No one has to worry about social distancing at the electric vehicle charging stations that popped up around St. Joseph.
An EV, as an electric vehicle is called, remains a novelty. Officials at Evergy are convinced that won’t always be the case, so the utility is quietly laying the groundwork for a grid that can accommodate the demands of increased electric vehicle usage.
“The current grid is not designed to handle cart blanche replacement of gasoline-powered vehicles with electric,” said Nick Voris, Evergy’s senior manager of electrification products and services. “There definitely is a tipping point. That tipping point is several years away.”
Electric vehicles still account for only about 5% of global automotive sales and even less in the United States, but automakers are all in on a large-scale transition. General Motors vows to stop production of gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035.
“It’s coming,” said Jeff Schomburg, co-owner of Kruse’s Auto Center. “We don’t know when it’s going to hit the Midwest, but we’re kind of anticipating it a bit.”
A complete transition to all-electric vehicles would be transformational, like going from horses to cars at the turn of the 20th century. Some convenience stores already are experimenting with truck stop-type amenities, anticipating the day when customers are trapped in the store buying high-margin items while waiting for a 15-minute charge-up. Schomburg’s business started servicing some electric vehicles, and he expects the learning curve to only get steeper. “There’s a lot of keeping up in this industry anyway, even without electric vehicles,” he said.
An electric utility might appear to be the umbrella salesperson in the rainstorm, but Evergy has some concerns. Namely, can the grid handle the demand of widespread electric vehicle usage without expensive upgrades?
The answer is not an emphatic “yes,” so Evergy is trying to incentivize home-based and private charging stations that can be utilized in off-peak hours, when electricity is cheaper to produce and more abundant.
The utility is asking the Missouri Public Service Commission to approve a pilot program that creates rebates for homeowners, renters and developers to install 240-volt, “Level 2” infrastructure that enables vehicle charging in more homes and private businesses. As it stands now, Evergy has about 1,000 charging stations in its service territory, including St. Joseph and Kansas City.
Evergy also is experimenting with reduced charging rates during off-peak hours, something that would be subject to regulatory approval.
“The broader question is, ‘Would this proposal benefit all customers, even those who don’t have electric vehicles?’” said Andy Knott, deputy regional director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign in Missouri. “By utilizing the network more efficiently, that would avoid the need to upgrade the network. That would save all customers in the long run.”
Knott sees a couple of hurdles in the switch to electric vehicles, one being “charging anxiety” — the fear of running out of power in the middle of nowhere. The other is the concern that charging stations won’t be as likely to serve large rental units or homes in poorer communities, something that could become an issue as the cost of electric vehicles comes down.
“We don’t want charging station deserts the way we see food deserts,” he said.
Some might scoff at this kind of problem when they see the lonely charging stations right now, but Voris is adamant that interest in the vehicles will only grow. He said Evergy will be ready.
“The trick to getting somebody interested in an electric vehicle is to get them to drive one,” he said. “It’s like the first time you transition from a flip phone to an iPhone.”