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Electric cars take charge in Washington

Expanding charging stations around state part of effort to boost electric, hybrid vehicles

By , Columbian business reporter
Published: November 3, 2019, 6:30am
7 Photos
Teslas charge at the Tesla Supercharger station in the Fred Meyer parking lot in Salmon Creek on Tuesday. (Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian)
Teslas charge at the Tesla Supercharger station in the Fred Meyer parking lot in Salmon Creek on Tuesday. (Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Clark County’s electric and hybrid car owners got a surprise a few weeks ago when they learned a new state law would add a $75 vehicle registration fee for electric and hybrid vehicles that would go toward building out charging infrastructure.

For hybrid owners, there’s an added wrinkle: They’ll be paying for chargers that their cars can’t use.

But at least the electric car owners will benefit from the new chargers, right?

Maybe. In the case of existing Clark County EV owners, the direct benefit depends on how many road trips they plan to take.

Funds collected from the new fee go to two places, according to Tonia Buell, project development manager at the Washington State Department of Transportation’s Innovative Partnerships office.

The first place will be state sales tax incentives for purchasing electric vehicles — so any new Clark County EV buyers will certainly benefit from that.

“That’s where most of that $75 (fee) funding goes,” she said.

The rest of the funds will go toward WSDOT’s Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Partnerships Program, which awards grants to build new chargers, usually through public-private partnerships.

The program operated as a pilot project, awarding $1 million in grants from 2017 to 2019, funding the creation of 15 new charging stations, Buell said. The new law, HB 2042, sets the program up with $1 million in funding per year for up to 10 years.

The program focuses on charging locations near freeway exits along the interstates 5, 90 and 82 corridors, with the goal of building a network with chargers every 40 miles. The grants are awarded through a competitive bidding process. The next request for proposals is expected to go out next year, Buell said.

Maps on the WSDOT project website show that Clark County didn’t get new charging stations during the pilot phase; the county’s segment of I-5 is marked as already having adequate existing fast-charging stations.

According to the station mapping website PlugShare, there are about a dozen stations near the freeway stretching from the Interstate 5 Bridge up to ilani, and several of them are fast chargers.

There is room for upgrades, however. Buell said some of those fast chargers came from the West Coast Electric Highway program, a multistate cooperative effort that kicked off in 2012. Back then, there was only one plug standard for fast charging, a Japanese industry standard called CHAdeMO, which can charge cars like the Nissan Leaf.

Those stations will eventually need to be upgraded to support a second, newer standard for European and American cars such as the Chevy Bolt. Three of Clark County’s stations are marked in that category on WSDOT’s map.

EVs in Clark County

How many drivers in Clark County can expect to have to pay the new fee? That’s tough to know for sure.

First, to clarify: the fee applies to three different classifications of vehicles. The first are hybrids, which use a conventional gas-powered internal combustion engine assisted by a battery-powered electric motor to provide greater fuel efficiency. The battery is small and charges exclusively from the engine and regenerative braking — it can’t be plugged in.

At the other end of the spectrum are battery electric vehicles, which are propelled entirely by battery-powered electric motors. They don’t use gasoline, and they must be recharged using public or private electrical chargers.

Plug-in hybrids are in the middle. They still have gas tanks and internal combustion engines, but they also have electric motors powerful enough to drive the car at full speed and bigger batteries that can be charged through a plug-in. Most plug-in hybrids can travel about 20 to 50 miles on battery power before they have to be recharged or switch to gas.

But back to the question: how many of these cars are driving around Clark County?

Half of the answer is easy: the Washington State Department of Licensing publishes a running tally of registered electric vehicles in the state, which can be broken down by county.

As of Oct. 24, Clark County had 2,684 registered electric vehicles, 1,674 of which were fully electric and 1,010 of which were plug-in hybrids. That total puts Clark County fourth in the state behind King, Snohomish and Pierce counties.

“Clark County has one of the higher penetration (rates) of electric vehicles in the state,” said Michael Breish, energy policy specialist in the energy division of the state Department of Commerce.

Unfortunately, a tally of regular hybrids — the ones that don’t plug in — isn’t available, because the Department of Licensing only just started tracking them after the passage of HB 2042.

“There wasn’t a business reason for us to track that,” said department spokeswoman Christine Anthony.

The department intends to start keeping a running tally of hybrids, Anthony said, but the first round of data won’t be ready for about another year.

Clark County chargers

PlugShare lists approximately 50 charging stations in Clark County, nearly all of which are inside the Vancouver city limits or along the I-5 corridor.

The chargers come from several different companies, but the most common ones are Blink, Electrify America and SemaCharge. They can often be found near office areas such as the Columbia Tech Center, or in the parking lots of major stores such as Walmart, Fred Meyer and Walgreens.

Most of the chargers are built by third parties and pop up on their own, according to Matt Babbits, energy services project manager at Clark Public Utilities, although the agency has installed an array of public chargers at its downtown Vancouver building and its service center in Orchards.

All of the nonresidential chargers in the service district must go through a setup process with the utility to connect their accounts and to make sure they can be safely powered.

Chargers generally fall into one of three categories based on their power level. Level 1 chargers use 120-volt outlets — essentially any standard American power outlet. Level 2 chargers use 240-volt outlets. They’re the most common type of public charger, both in Clark County and in general, and the necessary outlets can also be installed in homes.

Beyond level 2 is the world of DC fast chargers, which are known by various names such as Level 3, CHAdeMO and CCS. The Tesla-exclusive Supercharger brand also falls into this category. They tend to require the greatest amount of work for a utility to set up.

“It requires commercial-grade electrical infrastructure,” Babbits said.

The utility district is making additional investments to try to spur local electric vehicle adoption, Babbits said, including an online utility calculator to help residents figure out the potential financial benefits of switching to an electric car.

The district is also helping with the development of a transportation electrification plan for the county, which will be developed over the next several months.

Other developments

The highway program isn’t the only potential source of funding for new Clark County EV infrastructure.

One of the big charging station builders, Electrify America, is a subsidiary that Volkswagen established in 2017 as part of a court settlement after the company was caught programming its diesel vehicles to skirt emissions standards by cheating on tests. Electrify America is building out a network of charging stations nationwide, funded by $2 billion from Volkswagen.

The Portland area, including Clark County, was part of Electrify America’s “Cycle 1” rollout plan, which was implemented from 2017 to mid-2019. The chargers at two Clark County Walmart Supercenters, for example, are Electrify America chargers.

“We are getting some of that initial settlement money invested in our local economy,” Babbits said.

Clark County and the Portland area remain on the target list for the company’s “Cycle 2” plan, which was published in February. The plan’s rollout period began in July and is scheduled to continue through the end of 2021.

The federal settlement with Volkswagen includes a second pot of money divided among the states, and the Washington Department of Ecology is responsible for allocating the state’s share.

On Wednesday, the department announced that it will begin seeking bids for grants to use the money both for new charging stations and upgrades to existing stations. The grant funding window will run from Dec. 3 to Feb. 4. Grant applicants can include businesses, nonprofits, local governments and agencies and municipal utilities.

The press release includes a map of priority project areas, and multiple Clark County freeways make the cut: I-5 from the Columbia River up to the junction with I-205, I-205 from the Columbia River up to the junction with state Highway 500, the entire length of Highway 500 and the segment of Highway 14 between I-5 and I-205.

HB 2042 also appropriated funding for Washington State University’s Energy Program to fund a Green Transportation Program, which administers technical education and assistance for public agencies seeking to convert their fleets and infrastructure.

The program includes several grant funding opportunities, such as a workplace charging program, a school bus conversion program, a transit conversion program and a still-in-development transportation electrification program to serve local governments and utilities.

“There’s a lot of money out there at the moment,” said program manager Jim Jensen, “and it’s a great time for cities, counties, utilities, school districts to get planning and figure out how to electrify their fleets.”

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