A Better Way to Help Denverites Power Electric Cars

August 25, 2017 | Will Toor

Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper signed an executive order on July 11, 2017, in which he pledged that Colorado would meet the Paris climate targets, and set goals for reducing emissions through more renewable energy, ramping up utility energy efficiency programs, making buildings greener, and accelerating the adoption of electric vehicles (EVs).

In order to meet these emissions targets, the state will need to ramp up electric vehicle adoption, and do it fast. While the EV market in Colorado is growing rapidly (right now sales are growing at about 40 percent per year), there are still only just over 10,000 EVs in the state. One of the big obstacles to faster adoption is a lack of charging infrastructure. Even though most cars are driven under 80 miles a day, well within the range of almost any EV on the market, consumers need to know that the vehicle will work for them on those occasional longer trips.

The governor understands this problem, so his executive order directed state agencies to work together to develop a statewide electric vehicle infrastructure plan by the end of the year. Importantly, the state soon will have access to millions of dollars that it can invest in EV infrastructure from the settlement of the Volkswagen emissions cheating scandal.

A recently released pair of studies should help the state develop this plan. One study conducted by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (with funding from the state) modeled the benefits of several potential networks of fast chargers around the state. The other study was conducted by SWEEP on behalf of the City of Denver, with funding from the Regional Air Quality Council, and looked at how the city and metro area can accelerate EV adoption, by deploying more fast-charging sites across Colorado, and encourage the development of more charging locations at apartments and condominiums complexes.

Here are a few key insights from these studies:

First, it is important to understand how different fueling is for EVs from gasoline cars. Gas car users might fill up their vehicles any time they are away from home. But the vast majority (85 percent or more) of EV charging takes place at home. People drive home from work. plug in their car, and it charges overnight. This is great for the user – what could be more convenient? – and is good for the electrical grid and utility ratepayers, since there is plenty of surplus electrical capacity at night.

Despite this advantage, people still want to have fast charging available away from home, so that they can be assured that they can get where they need to go. A survey of existing EV owners in Colorado identified fast charging along the interstates and at ski areas and recreation areas as the places they would be most likely to use stations.

Second, there is a strong, positive relationship between EV adoption and the density of fast chargers in urban areas and along highway corridors. Tripling the number of fast chargers in the state could lead to more than three times higher EV market share.

But because most charging is at home, drivers won’t use these fast chargers very often. The NREL study found that we will need around 190 fast charging stations around the state to support a projected 300,000 EVs on the road by 2030. However, there would be only about one visit per week per thousand long-range EVs on the road for each fast charger. This creates a conundrum: the fast chargers are key to higher EV adoption, but the business model is tough because they won’t be used that much.

The business case is made tougher by the way that many utilities structure their rates: for this type of use, they charge based on the peak demand rather than the total energy used. These demand charges account for over 80 percent of the cost of operating a fast charge station – and these costs vary wildly across the state. A fast charger operating in Colorado Springs (where the municipal utility provides power) would only pay an annual electric bill of about $1,100, while an identical charger just 40 miles away in Pueblo (where power is provided by Black Hills Energy) would pay over $35,000!

To address these challenges, SWEEP’s report recommends that:

  • the city and the state make a significant public investment in fast-charging infrastructure;
  • that electrical utilities should also invest in fast charging;
  • and that utilities in Colorado create workable rate structures for fast charging (which utilities in other states have started to do.)

The report also highlights the importance of being able to charge an EV at home. People living in single family homes with garages or driveways will find it is cheap and easy to charge a vehicle – in many cases, they can simply plug into existing outlets, or readily install a home charger.

But the process is much more difficult for people who live in multifamily housing, where landlords or HOAs control the parking. The NREL study examined whether – Colorado could serve multifamily residents by creating a dense network of fast-charging stations as an alternative to home charging. NREL’s model found that EV use would be significantly higher with Level 1- or Level 2-charging stations available at their apartment or condo complexes. In fact, about 24 percent of Colorado residents and 44 percent of Denver residents live in multi-family housing so without access to charging at their homes these people will be unlikely to purchase an EV.

Unfortunately, the temporary nature of apartment dwellers residency makes it challenging to convince either the tenants or building owner to invest in charging stations. Residents of lower-income apartments face even greater barriers to access charging. And, compared to a single-family home, the cost of retrofitting a multi-family property may be much more challenging because of the need to upgrade electrical panels, dig new trenches, and install new wiring.

To address these challenges, SWEEP identified two key strategies. First is the need for building codes that assure that the infrastructure for EV charging will be installed when a site is developed, or during major remodels (since it is cheap and easy to get electricity to the parking area if you do it when everything is already torn up, and much more expensive as a stand-alone retrofit). Next, for existing structures, we recommend increased public funding for charging, and that utilities begin investing in multifamily charging.

With strategic public investment, greater engagement by utilities, and smart building codes, the metro Denver region and Colorado as a whole can benefit with cleaner air and lower greenhouse gas emissions.

Will Toor serves as the Director of the Transportation Program at the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project. He previously was a Boulder County Commissioner; Mayor of Boulder, Colorado; and chairman of the Denver Regional Council of Governments. He played a strong role in the development of the Boulder community transit network, EcoPass unlimited access transit pass, ClimateSmart Loan program and EnergySmart program.