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New forces are coming together to propel electric vehicles into the mainstream

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Scott Saffian, general manager Western USA of FLO, an EV charging company, at the Forth electric mobility Roadmap 12 Conference at the Oregon Convention Center. Chargers could be the new payphones.

Forth, the advocacy group for electric, smart and shared transportation in the Pacific Northwest, has full bars right now.

Its most recent annual Roadmap conference attracted 1,000 people, up from 800 in 2018. More than half were from beyond the west coast, Forth executive director Jeff Allen told the Business Tribune.

"Transportation electrification is no longer just a California or a West Coast phenomenon, it's spreading fast," he said.

There were accents from many European and Asian countries as people came from all over the world to see what is going on in the electric vehicle world, at the point where government, electricity utilities, automakers and the consumer come together.

"We've always worked really hard to have a mix of electric utilities, vehicle manufacturers, charging companies, government agencies at all levels, advocates and nonprofit organizations (at the conference). And that's where the really interesting work happens, when you mix those folks up," said Allen.

A map of electric vehicle charging stations tends to follow both highway and the interstate highway system, but it is more heavily developed on the coasts. But for all the self-congratulation of west coast Americans, the conference showed just how far behind the U.S. is in electric mobility.

Norwegian national Espen Hauge, president of AVERE, the European Association for Electromobility, said that in Norway now, 50% of new cars sold are plug-in electric or hybrid, and in the capital city, Oslo, that number is 88%. On the same panel, Jianhua Chen, program officer at the Energy Foundation Beijing Office, said that Shenzhen has a fully electric bus fleet (16,000 buses) and 22,000 taxis, and that China's southern Hainan island will end sales of fossil fuel-only cars in 2030.

In one of the lightning talks, where speakers had less than 10 minutes to report on their field, Megha Lakhchaura , director, Policy and Utility Programs, EVBox, which has installed 75,000 charging points over 55 countries, said that Amsterdam has more aggressive carbon reduction goals than California. Steps include switching buses, taxis and boats to electric and a ban on diesel vehicles in the city by 2030. The city has 456 stations with 912 charging points called Flexpower. These can give faster charging during off peak times, and prioritize sustainably produced electricity.

PMG PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Electric experts: (L-R) Jianhua Chen, Program Officer, Energy Foundation Beijing Office; Espen Hauge, President, AVERE the European Association for Electromobility; Andrea Pratt, Climate and Transportation Policy Advisor, City of Seattle and Dr. Daniel Sperling Distinguished Professor and Director, Institute of Transportation Studies, University of California, Davis (ITS-Davis).

Drop a dime

The idea that such charging stations could one day line the streets like payphones supported by the vendor area outside the speaker rooms. Many of them were offering charging hardware the looks more like a phone than a gas pump.

FLO, a company from Quebec, has a charger with a tall armature that lifts the cable off the ground. It was a common problem that in snow the cables would get buried and cars would drive over them.

Scott Saffian is general manager Western USA of FLO. It makes the hardware and runs its own charging and billing network. Flo is the number one manufacturer and network provider in Canada and number two in North America. "We chose our key targets so we could maintain the customer service levels we have in Canada, where we have over 14,000 stations," said Saffian.

In Los Angeles, Flo is installing 75 stations on street lighting posts, where the department of transportation had already upgraded the poles with enough power to handle level 2 chargers. Flo is also installing 120 stations in another large US city. Many of these charging stations will b elocated not just on the street but in parking structures, apartment garages and homes.

"Up until now there have been some federal and state incentives for EV infrastructure, but because of the VW emissions scandal there is significant funding available for infrastructure," said Saffian. Now private money is heading into chargers too. "There are corporations that want to electrify their parking lots, and residential buildings, the same."

There's a lot of innovation in the field. One vendor showed off a cordless charger to be kept in a home garage. The car parks over a pad which uses induction to charge the battery, similar to the way people charge modern cell phones. "Will it microwave my cat?" asked a conference goer ironically, to showcase the type of question the general public will probably ask.

PMG PHOTO: JOSEPH GALLIVAN - Electric vehicles on display at Roadmap 12 included the Toyota Mirai (left) which runs uses a hydrogen fuel cell.

Utilities in transportation

Big players such as PGE have long been on board, but Forth executive director Jeff Allen said he is seeing more small utilities interested in the Roadmap. They have to increase load as energy efficiency lowers demand, and electric vehicles are an option. One other new development: the diversity of vehicles has increased lately, with everything from big Daimler trucks being designed in Oregon to small scooters. As someone pointed out, a scooter gets the equivalent of 1,000 miles to the gallon, a lot better than the 119 MPGe you might get from a Chevy Bolt. Since most car trips are under 5 miles they make a lot of sense.

Allen has no illusions.

"The first challenge is that most people have no idea any of this is happening? Even in California, there have been studies recently that show over half of the people they surveyed could not name a single electric car model. And that's after six years and a million EVs on the road. It's even worse once you get out of California. And then, if people think about electric vehicles at all, they probably think about the cars like a Tesla. If you don't know that vehicles exist, you're not you're not going to think about buying one, right?"

Part of the problem is consumers don't know where to go to get answers, like 'Where do I plug it in?' Do they ask the dealers? The car makers? The utilities?

"There was another study in England last year that said some large percentage of people were worried they'd electrocute themselves if they took it through a car wash," Allen said. "Spoiler alert, you won't! But there's a lot of really basic questions that that folks need to get answers to."

He'd like to see the utilities step up, since they are the most trusted source of information about electricity.

He added that politicians have to get used to the new auto industry business model.

"Here in Oregon, we just passed Senate Bill 1044 which puts targets for electric vehicle sales into legislation for the first time. But I think people need to understand that it's not just about selling a different car, it's about a whole different business model. The analogy is if you're going to bike commute, it's not just buying a bike instead of a car, it's now 'Oh, I need a place to park my bike at the office, where I can lock it up securely. And it would be really nice to have a shower and a place to change clothes at work. And I need a bike lane not just a car lane to get there.'"

Electrics cars need extras too. "I need a place to charge it potentially, at work, or if I'm running errands, or visiting a government office. So it changes the way that the electric utility relates to the car company, to local governments and all these other stakeholders."

Something else new: "The discussion about equity is much more front and center than it was even a year ago. So, the question of how do you make sure these technologies benefit people of color, traditionally underserved communities, low income folks, rural areas, is much more on people's minds."

The automakers, the policymakers, the utilities and the consumers all need to move together.

"The automakers have all committed to rolling out more EV models, they've made big long-term investments to enable them to do that. The utilities are increasingly seeing the opportunity and getting excited. The more (plug-in) cars there are on the road, the more people will be pushing their policymakers and saying 'Hey, I need a place to charge.'"

One cloud on the horizon now is uncertainty.

"There's a lot of uncertainty in the policy world right now around what's happening with the CAFE standards and with California's ability to have mandate. That's going to be tied up in the courts for the next couple of years. In the next couple of years, especially, the most important thing is that consumers continue to demand these cars, and that people get more experience with them and say, 'This really works for me.'"

As part of the conference, Forth broadcast a live focus group from Tigard with eight EV owners. They were peppered with questions, mainly about utilities and managed charging. The group was starkly white, middle-aged and comfortably off.

"I agree completely. And that has been the early adopter market for electric vehicles has been older, wiser, relatively more affluent. That also tends to be the market of people who buy new cars. If we want to get electric vehicles to mass market, we need to make sure that everybody can picture themselves in an electric car, and that we're marketing the vehicles to everyone. And that people understand what the benefits are. Lower income folks, people of color have a lot more barriers. The technology has not been marketed to them very effectively. It's a lot harder for them to charge because they're more likely to live in apartment buildings or condos, to rent, not be homeowners."

However, scooters can help people get hooked on electric.

"All the research we've seen is that once you've driven an electric vehicle, even if you've only ridden in one, people get hooked. The acceleration is instant. They're quiet. They're fun to drive. You don't smell like gasoline. They don't stain your driveway. I think some of these scooters and things like that can kind of be a gateway."

Allen thinks the biggest influence is probably seeing a coworker arrive in an electric car and asking them all about it.

"They're likely to say, Here, take it for a ride."

Joseph Gallivan
Reporter, The Business Tribune
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