You CAN get there from here: Maine’s growing electric vehicle infrastructure

Photo: Brian Fitzgerald.

Photo: Brian Fitzgerald.

By Barry Woods

I’VE BEEN AN UNREPENTANT advocate of plug in electric vehicles since 2009. It was then that I realized these cars, and their improbably elegant marriage of clean energy, battery storage and transportation, could heal many of our accumulated social, environmental and economic ills. When I leased my first Nissan LEAF in 2011, I immediately realized that perhaps their best selling point was that they were fun to drive.

Every year since, I find myself repeating the industry mantra, like a drum beat, that this will be the year Americans open their eyes and see the inherent superiority of the electric drive. While market change has been slower than originally anticipated, the steady support for plug in vehicles nationwide is now giving them an undeniable presence, clues for which abound.

In the next year, whether you go food shopping in York, visit the State House in Augusta, renew your registration at your local town hall, take classes at a local university or travel to Jackman to canoe the Moose River, you will see evidence of the impending change away from gas-powered cars. And if you’re not careful, you’ll find yourself asking questions, taking a test drive, and plugging in your car to the house at the end of the day.

I believe 2017 will be a very big year for plug in vehicle technology. Here’s why.

It’s about the cars

The Chevy Bolt - ACT Conference, Long Beach, CA, May 2016.

The Chevy Bolt – ACT Conference, Long Beach, CA, May 2016.

As important as charging infrastructure is to the successful deployment of the technology, the tail does not wag the dog. Without the cars, charging infrastructure sits unused and so the ultimate success of electrified transportation comes down to the quality of a vehicle manufacturer’s product offerings. And the industry has delivered.

In many ways the most exciting recent industry development is the next generation of electric vehicles coming to market. General Motors, Tesla and Nissan are all actively vying to release the first mass produced, low priced, long range all-battery electric vehicle.

Perhaps you read the gush of news earlier this year about Tesla’s successful unveiling of its Model 3 and the incredible pre-registration campaign. Many people around the country waited in long lines at Tesla stores the morning of March 31st to plunk down $1000 for the right to early delivery of Tesla’s first consumer friendly priced product. The Tesla 3 has a stated range of over 200 miles, matched with Tesla performance and styling. Astoundingly, in the first week alone, 325,000 people paid $1000 for a car that isn’t yet commercially available. By comparison, the bestselling car in North America, the Toyota Camry, sold 428,000 vehicles in all of 2015.

Many industry observers believe these numbers confirm that the pent up demand for a lower cost, long range and stylish plug in electric vehicle is real. The big unanswered question for the industry has been how much range do consumers need to feel comfortable that an all-electric vehicle will work for them? If Tesla’s pre-registrations are any indication, 200 miles seems to be the magic number.

Tesla is not alone. Perhaps the most eagerly awaited, and likely earliest entrant, will be the Chevrolet Bolt EV. GM says it will be available at the end of 2016 and will cost approximately $30k (after deducting the available tax credit). The Bolt will have a 60 kWh Lithium-ion battery and get more than 200 miles of range.

I got a chance to sit in the driver’s seat at this year’s Advanced Clean Transportation (ACT) Conference in Long Beach, CA, and I was quite impressed with the interior space and styling. When questioned, the salesman told me GM had confidence its battery technology would lose less than 15% of its charge in cold temperatures, which is a concern in a cold weather state like Maine. Always a leader in its own right, Nissan announced its 60 kWh battery pack version of the LEAF, capable of 200 miles on a single charge.

Ford’s CEO has publicly stated that he expects Ford to release its long range all-electric vehicle, the Model E, sometime in the next two years, and BMW can’t be far away from joining the race to produce a longer range EV of its own. A healthy competition between manufacturers is always a good thing for consumers.

Fred Garbo of Norway, ME with the solar tracker that he uses to generate electricity for both his home and all-electric Nissan LEAF.

Fred Garbo of Norway, ME with the solar tracker that he uses to generate electricity for both his home and all-electric Nissan LEAF.

DC fast charging- the new “gas” station for your car

The excitement over these better cars is genuine and will drive consumer adoption to the next level in Maine and elsewhere. However, while we need better cars, the public also needs reassurance that an adequate public charging infrastructure exists. Candidly, most people overestimate how far they drive every day. A recent MIT study concluded that 87% of people’s daily car energy use could be accomplished with a single battery charge. At this point, though, perception is reality when it comes to range, and people expect to have a car that can drive hundreds of miles, even if they don’t leave their local community more than a few times a year.

Automakers are keenly aware that range is crucial to consumer purchasing decisions. As a result, many are funding strategically located, highly visible clusters of charging stations to reassure drivers they can go on longer trips. In fact, the creation of a large, evenly distributed nationwide supercharger network has been instrumental to Tesla’s marketing success of its vehicles.

Hannaford partnered with Nissan and EVgo in 2016 to install five DC fast charging stations for electric vehicles, creating what is the first fast charging network in Maine. Customers can plug in to recharge while doing their grocery shopping.

Hannaford partnered with Nissan and EVgo in 2016 to install five DC fast charging stations for electric vehicles, creating what is the first fast charging network in Maine. Customers can plug in to recharge while doing their grocery shopping.

The ability of an all-electric car to recharge itself quickly (within 20 minutes) and return to the road mimics our hardwired preference for a “gas station” model for charging, especially when it comes to longer distance travel. DC Fast Charging technology hardware is practical for long distance travel corridors and a highly visible advertisement of the viability of electric driving. Some European charging stations and automobile manufacturers are already beginning to explore 350 kW DC fast charging as a new standard, which could refuel an electric vehicle’s massive battery in five minutes!

The Fast Charge comes to Maine

Have you started to notice signs of high speed public charging stations in your community? Are you seeing electric vehicles on your morning commute? Look closely; the creation of a robust public charging infrastructure is already underway in Maine.

Founded in 1883, Hannaford Brothers/Delhaize Corporation is a massive supermarket chain with over 189 stores throughout the East Coast, with a tremendous geographic reach and capacity to leverage huge consumer markets. But Hannaford Brothers is not just about bringing food to market. Its corporate culture and management has demonstrated a deep-seated commitment to sustainability in their supply chains, their built environment and their ties to local communities. This is particularly true when it comes to plug in electric vehicles. Their corporate headquarters in Scarborough was one of the first large employers in Maine to install workplace charging two years ago. Now, as a result of a unique partnership with Nissan North America and EVgo, Hannaford has just completed installation of ten DC fast charger units at select stores in Maine and upstate New York, creating in effect the first public fast charging network in those regions.

Extending from York to Augusta, five Maine Hannaford stores have DC fast chargers where an EV driver can now stop and charge while they shop, filling their battery within 20 minutes at a reserved charging space. These chargers provide a 50 kW charge rate and host dual connectors that most electric vehicles with a fast charging port can use.

The project, which is part of Nissan’s EV Advantage Program, is designed to improve sales of the Nissan LEAF by providing free charging to people purchasing the LEAF at its local dealers for the first two years. While other drivers will pay a fee to use these chargers, Hannaford market locations are sited along major travel corridors, making the new fast chargers attractive to tourists or Mainers driving longer distances, greatly enhancing their range. It’s a bold move for Hannaford and one that is sure to appeal to EV drivers and boost sales, as drivers can shop and charge at the same time.

By making its infrastructure available, Hannaford has opened itself up to attracting a new demographic of shoppers—those who drive plug in vehicles. At the same time, it has branded itself as a leader in promoting sustainable transportation and created buzz about the convenience of this new technology.

The other partners in this project deserve recognition as well. NissanNA opted to fund charging infrastructure that could be used by ALL EV manufacturers. With this project, Colorado-based EVgo is establishing itself in the Northeast as a reliable DC fast charge network provider, partnering with locally owned ReVision Energy to provide the project management and installation for all ten Hannaford sites.

A free public charging station for electric vehicles has been available since the summer of 2014 on Deering Street in Norway, ME.

A free public charging station for electric vehicles has been available since the summer of 2014 on Deering Street in Norway, ME.

The French connection- Quebec’s electric circuit plugs in to Maine

Maine Governor LePage’s energy policies have sparked controversy in many quarters, particularly with his veto of a hotly contested solar bill last legislative term. However, in the area of transportation electrification, his administration deserves praise. He recently initiated an ambitious project to connect Maine with the Province of Quebec’s high speed electric charging corridor. This project, administered by the Quebec-Maine EV Task Force, is designed to speed the construction of the state’s first large scale DC fast charging corridor, building a route that runs 212 miles from Jackman to Kittery, along Route 201 and Interstate 95. Harnessing the resources of the state’s critical agencies (Governor’s Energy Office, Efficiency Maine Trust, Maine Dept. of Transportation, and Maine Turnpike Authority) as well as private industry partners Central Maine Power, Greater Portland Council of Governments, and Drive Electric Maine (an engaged stakeholder group advocating a variety of projects designed to accelerate Maine’s adoption of EVs), this effort promises to be collaborative and proactive.

The state seeks to learn from Quebec’s experience as well as from the West Coast Electric Highway project, and install strategically placed fast charging clusters along the route to benefit bi-directional long distance tourist travel, as well as spur many of Maine’s communities to adopt cars and infrastructure. An ambitious project by any measure, the Quebec-Maine Electric Highway will rely on federal, state, and private contributions for its success.

Plans are also emerging to add two additional routes over the next few years to expand EV access to the western mountains and the Downeast region. While precise host locations have not yet been identified and planning is just revving up, Mainers should be excited about the prospects of creating an interconnected charging corridor with southern New England and Quebec, whose timing will complement the availability of affordable, long range electric vehicles. The variety and scale of these developments is proof that Maine is moving rapidly to become a leader in the region when it comes to plug in vehicles.

For many years, the public has been skeptical of the viability of electric vehicles, but that attitude is rapidly changing. These vehicles deserve serious attention, and not just for the quality of their driving experience and cost savings in fuel and maintenance.

The real attractiveness of electric vehicle technology lies in its potential to provide better cars while simultaneously solving a host of economic, social and environmental problems created by our existing reliance on oil. When you drive electric you keep money in your local communities and, with Maine’s clean electric grid, you can reduce your vehicle-based emissions to close to zero.

Consider the profound impact all of us would have, locally and globally, by plugging in our cars and charging them with domestically produced renewable electricity. So, when you need to replace your current car, I urge you to explore the options now available for driving with a plug. You won’t be disappointed. G&HM

Barry Woods is on the Board of Plug In America, an attorney with Drummond & Drummond LLP, and a Director of Maine-based Electric Mobility NE. He co-chairs the Drive Electric Maine stakeholder group. 

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