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Charging up: What Iowa will need as it sees more electric vehicles

Funding, customer education and partnerships all viewed as key

Oct 22, 2018 at 9:05 am
    A Tesla Model S, driven by Frank Proto of Cincinnati charges at the Tesla Supercharger station at the Coralville Hy-Vee in Coralville on Monday, Jul. 16, 2018. Proto, who is on his way home from Lincoln, Neb., purchased a sandwich from Hy-Vee and ate in his car while it charged. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

    When Roger Brown had his first electric car, a Nissan Leaf, he would have to drive to Cedar Falls — more than 30 miles from his home in Allison — to charge the vehicle at a car dealership.

    “When I got the car, they constantly either had it blocked by their vehicles and, right now, they have a lock on it even,” said Brown, a 32-year-old computer technician. “I had to be towed multiple times from that location because that’s where I expected to charge to get home. That was frustrating.”

    Six years later and Brown — still hooked on electric vehicles, or EVs — has a Tesla Model 3. The range on his Tesla is better, and he’s had a charging station installed at his home, but the situation for charging stations in his part of Iowa hasn’t improved much.

    “Kwik Star, at some of their gas stations, has Level 1 chargers. Those, they’re not really reasonable unless you’re staying somewhere overnight,” Brown said.

    While EVs represent only a small portion of the vehicles on Iowa roads today — there were only 1,100 fully electric vehicles registered in Iowa in 2017 — industry watchers and state officials expect their presence to only grow.

    John McGlothlen / The Gazette

    And an increase in EVs, they say, will require Iowa to install more and better infrastructure for those drivers — namely a network of fast-charging stations.

    “I think the market is coming to higher level of sales, but we do need the infrastructure to minimize the impact of range anxiety,” said Gilbert Nunez, manager of business support for utility Alliant Energy.

    Iowa lawmakers also are seeking more information on electric vehicles. During the 2018 legislative session, a bill passed that requires the Iowa Economic Development Authority and Iowa Department of Transportation to conduct a study of EV infrastructure. The two agencies have to produce recommendations to the legislature by June 30, 2019.

    John McGlothlen / The Gazette


    Electric vehicle charging stations are designated by levels — Levels 1, 2 and 3 — which identify how fast they can fill up an EV battery. EV models may charge at different paces, but one state report estimated that Level 1 chargers can supply two to five miles of range per hour; Level 2s can supply 10 to 20 miles an hour; and Level 3s, also known as fast chargers, can supply up to 180 miles per hour.

    “Having that place to somewhat quickly get your vehicle charged again is really essential to make it practical for people,” said Stephanie Weisenbach, a project manager at the Iowa Economic Development Authority.

    In a 2016 report, the IEDA estimated Iowa could see anywhere from about 17,000 to more than 100,000 EVs on its roads by 2040, with about 62,000 EVs set as the middle projection.

    That same report also suggested Iowa needs at least 19 Level 3 charging stations to effectively develop an “electric highway” through the state. Those stations would need to be placed within 50 miles of each other along the main interstates across Iowa, including I-35, I-80, I-29 and I-380.

    “We really see developing the corridors as a priority because the last thing we want to see is all of our surrounding states have an ability for people to travel with electric vehicles and people struggle to get through Iowa, or they don’t come through here, or people have limited options to use their extended range vehicles,” Weisenbach said.

    Halfway through 2018, though, there were only five Level 3 chargers in all of Iowa, according to the federal Alternative Fuels Data Center. Of those, two were on Tesla’s network and one was at a car dealership. The website, which also tracks electric vehicle charging locations, listed eight Level 3 spots in Iowa, not including a ninth listed as “coming soon.” Of the operating chargers, all but two were on Tesla’s network. One of the two was located at a car dealership.

    Weisenbach and others said funding, education and public- private partnerships will be needed effectively to foster adoption of EVs. Monetary incentives — whether from the state government or utility companies — also may be needed to boost adoption and charger installation.


    Brown, the Tesla owner, and Alliant’s Nunez described the EV situation in Iowa as a chicken-or-egg problem: Iowa needs more public charging stations to persuade people to buy EVs, but there aren’t enough EVs on the road to warrant more stations.

    In addition, the cost of charging stations also presents a hurdle. Iowa currently does not offer incentives for EVs, but Alliant does.

    “If you’re looking at the East Coast and the West Coast, they have federal, they have state, they have local incentives, that a lot of this equipment is pretty much installed at very little cost if not no cost. For us, we have incentives that help offset some of the cost, but Level 2 stations that are networked can run anywhere from $4,000 to $6,000 a piece,” Nunez said.

    Some outside funding may be available soon for Iowa, though, Weisenbach said.

    EVs aren’t cheap. In 2017, the Tesla Model S, with a range of between 259 and 335 miles, started at about $75,000. The Nissan Leaf, with a range of about 151 miles, had a beginning price tag at about $30,000. They were among the most popular fully-electric vehicles in Iowa at the time, according to Iowa DOT data.

    After Volkswagen was accused in 2016 of selling thousands of vehicles that cheated emissions testing, the carmaker agreed to settlements for some of those claims. As part of those settlements, Iowa is slated to receive $21 million to put toward environmental mitigation projects.

    Fifteen percent of those funds can be put toward EV charging stations.


    But more EV adoption will present Iowa, its communities and businesses with a new set of issues.


    For example, the state will need to ensure its power distribution system can handle increased electricity demand; companies will need to weigh whether attracting customers with EVs is worth the cost of a charging station; and cities will need to consider whether infrastructure, such as electrical conduit or charging stations, should be part of building codes before a project is constructed.

    Some companies, such as retailer Hy-Vee, already have started taking on this trend. The West Des Moines-based grocery chain has made it a policy that each new store have at least two charging stations, Director of Site Planning John Brehm said. The company started adding stations to stores in 2010 as part of its sustainability initiatives, Brehm said. Over time, Hy-Vee saw more and more customers with EVs.

    “It became less of a sustainability thing and more of a customer service. Really, we look at it now as this is something some of our customers really want, so we’re going to provide it for them,” he explained.

    Hy-Vee doesn’t charge for use at many of its stations, but Brehm acknowledged “it may have to move that direction” as EVs become more common. Fast chargers, he said, also vastly increase the electricity demand at a store, so it wouldn’t be economically viable for Hy-Vee to provide that service at no cost.

    “It’s a lot of energy, it’s a huge load, it changes the dynamics of your electric bill for the store, so you really have to pass that through to the customer,” he said.

    What about trucks?

    EV technology also has the potential to alter a key industry for Iowa — trucking and transportation.

    Des Moines-based Ruan Transportation Management Services already has reserved five fully electric tractor-trailers from Tesla. It expects to take possession of the vehicles in 2019.

    “The overall direction of electric trucks is eliminating the emissions coming from the engines, but there’s also some things from (it) being a safer vehicle, you don’t have fuels spills and other types of environmental issues,” said James Cade, vice president of fleet services for Ruan.

    In January, Ruan indicated the price-per-vehicle for electric trucks will be approximately $180,000. Most diesel-powered tractors cost around $100,000, but Tesla predicts that the EV will pay for itself within two years due to savings in aerodynamics, reliability and fuel.

    Ruan also plans to build a new operating center in Iowa that will include charging stations for the trucks, Cade said.

    The center, Cade said, should help Ruan maneuver around the lack of charging stations for trucks. Ruan will run the electric trucks on only regional routes so they can get back to the center each night to charge.

    “It’s not like you can pull a truck into a charging station that the cars use and recharge it because it’s a significantly different setup. You’re talking about a lot more power, a lot more transfer that has to happen with an automotive vehicle compared to a heavy-duty truck,” Cade said

    Even that plan comes with questions and hurdles, however.

    “It’s going to be a really new look going forward,” Cade said. “We’re going to need to have new relationships or partnerships with power companies to be able to provide the amount of power that we need to be able to recharge our vehicles.”

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