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To electrify transportation, Colorado needs the infrastructure

Energy Report: The state has strong reasons for wanting to electrify cars and other vehicles


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The Lyft driver who slid his black Nissan Leaf all-electric car into a charging station at the Whole Foods store on a September evening was in a hurry. The Rockies were playing nearby, and he had customers to ferry to Coors Field. He didn’t have time for a complete refueling at the store near Denver’s Union Station. After just a few minutes of juice, his battery restored to 62% of capacity, and he was off.

EVgo, the company that owns the four charging stations at Whole Foods and about 12,000 others across the country, chose Whole Foods in Denver, Boulder’s Twenty Ninth Street retail center and some 22 other locations along the Front Range based on the assumption of charging habits. Most drivers of electric vehicles will charge more slowly at home or at work, but some customers will be willing to pay for a more rapid charge while shopping for 30 or 40 minutes at a store or perhaps while having lunch.

“We intend to double our capacity by the end of 2020,” says Jonathan Levy, vice president of strategic initiatives for EVgo. “That’s across the country, and Colorado is a big part of it.”

Colorado has strong reasons for wanting to electrify cars and other vehicles. A 2017 survey found that light and heavy-duty on-road vehicle emissions contributed 31% of nitrogen oxide and 16% of volatile organic compounds, two key constituents of ground-level ozone in metropolitan Denver and the northern Front Range. The American Lung Association reports that the Denver-Aurora area has the nation’s 12th worst ozone pollution; Jefferson County was the worst. A study published in August found that an increase of three parts per billion of ground-level ozone was equivalent to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day for 29 years.

Electrifying transportation will also be crucial for Colorado to attain its goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions 90% by mid-century. Transportation constitutes the No. 2 source of emissions, behind power production. In metro Denver, driving an EV today is the equivalent of getting 50 miles per gallon based on carbon emissions. As Xcel Energy shifts to primarily wind and solar by 2026, however, an EV will be equivalent to 150 miles per gallon in terms of emissions. Other utilities across Colorado are setting similar goals for carbon reduction of electricity.

“It feels like 90 degrees today, and it’s September 19,” Denver Mayor Michael Hancock said at an EV test-drive event during a record-setting month of heat.

Colorado in 2018 adopted a goal of having 940,000 EVs on state roads by 2030. Legislators in the last session passed five bills to nudge along adoption of EVs, among them an extension of tax credits that make some EVs price-competitive with internal-combustion engines. Analysts project that EVs, absent subsidies, will reach price parity between 2023 and 2027. They also require less maintenance and can be fueled more cheaply than gas. Trevor Vaughn, who bought a used Ford Focus in 2014, commutes daily between his home in Arvada and his job in Aurora, a 44-mile round trip. He estimates the electrical cost at $1, as he recharges between 9 p.m. and 9 a.m., taking advantage of Xcel Energy’s low time-of-use rate. A comparable gas-powered car would cost $4 for the same commute.

In Colorado, 2% of car sales in 2018 were EVs, putting it among the top states but still far behind California’s 10%. Sales will almost certainly accelerate as model selection increases, prices drop and charging infrastructure allays concerns about range anxiety. Analysts predict price parity by around 2025. Some predict sales charts resembling a hockey stick. Norway may offer a model. Through July, plug-in electric vehicles constitute 50% of sales.

But what will the charging stations of this e-transportation future look like?

“We are not going to replace the gas station model,” says Chris Nelder, manager of the mobility practice at the Rocky Mountain Institute, a think tank with offices in Boulder and Basalt. “Gas stations are destinations. You go there to pump gas, and while you’re there you may buy a snack, get a cup of coffee, but mostly you’re there to refill with gas. High-speed electric charging stations will not be destinations. It’s going to be something you do while you’re doing something else.”

Charging speeds depend upon both the infrastructure and the cars themselves. Any outlet can be used to charge a car, including the ordinary garage plug-in used for a power saw. Most cars, however, are likely to be refueled at home and work with Level 2 chargers. They use the same infrastructure as needed for an electric dryer or an oven. Cost of equipment and installation in a home runs $1,000 to $1,500, not counting the cost of any possible trenching and concrete work.

Fast chargers, such as those installed by EVgo at Whole Foods and REI in Denver, can deliver electricity at speeds of 50 kilowatts, but 100-kilowatt chargers are fast becoming the norm. Now coming on are 150-kilowatt chargers, but only a few high-end car models such as Audi, Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz can accommodate them. Not all batteries in EVs are the same. These faster chargers also require more investment. Nelder estimates $40,000 for the units at Whole Foods and $125,000 for the very fastest chargers.

In Colorado, it will soon be possible to drive from Julesburg to Cortez, Lamar to Craig, with assurances of finding fast-charging stations about 70 miles apart. The farthest is the 88-mile gap between Craig and Dinosaur. The 33 locations on major highways were chosen by the Colorado Energy Office in partnership with ChargePoint, a private company. State grants through Charge Ahead Colorado have also enabled local electrical cooperatives and local governments to install fast chargers in Basalt, Eagle and Meeker. Electrify America, a subsidiary of Volkswagen, formed to invest in charging stations and also has set out to install charging stations along major arteries. The state has worked with the company to avoid duplication. Zachary Owens, the state agency’s manager for transportation fuels and technology, says applications for other sites through the Charge Ahead Colorado Program are welcomed. 

Denver has 25 fast-charging stations and 400 level 2 charging stations within its borders. By March, it expects six more fast-charging stations in a partnership with EVgo. Locations include Cherry Creek, Capitol Hill and DIA, the latter important for refueling by Uber and Lyft drivers.

Dense neighborhoods pose a challenge, says Mike Salisbury, the transportation energy lead in the city’s Environmental Quality Division. Nearing a population of 700,000 now, the city expects to add another 200,000 people in the next 30 years. It’s important to get the infrastructure and locations right the first time, especially in residential. “We try as much as possible to see that new residential construction in Denver has the ability to accommodate EV charging stations with additional load (demand),” he says.

Space needs also become a consideration in places like downtown with premium real estate prices. Fast-charging stations need a little more room.

Denver hopes to see EVs as 15% of all vehicle registrations by 2025 and 90% by mid-century. That presents a chicken-and-egg situation. “I don’t think you can say one has to come first,” Salisbury says of EVs and charging stations. “You have to push on both ends.”

Fleet and heavy-duty vehicles also offer an opportunity for electrification. The Regional Air Quality Council wants to provide funding to incentivize conversion in the 11 Front Range counties in which it operates. “We are playing a small role in helping incentivize a young industry, and we’re hoping to attract the early adopters in the business world,” says Kaylyn Bopp, the agency’s program director for alternative fuels.

She points to new telematic technology that can help drivers of fleet vehicles maximize route selection and refueling opportunities with electricity. RAQC’s program is a pilot, she says, “but it won’t be wild and crazy in a couple of years to adopt these vehicles.”

Utilities stand to gain much. Sales have been flat or declining in some areas, the result of ramped-up energy efficiency efforts. Vehicle electrification allows them to sell more electricity, but much planning must go into where the high-speed charging stations, in particular, will be placed, as it might require new supporting infrastructure. RMI’s Nelder points out that charging stations for fleet vehicles might need 20 megawatts, about the same amount of electricity as is needed for a square city block of high-rise buildings.

One new law allows Xcel and Black Hills Energy, the state’s two investor-owned utilities, to recover the cost of EV charging infrastructure. The same law goes on to require the two utilities to submit transportation electrification plans by May 2020.

Xcel, the state’s largest utility, has not played its cards yet, but has started what the company’s Kevin Schwain calls a “soft step forward.” For example, it has been working with both Denver and Lone Tree to pinpoint locations for charging. It has worked with the same jurisdictions, plus the Regional Transportation District and RAQC, on fleet electrification.

In a pilot smart-charging program called Charging Perks, Xcel wants to use 600 test EVs with onboard communication systems to help owners decide when and how to charge their cars while saving on energy bills and using more zero-carbon electricity.

In short, Xcel is still fact-finding before laying out its plans. Jack Ihle, the company’s director of environmental policy, testified with the Public Utilities Commission in August that the company was still studying the potential growth of EVs in its Colorado service territory and the need for public charging stations. But Xcel also wants to understand the perceptions and needs of drivers and their willingness to change behavior based on price signals.

“The vast majority of charging will occur at homes and at other locations where vehicles are parked for long periods of time,” says Schwain, Xcel’s manager of emerging customer programs. “It’s very different from the gas station model where you show up for five minute and fuel up for the next week.”

One crucial issue being worked on in late 2019 is how much Xcel could charge for electric charging during times of peak demand; say, at 5 p.m. on a hot day when air conditioners are also cranking. Consumers can benefit by using electricity when cheap renewables are plentiful. Yet to be determined is whether utilities will become not only electrical providers but also dispensers at charging stations.

RMI’s Nelder sees other private-sector companies becoming the new Shell and Conoco stations for this electrified future. Utilities, he says, will play giant roles in delivering electricity. “But actually owning and operating the charging stations, I really feel that’s better done by the private sector.” 

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Allen Best

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