Local Governments Should Think About Charging While Buying EVs

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A recent story from Philadelphia shows the truth of the “Six Ps” (Proper Planning Prevents Piss Poor Performance). The story starts with the struggles an Uber driver is going through with his EV, and it was bad enough that he was thinking of going back to gas. The problem? City vehicles hogging up the local chargers. It’s a problem vexing EV drivers around Philadelphia.

The news station’s journalists went back to the busy charging station several times to see what the deal was, and sure enough, city vehicles were always plugged in and keeping private drivers from being able to charge. It wasn’t a big deal for city workers to stop and charge during their shifts, not only because they’re paid by the hour, but because they had paperwork to catch up on. But, not being able to choose when to hit the charger still hits productivity while keeping chargers occupied.

It turns out that the city did at least do some planning. For a 261-vehicle EV fleet, the city put in 107 EV chargers. Some of them are even located in the lots for the departments that use them, but sadly many of them are located at the fleet’s shops, where they’d go if they were broken and not where they’d be for daily use. Even worse, many departments that don’t even have EVs yet ended up getting chargers, leaving people with EVs needing to use public EV chargers.

Probably the biggest blunder in the city’s charger planning is that the department with the most EVs (Licensing and Infrastructure) didn’t get any of the chargers. This leaves 115 vehicles with no place to charge except at the stations citizens need to be using. The city did at least think to get a contract with EVgo to get a better deal, but without much else in the way of foresight.

What makes this situation particularly hard is that 102 of the vehicles are take home vehicles, or vehicles that the assigned employee takes home because they need to be on call for emergencies. Being able to drive straight from home to where the infrastructure emergency happens is extremely important, but it shouldn’t surprise the city that nobody wants to make their own electric bills go up by charging the vehicle when they’re off shift.

Philadelphia seems to have made the bigger mistake of trying to copy another city’s plan without actually implementing it. Officials did the usual political thing and formed a committee that was supposed to create a plan, but only a very basic plan was made. The city Philadelphia copied (Columbus, Ohio) had a committee, but their committee actually made a plan to charge every vehicle bought instead of just saying “put one in”.

Another thing that really sucks about this for the city is that using DC fast charging instead of overnight L2 charging is that a lot of the cost savings cannot be realized. In the city, L2 charging costs about $.14/kWh, while EVgo chargers are $.49/kWh, which is as bad as buying gasoline.

Now, the city has to go back to the drawing board and make an actual plan, when the right time to do that was probably five years ago.

The Challenge of Take Home Cars Must Be Tackled

This is a problem that has come up before with plugin hybrid (PHEV) fleets. Some flawed studies of plugin hybrids incorrectly assumed that “nobody plugs them in”, but didn’t account for the fact that take home fleet vehicles aren’t free to charge at home. When a company or local government sends an EV home without a plan to pay for charging, they’re just about guaranteeing that the EV will not be charged.

In the case of PHEVs, this resulted in a lot of gas still being burnt, which made the PHEVs just be expensive hybrids. It turns out that when an employer does the dumb with BEVs, we end up with cars that get charged at DCFC stations. This not only is expensive, bad for other EV drivers, and slow, but it reduces the life of the vehicle’s battery pack. In other words, it’s a triple whammy of bad results (aka “piss poor performance”).

At the end of the day, employers are going to need to figure out ways to pay employees for charging at home or figure out how to pay for the charging directly. Because employers aren’t sure whether an employee will switch to another job next week or next year, they’re obviously going to be very hesitant to want to invest in charging infrastructure at people’s houses. Or, worse, many employees may live in multi-family housing or houses without driveways, where a charger just can’t be put in the normal way.

For a municipal employer issuing take-home cars, the fact that they’re the government does give them one possible option: curb charging. Unlike other employers, the city literally owns the streets. It’s possible for them to put charging in on the curb and then let the EVs charge for free. A city or county could even lock out other vehicles during certain hours or dedicate the spot to the city-owned vehicle for charging. If the employee moves on, the city can collect revenue from the curb charger to pay for it while increasing charging options in the neighborhood.

Another thing any employer can do is consider paying take home vehicle assignees ahead of time for their charging, and then check the vehicle’s computer once a month to figure out how much was used and how much to give the employee for their power bill. This means that instead of owing the employee something, they’re always caught up and people are willing to plug in at home (when possible).

As for installation costs, an employer can put this in the contract. Work for two years, and you get to keep the station for free. Work for less, and you have to pay a prorated portion of the EV charger installation cost back. Or, employers could just pay for it and not worry about it so much.

Finally, employers really need to put in their own DCFC stations. They don’t need to be 250 kW stations, because putting the charger by the office means it’s OK to go inside and do clerical tasks or something. But, not burdening public charging infrastructure with city vehicles is the right thing to do whenever possible.

Featured image by Jennifer Sensiba.

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