a fuel efficient gasoline-powered vehicle, such as a late model Prius able to get more than 50 miles per gallon.
Some owners of new electric cars, at least temporarily, can get around those charges. When we acquired the ID.4, for example, Volkswagen included three years of free charging at its Electrify America outlets. (They also threw in three years of free towing services that I hope I never need to use.)
Without such arrangements, vehicle owners charging on the Electrify America network on the West Coast typically pay from 31 cents (available to those who pay a $4 monthly membership fee) to 43 cents per kilowatt hour.
At the higher rate, my charge at Yuba City, which brought up to 200 miles in range, would have cost more than $23.
Electrify America officials say these prices reflect the considerable expenses of building these charging stations. They also are pushed up by the cost of electricity, which includes steep “demand charges” the company must pay to utilities to accommodate a surge of cars during periods of peak grid usage.
Even if those surges only happen once, “You still get penalized for that one event, and you have to pay a pretty hefty price,” said Rob Barrosa, senior director of sales and business for Electrify America.
To help reduce those peak period costs, Electrify America has installed battery packs at 140 stations in California and other states. This enables the company to draw electricity when the power is cheap and available, such as the midday period in California when solar farms are pouring electricity onto the grid, and then store it for later.
Ups and downs on the road
These investments are part of a broader expansion plan underway by Electrify America, which was formed during a difficult chapter in Volkswagen’s history. In 2016, the car company faced civil and criminal investigations for installing “defeat devices” that enabled cheating on emissions tests on diesel vehicles. As part of a settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency and California, Volkswagen agreed to spend $2 billion over a decade to develop the charging network, which currently has 700 charging stations currently open to the public with more than 3,100 chargers.
Electrify America projects 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 bare-bones installations tucked into parking lots near stores so you can charge the car while you shop.
The chargers are equipped with powerful software to regulate power flows and recognize customers who can use credit cards or apps to pay. But they still occasionally have some snafus.
During my first Electrify America stop in Sutherlin, Oregon, my initial efforts to refuel failed because the charger did not appear 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 get the charging started.
Then, another problem emerged.
The car was charging very slowly. It eventually took 82 minutes, to boost the battery from 20% to 78%. That was more than double the time that it was supposed to take, and was a dispiriting start.
Later in the trip, the chargers worked 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 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 forecasting also increased as I used an Electrify America app to pinpoint my recharging sites.
When the ID.4 first climbed up Siskiyou Pass at the southern edge of Oregon, I got anxious as the strain of the uphill grind prompted the range forecaster to quickly reduce the forecast mileages.
But once I got to the top of the pass and started rolling downhill, I actually regained considerable mileage and made it to my next charging point in Yreka, California, with plenty of power to spare. My range was boosted, in part, by regenerative braking that charges the battery.
On the return trip from Nevada, we climbed out of the Lake Tahoe Basin and crossed into California, where the Caldor fire — fueled by this summer’s drought and winds — had left behind a vast burn zone on both sides of Highway 50.
As we journeyed west to rejoin I-5, I felt a sense of liberation to be free from an internal combustion engine spewing carbon emissions. I imagined a future that would include vast mall parking lots topped with roofs of solar panels, providing shade and electricity for electric cars beneath them.
But the nation still faces a long struggle to move away from fossil fuels.
For the next decade or more, my road trips likely will be tied to recharges from a western grid still partially dependent on power generation from coal and natural-gas plants. Though my car now lacks a tailpipe, their stacks continue to send greenhouse-gas pollution into the atmosphere.
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