Democrats hope solving battery anxiety will jumpstart electric car sales
LANSING — Eric Davis loves his Tesla Model 3. It’s not just the reduced carbon footprint that comes from driving an electric vehicle or the weekly financial savings from not having to purchase gas.
It’s the performance and acceleration, he said, which is “night and day” from an internal combustion engine.
“It’s just a very different kind of driving,” said Davis, 43, of Ann Arbor.
But like many electric vehicle owners, he acknowledged the occasional bout of range anxiety, the fear of being stranded with a dead battery far from a charging station.
Experts say that remains one of the largest barriers to entry for the motoring public as most consumers continue to favor gas-powered SUVs and trucks. Worries about draining batteries can turn off prospective buyers, especially in states like Michigan where cold winters can sap batteries and reduce the range electric cars can travel between charges.
But Democratic presidential candidates are prescribing an antidote to range anxiety: Major spending to build out nationwide public charging station infrastructure.
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Sprawling public or private charging networks are part of ambitious, expensive and potentially unrealistic proposals to require or ensure all new vehicles are fully electric by 2030 or 2035.
Michigan officials are already studying ideal charging port locations to facilitate anxiety-free driving, and the state is helping fund rebates for home or commercial installations. Legislators at the state and federal level have also introduced legislation to help build the charging network of the future.
For Davis, the anxiety initially would hit before early morning work meetings. When he first bought his Model 3 last year, he opted against installing an upgraded charger in his home so had to drive to a proprietary Tesla supercharger about a mile and a half away.
Lying in bed, he found himself thinking how he “was either going to need to get out there even earlier to sit and charge, or take off my PJs, put on my big boy clothes and go back outside to drive out to the super charger,” Davis said.
“After a while, that really started to get frustrating.”
Davis eventually bought a Tesla home charging kit for his garage, which was free after a $500 rebate through his electric utility, DTE. But he needed to upgrade his fuse box to accomodate a higher voltage outlet, “and that was not cheap,” costing him “a couple thousand dollars.”
Tesla owners have it better than most. The California-based automaker is building its own supercharger infrastructure around the country, including at least 20 ports in Michigan as of 2019. Tesla also provides adapters for drivers to use other public or private charging stations.
While electric vehicle sales are up significantly over the past decade, they still account for just a small fraction of all purchases in Michigan and across the country. Experts say the lack of a robust charging infrastructure is likely one reason for sluggish adoption rates.
As of late 2018, Michigan was home to 182 direct current fast charging outlets, individual plug units often clustered into stations that can typically power an electric vehicle battery to 80 percent in about a half hour.
That was the 17th among states but just 2 percent of the nationwide total, according to Michigan State University researchers. Michigan also had 1,097 level 2 charging outlets, which have a significantly slower charge.
A home charger has eliminated day-to-day range anxiety for Davis. He can drive his Tesla up to 300 miles on a full charge, more than enough for the non-profit executive to make his daily work commute from Ann Arbor to Detroit.
Longer road trips remain complicated. Tesla software can map routes with supercharger stops. That’s not always convenient, however, and Davis calculated out his own path for a recent trip to Niagara Falls.
Even with a Tesla supercharger, stopping for power takes longer than simply filling up at a gas station, so Davis typically plans his stops based on what else he might be able to do at that location, like shopping inside a Meijer while his car charges outside.
“Generally speaking, it’s a 20-minute or 30-minute stop,” he said. “There’s a degree of kind of learning your car and how much temperament you have for sitting and waiting to top it off.”
The Michigan Energy Office, using settlement dollars from the 2015 Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal, is studying locations for universal fast-charging stations in hope of ensuring worry-free EV travel throughout the state by 2030.
A first-phase analysis recommended adding 15 and 43 new mix-technology charging stations along Michigan highways with 32 and 600 charging outlets, at a cost of $21.8 million. Researchers are now studying recommendations for select cities.
The highway cost estimates are based on current and projected electric vehicle adoption rates and would surely rise if all new cars sold are fully electric by 2030, a goal adopted by Democratic presidential candidates including Sens. Bernie Sanders of Vermont and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts.
Moderate candidates Mike Bloomberg and Pete Buttigieg want to go all electric by 2035. Former Vice President Joe Biden has vowed to work with governors and mayors “to support the deployment” of more than 500,000 public charging stations by the end of 2030.
In Michigan, the state has made “some major headway” on electric vehicle charging infrastructure in the past year, said Charles Griffith, director of the climate and energy program at the Ecology Center.
Using a portion of the $9.7 million allocated to Michigan from the Volkswagen settlement, the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy is offering grants of up to $70,000 for public or private organizations that install direct current fast chargers.
The state’s two biggest electric utilities, DTE and Consumers, both won state approval last year to launch new charging station rebate programs.
The programs work in concert, said EGLE spokesman Nick Assendelft.
“The utility matches a third of the cost, the host site matches up to a third of the cost and we’ll match a third of the costs,” he said. “It’s up to $70,000. “So if your costs are only $30,000,” the state and utilities would provide $10,000 each.
EGLE has received 63 applications for matching grants since announcing the program in December.
That’s a “very important first step, yet we are still going to need so much more infrastructure out there in the future,” Griffith said. “We’re going to need to ensure that we see either continued investments by the utilities that help support that or we find other ways to help fund that at some point.”
Beyond the presidential campaign, several Michigan legislators are pushing plans to build more electric vehicle charging infrastructure.
U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, D-Bloomfield Hills, has proposed federal legislation to establish a nationwide network of high-speed charging stations within five years.
A Michigan House panel on Wednesday advanced bipartisan legislation led by Rep. Andrea Schroeder, R-Clarkston, that would create a state registration system for electric vehicle charging stations.
State Sen. Mallory McMorrow, D-Royal Oak, spearheaded a four-bill package to create an Michigan Electric Vehicle Council, allow private charging companies to lease space in state parks and provide incentives for small businesses and apartment landlords to install charging stations.
Range anxiety is both a personal issue and professional interest for McMorrow, who previously worked as an auto industry consultant and now commutes to Lansing in an electric Chevy Bolt.
She gets about 300 miles on a full charge in the summer but just 150 miles in the winter, and her drive to the Michigan Capitol is 86 miles each way.
“I max it out,” she said. “Because we don’t have a charger here in the Senate, I am often on the side of the road in either Novi or Howell, where there are two fast chargers.”
McMorrow and her husband also own an internal combustion truck, “so if we can’t get somewhere with my car, we swap it out,” she said.
“We’re still in kind of the earlier adopter phase where there are people like me who — I’m willing to forgive the inconveniences of it because I’m an industrial designer and I like to learn about it.”
For Davis, the range anxiety associated with long trips isn’t a deal breaker. In fact, he and his wife are looking to buy another electric car and become a fully electric household.
By their calculations, the amount of money they’d save on gas by driving two electric cars would allow them to afford other options for cross-country road trips, Davis said.
“If we want to take a trip out to the Rocky Mountains, we might rent an (internal combustion car) for that.”
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