Like many electric vehicle owners, Keith Dotson charges his car at home.
Finding a convenient charging station can sometimes be a challenge, even though Dotson and others say they can use mobile apps to locate the stations they need.
The 31-year-old Redford Township man loves driving his 2013 Ford C-Max Energi, a plug-in electric hybrid, but he would welcome more public charging locations and believes they could boost the popularity of electric vehicles.
“I know that it feels like a chicken and the egg situation, but I believe that … more infrastructure will help propel more EV sales,” Dotson said, using a common abbreviation for electric vehicles.
Fear that an electric car might run out of juice before the driver can charge up again has a name — range anxiety — and some energy experts believe the best way to overcome it and boost the acceptance of electric vehicles in Michigan is to add more charging stations. The state has 330 public charging stations, and they are not spread evenly around the state, which is believed to be home to about 9,500 plug-in electric vehicles.
Tesla, which produces some of the most popular electric vehicles, is the only automotive company with its own widespread charging station network to serve its customers, according to Larry Ward, executive director of the Michigan Conservative Energy Forum, which promotes renewable energy and energy efficiency.
"They make sure that where they have vehicles, they have charging stations," Ward said. "Charging stations would be a key part of infrastructure for the development of electrification of vehicles.”
Tesla, based in Palo Alto, Calif., has a handful of its "superchargers" in Michigan, such as at Meijer stores in Ann Arbor, Bay City, Cadillac and Grand Rapids and the Blue Water Convention Center in Port Huron. State law prevents the company from selling vehicles in Michigan, although the company does have a "gallery" at the Nordstrom in the Somerset Collection in Troy. Instead of selling cars at its gallery, Tesla directs potential customers to contact a retailer in Ohio.
Consumers Energy had its own plan last year when it proposed setting up hundreds of electric-vehicle charging stations across Michigan’s Lower Peninsula, including 60 so-called fast-charge stations along major thoroughfares.
But the Jackson-based utility recently pulled the plug on the $15-million proposal after pushback from a range of entities, including a Silicon Valley electric charging station vendor and the Michigan Attorney General’s Office.
Their concerns ranged from a fear that companies like the vendor, Campbell-Calif.-based ChargePoint, which bills itself as having the largest network of electric vehicle charging stations, would be at a competitive disadvantage to a "monopolistic" utility to unhappiness that the expense for creating the system would be borne by Consumers’ ratepayers, most of whom do not drive electric vehicles.
Sebastian Coppola, a business consultant who testified for the Attorney General’s Office before the Michigan Public Service Commission last year on the proposal, called the plan “ill-conceived and a financial burden on all electric customers of the company if it were approved.”
Consumers Energy had included the proposal in its most recent rate request before the commission, which approved a $113-million (2.8%) rate hike for the utility in February above what had been OK’d in 2015. The rate hike did not include any costs for Consumers’ electric vehicle proposal because that piece was withdrawn.
But in a nod to the Consumers Energy proposal, the commission plans to organize a technical conference, likely this summer, with stakeholders, auto companies, experts and utilities to discuss deployment of plug-in electric vehicle charging infrastructure statewide.
Brian Wheeler, a Consumers Energy spokesman, said the utility remains interested in expanding that infrastructure, but that it wants to work with the public service commission to better understand “their thoughts” on the issue.
“There’s a growing number of drivers of these vehicles and a growing number of vehicles like this on the road, so there’s certainly … a growing need for infrastructure, especially in areas with high concentrations of drivers,” Wheeler said.
Understanding the demand for electric vehicle charging stations in Michigan is not clear cut. A spokesman for the Michigan Secretary of State’s Office said the department does not currently know how many electric vehicles are registered in the state. Coppola, the attorney general’s office consultant, however, cited Consumers Energy data showing there are 9,500 plug-in electric vehicles in Michigan and 2,600 within the company’s service area.
Coppola called it “a minuscule number of vehicles that is not likely to go up significantly in the near future as long as gasoline prices remain historically low.” He also criticized the company for a decision not to charge a fee for the use of the stations or the electricity, instead forcing all utility customers to pay for a service used by only some.
Of course, gas prices, while low, can fluctuate. Gas prices averaged $2.27 per gallon on the day last summer when Coppola made his remarks, according to AAA, and prices had dropped below $2 per gallon earlier in the year.
But prices have also been higher in the past, passing the $4 per gallon mark in 2011, and AAA issued a news release last month predicting gas prices would increase almost 40 cents per gallon this summer. If gas prices go higher for a lengthy period of time, it's conceivable demand for electric vehicles could increase as well.
Rebecca Lindland, executive analyst for Kelley Blue Book, however, downplayed the power of higher gas prices to accelerate a shift to electric vehicles, saying the price would have to hit $6 or more per gallon to make a difference.
She called lack of charging infrastructure "a bit of a false barrier" to acceptance, noting that the need for charging infrastructure lessens for normal commuting as battery technology improves.
The charging infrastructure comes into play for longer drives.
The real issue, Lindland said, is that consumers in general still do not understand the concept of plugging in a car. Regulations, not consumer demand, have created the existing market for electric vehicles, Lindland said. California's Zero Emission Vehicle Program, for instance, requires that a certain percentage of vehicles sold in the state have zero tailpipe emissions. Critics note that the energy needed to produce the electric fuel is not free of pollutants.
"This is where we need to take advantage of changes in demographics in the marketplace," Lindland said. "There's a lot of interest in these types of vehicles from millennials and Gen Zs."
Nationwide, fewer than 114,000 plug-in electric vehicles were sold in 2015, according to information made available by the U.S. Department of Energy. That's a fraction of the approximately 17 1/2 million vehicles sold each of the last two years.
ChargePoint, in its comments to the commission, said adding 810 charging stations as Consumers Energy proposed would flood the competitive electric vehicle charging market. The Energy Department’s online Alternative Fuels Data Center lists 330 electric vehicle charging stations in Michigan and 15,784 across the U.S., not counting those that are private.
ChargePoint did support part of the Consumers Energy proposal — a $1,000 incentive for customers who install a home charging station.
Anne Smart, vice president of public policy at ChargePoint, said the company's main desire is to ensure businesses and other entities that host charging stations can choose their station hardware and network services. She said ChargePoint sees utilities as a partner in the deployment of charging stations, but the technology is improving, requiring additional considerations beyond station numbers.
“For siting specific fast chargers along highway corridors, I think it’s important to look at the range of the vehicles now, the range of the vehicles in the future and then charging station speeds," Smart said. "So right now, the charging stations generally being deployed are around 50 kilowatts, where the stations are moving toward, which we’ve announced and some of our competitors have announced, is 350-kilowatt stations or more, which obviously is going to create greater range, but also the cars are going to have larger batteries. It's not just about highway charging. We also want to see a full picture of where drivers are going to be able to charge inside their communities and outside their communities.”
ChargePoint, which last month announced an $82-million investment led by Daimler to expand charging in Europe, plans to roll out stations capable of delivering 400 kilowatts in a charge, which, the company says, would provide a charge at eight times the speed of a typical fast charger. That level, however, would be designed to meet expected vehicle charging advancements rather than current capabilities.
Even though Consumers Energy opted to withdraw the proposal, a representative of an Ann Arbor-based environmental organization said the effort to put it together is appreciated.
"The good thing is that the utilities are starting to take this seriously," said Charles Griffith, climate and energy program director at the Ecology Center, noting that utilities are involved in the process of developing electric vehicle charging infrastructure in California, the state in the lead nationally. The California Energy Commission said the state had 5,700 nonresidential charging stations and that more than 100,000 plug-in electrics had been sold there as of August 2014. Gov. Jerry Brown also announced a goal in 2012 of getting more than 1.5 million zero-emission vehicles on California's roads by 2025.
Griffith said his organization felt there needed to be more analysis of some aspects of the Consumers proposal, such as the distance between stations. He noted that differences exist in charging compatibility — not all plug-ins, for example can accept a fast charge — and that Tesla even has its own network of stations.
Although electric vehicles have the sheen of newness about them, they are not new. A study group appointed by an arm of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine said that 28% of passenger cars sold in the U.S. in 1900 were electric vehicles. Even Henry Ford’s wife, Clara, is said to have preferred an electric car. Those early electrics could not travel as far on a charge or drive as fast as today's electric vehicles, but they were prized in part because they were easier to start than early gasoline engines and did not produce fumes or noise, according to The Henry Ford museum.
A 2015 report by the study group, “Overcoming Barriers to Deployment of Plug-in Electric Vehicles,” noted that affordable gasoline, the national highway system, which fostered long-distance travel, and mass production of an inexpensive gasoline-powered vehicle were among the factors that “led to the demise of those first” plug-in electric vehicles.
“In the last few years, interest in PEVs has been reignited because of advances in battery and other technologies, new federal standards for carbon-dioxide emissions and fuel economy, state zero-emission-vehicle requirements, and (the administration of former President Barack Obama’s) goal of putting millions of alternative-fuel vehicles on the road,” the study said, noting the vehicles' potential benefits to consumers such as better acceleration, a smoother ride and lower operating costs. It's as yet unclear how actions by the administration of President Donald Trump could affect the future of electric vehicles.
While the U.S. automotive industry has embraced the view that hybrid, electric and plug-in-hybrid vehicles are the best solution for a fuel efficient future, and have spent billions developing a wide variety of models, they accounted for less than 3% of the U.S. car market last year.
General Motors first revealed the Chevrolet Volt at the Detroit auto show in 2007, describing it as its technological “moon shot,” but sold fewer than 25,000 in 2016.
Last year, GM launched the Chevrolet Bolt, an electric vehicle that will get more than 238 miles on a single charge and has won a number of high-profile industry accolades. Chevrolet began selling the Bolt in California and Oregon in December and is rolling it out nationwide this year. It will be on sale across the U.S. by the end of this year.
Ford now offers five electric or hybrid vehicles, including: C-Max Hybrid, C-Max Energi, Focus Electric, Fusion Hybrid and Fusion Energi. Meanwhile, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles has lagged behind most of its competitors. The Auburn Hills automaker launched its Fiat 500e electric car in 2013, but only sells it in California and Oregon.
The automaker is now launching the Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid, the industry’s first hybrid minivan.
Environmentalists and regulators say automakers could easily boost demand for hybrid and electric vehicles if they simply spent more money and effort marketing them to the public.
"We can’t build the market on our own. It is time for the automakers to step up," by offering more models and inventory, said Christine Kirby, acting assistant commissioner for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection. "Thus far they have not made the effort to sell the ZEV products in the Northeast, because they haven’t had to."
That could be changing, however.
The Consumer Federation of America, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, predicts a record sales year for electric vehicles in 2017 based on better batteries and pricing and more vehicle choices.
"With the release of the Chevrolet Bolt, and several automakers, including BMW, Volkswagen and Tesla, pledging to offer dozens of new electric models, the future of electric vehicles is bright," Jack Gillis, the group's director of public affairs, said in a news release.
In addition, AAA cited a study this week that said more than 30 million Americans are likely to buy an electric vehicle as their next car, although "more than half of Americans are hesitant to make the switch due to 'range anxiety.'"
Those who drive electric vehicles often speak fondly of the experience.
Edward Gerhardt, 47, of Novi, who drove a Chevrolet Volt until the lease ran out earlier this year, said the plug-in hybrid was a “blast to drive,” describing the torque as similar to “launching yourself from a rubber band.”
Electric vehicles, however, offer some challenges for drivers raised on gasoline-powered engines.
Drivers of most cars can stop at a ready supply of gas stations to fill up in only a few minutes while electric vehicle drivers might need to plan ahead, in part because even fast charging takes longer and factors like cold weather can reduce range. But installing charging stations at rest areas or in the parking lots of stores like Meijer can make the process more convenient, according to Ward, of the Michigan Conservative Energy Forum.
Several drivers said they simply leave their vehicles plugged in at home overnight so the cars are ready for the morning commute. Some plug in at outlets while they are at work.
Companies like Ford and General Motors also tout their own workplace charging networks for employees. Ford says 1,600 employees have registered to use its campus charging network since it was launched in 2014, and that the company has 190 stations (164 in southeast Michigan with 20 more expected in the next month) at 50 locations in the U.S. and Canada. GM says it has more than 500 charging stations across more than 50 U.S. facilities.
The two lowest-charging levels and the ones most likely in use at someone’s home offer from two to five miles of range per hour of charging to 10 to 20 miles of range per hour of charging. So-called fast charging can mean 50 to 70 miles of range for every 20 minutes of charging, according to the Alternative Fuels Data Center.
With some fully electric vehicles, including the Chevrolet Bolt and various Tesla models, now promising more than 200 miles per charge, having enough juice for a daily commute might never be a concern for drivers of those vehicles. The average daily commute, after all, is significantly shorter, less than 30 miles, according to a AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety survey released in September.
But Julio Morales, Consumers Energy’s executive director of Customer Services, identified “range anxiety” as the main impediment to widespread adoption of plug-in electric vehicles.
“Consumers interested in purchasing a PEV are heavily influenced and deterred by the worry they cannot make it to their destination or reach a charging station before running out of battery,” Morales said in comments to the Public Service Commission.
Morales had argued that Consumers’ proposal for two fast chargers at 30 locations “along major highways at approximately 50 mile intervals” could make a difference.
“By providing charging stations throughout the state, range anxiety can be transformed into range confidence. Seeing increased availability of public charging stations can help incentivize residents to purchase a PEV due to reduced anxiety,” Morales said, noting that it could make long-distance travel for plug-in electric vehicles more feasible.
Limited charging options also handicap city dwellers who rely on street parking or parking garages without hookups, he said.
For Nic Bongers, charging his 2013 Chevrolet Volt while he is working is his preferred choice.
Bongers, 37, uses the charging stations at Oakland University in Rochester, where he is an instructional graphic designer, helping professors create online courses.
He lives in Auburn Hills, about four miles from work, so he can typically cover his day-to-day fueling needs by charging on campus, where the use of the charging station and electricity are free. On the weekends, he charges at home, where the charging time is about eight hours compared to four at work.
Bongers likes the gasoline engine backup provided by the Volt because he travels a lot and the range for him is usually limited to less than 30 miles per charge, but for others, range might not be an issue.
“For people that just drive on a daily commute from home to work, I think an electric vehicle would be extremely advantageous for that kind of lifestyle (if) they do all their errands in between where they work and where they live,” Bongers said. “I think as soon as people … understand the advantage of that and the cost savings I think that (electric vehicles) could really catch on.”
Contact Eric D. Lawrence: firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @_ericdlawrence. Staff writers Brent Snavely and Susan Tompor contributed to this report.
Where do I plug in my electric vehicle?
There are several websites and apps that provide the locations (including maps) and types of charging stations available in Michigan and elsewhere. Here are a few:
In addition, several automakers offer mobile apps — MyFord Mobile and myChevrolet Mobile App for instance — that can be used to find charging locations.
Some charging locations include a fee, such as the $9.95 flat rate for a 30-minute fast charge at a Dunkin' Donuts in Ferndale or a AAA office in Brighton, but many are free, such as the Level 2 stations at the Tanger Outlets in Howell. To use a ChargePoint station where there is a fee, charging costs are deducted from your account. "Every time your balance goes below $5 we’ll add another $10 using the payment method on file," according to the company.
Three levels of plug-in electric vehicle charging
AC Level 1 charges through a 120 volt AC plug. "Most, if not all, plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) will come with an AC Level 1 ... cordset so no additional charging equipment is required," according to the Alternative Fuels Data Center. Two to five miles of range per one hour of charging.
AC Level 2 charges through a 240 or 208 volt electrical service. "Most homes have 240V service available, and because AC Level 2 EVSE can charge a typical EV battery overnight, they will commonly be installed at EV owners' homes for home charging or are used for public charging equipment," the data center said. Ten to 20 miles of range per one hour of charging.
DC Fast Charging, "sometimes called DC Level 2 (typically 208/480V AC three-phase input), enables rapid charging along heavy traffic corridors at installed stations," the data center said. There are three types of DC fast-charging systems, depending on the type of charge port on the vehicle: a J1772 combo (used by Chevrolet and BMW), CHAdeMO (used by Nissan, Mitsubishi, Toyota and Fuji) and Tesla. Fifty to 70 miles of range per 20 minutes of charging.
Source: U.S. Department of Energy Alternative Fuels Data Center
Electric vehicle sales
Total U.S. hybrid and electric vehicle sales (including fuel cell vehicles) in recent years
Source: LMC Automotive
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