Reality Check: It Takes a Village to get EVs to Prime Time

This blog post was originally published by Dr. Mark C. Trexler in Sustainable Business Oregon on January 28, 2013.

We bought our Nissan Leaf almost a year ago, and we love it. It’s now our primary mode of transport around Portland, and it’s been great to see the growing number of Leafs and Chevy Volts on the road. The EV infrastructure within Portland is pretty robust, with more and more stores offering onsite chargers.

We hope that we’re seeing the same pattern with EVs that we saw after getting one of the early Priuses. First we would see one or two or three a day; if we actively counted Priuses now, it would be hundreds.

Up until this week we’ve used the Leaf locally. For the last six months, though, we’ve been hearing about the completion of the West Coast Electric Highway. The EV Highway advertises the availability of electric vehicle quick chargers, which enable one to get close to a full charge within 30 minutes, all along I-5. EV Highway promoters tell us we should be able to drive our EV all the way from Canada to Mexico, with quick chargers located at frequent intervals.

So last week I decided to use the Leaf for a trip to the University of Oregon in Eugene, about 100 miles from Portland. I checked ahead of time to determine where the EV Highway quick chargers were located along my route, and found several along the way that would be convenient to stop at and recharge.

Unfortunately, the EV aspect of the trip was a disaster.

The first problem was the Leaf itself. It was chilly outside, just about freezing, and as I drove I realized that my maximum range was only going to be about 60 miles, even in Eco-mode and even with no heat, well below the 90+ mile range in warmer weather.

The second problem was the distribution of charging stations. We are members of the Blink network. As it turns out, Blink doesn’t have quick chargers in Eugene. Moreover, with the decreased range of the Leaf, I couldn’t get to Eugene, even if I charged up at the last available quick charger in Salem. Even if I had been able to reach Eugene, I would have had to spend many hours there recharging the car at a Level 2 station. If I worked in Eugene, then leaving the car at slower Level 2 charger (which charges a car in 7-8 hours) would be alright. But for a meeting and then a return to Portland, only a QC would work. So I had to cancel the Eugene portion of my trip, and do that meeting by phone.

So from Salem, where I had stopped for a quick charge, I drove directly to Oregon State University in Corvallis, about 40 miles from Salem. Here I ran into another barrier to use of my electric vehicle: Even though Corvallis is a major university town, I could not find a quick charger in Corvallis Fortunately, I was able to plug the Leaf into a Level 2 charger for about six hours, getting it back to a full charge before heading back to Portland. Of course, I had not been planning to stay in Corvallis for a full work day, but since I couldn’t get to Eugene I ended up doing so.

Heading back north, I decided to skip the Salem quick charge unit I had used in the morning and use one of the quick chargers farther up I-5. The EV Highway advertises that there are several. There are two quick chargers between Salem and Portland, one in Woodburn, about 20 miles north of Salem, and one in Wilsonville 10 miles beyond that. Both locations have two quick charge units.

There were only two problems with this plan. Neither of those quick chargers was operational. I had to spend an hour at a Level 2 charger in Woodburn, which gave me sufficient charge to get to Wilsonville, where I spent another hour at a Level 2 charger before limping the rest of the way home (arriving with 6 miles of range left). What should have been a 75 minute drive from Corvallis to Portland took almost 4 hours.

According to the Blink application on my iPhone, the quick chargers in Woodburn were “available.” I called Blink to say the units weren’t working; the person on the other end was surprised. He said they had just had the unit repaired and so it should be working.

The quick chargers in Wilsonville registered on the iPhone app as busy all day. This obviously indicated a problem of some kind, and in fact multiple users had commented over a period of about two weeks that units were not working. Yet they haven’t been fixed.

My wife sent a tweet to Blink asking what the problem was with the quick chargers. She received a response informing her that Blink was aware of problems they were having in the Oregon region and apologizing. Minutes after sending her this prompt response, which came across well (although it did raise the obvious question of “why didn’t Blink tell its current members about the known problems?”), Blink tweeted out a message that everything ws running fine. 

Excuse me? You’ve just admitted you have a major problem in Oregon, and you immediately send out a message telling everyone the system is up and running?

Here’s where the EV village, or the lack thereof, comes in. EV users are certainly doing their part to try and form a supportive village, based on the many comments they post on different EV iPhone apps. But who else is doing theirs?

1. If Blink knew there were widespread problems with the network, why not inform Blink members, so that we could adjust our plans accordingly?

2. How can an Electric Highway work if Blink has no idea whether its chargers are actually functional? If it is as technically difficult as it seems to figure out whether quick chargers are operational, why hasn’t Blink enlisted local companies to help? The Woodburn quick chargers are in the parking lot of an Elmer’s restaurant, and could obviously serve as a customer draw. Surely Elmer’s would be willing to have an employee walk outside to check on the status of the charger once or twice a day. Is Blink building such a support network? And does the company even monitor customer comments on the iPhone apps?

3. Are the agencies that are helping to fund the EV system establishing the right performance incentives? Is Blink rewarded for installing the stations, but not for keeping them operational? I’m beginning to wonder if the EV charging infrastructure can be compared to the first California wind farms; in that case, construction of the wind farms was heavily subsidized, but almost none of the windmills actually worked. Do we have to repeat that experience with electric vehicles 40 years later?

4. Are other stakeholders in the EV system actively engaged? What about local utilities? Portland General Electric has been a strong proponent of EVs, for example. Could PGE help keep those quick charge stations operating based on its own service network?

It’s great that the EV highway extends along I-5 from Mexico to Canada. It’s meaningless, however, if you can’t get from Portland to Corvallis, much less to Eugene, along that I-5 corridor. Of all the places in the world where you would think you would be able to travel from one spot to another in an EV, the trip between two “green” early adopter communities such as Portland and Eugene would seem like it should be an easy jaunt.

EV owners generally don’t purchase their EVs because it’s their cheapest option. Most of us bought our EVs because we’re trying to help move the technology forward, and someone has to be the early adopter. So those of us with EVs today, as the early adopters, will likely be much more patient with the limitations and problems of both the vehicles and the system than the future mass market will be.

But that doesn’t mean we should have to accept the obviously missing links that characterize the current EV village. The infrastructural failures appear to be systemic, not occasional, whether it’s in the incentive structure that we’ve created for companies like Blink, the failure to establish non-technical backups if Blink can’t figure out whether chargers are working, or the fact that other players with an interest in the EV system perhaps haven’t stepped up to the plate.

How do we get the EV village to where we’re being told — inaccurately — it already is?

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