Electric Road Trip

Motown's glimpse of a charged-up future

DETROIT — We picked an interesting time to roll into the Motor City, as the United Auto Workers strike against General Motors Co. enters its third week.

It's also good timing because just last week, Detroit got its first public fast chargers — four new boxes from ChargePoint — installed across the street from a downtown park. If we've learned anything so far on the trip, it's the value of fast charging on a tight schedule.

DTE Energy Co., the main power company of Detroit, led the project, dubbed ChargeD. The chargers are located in the shadows of the company's headquarters. Other partners include GM; the city; the Michigan Economic Development Corp.; and Blue Energy, a division of Corrigan Oil Co., which will own and operate the stations — a conscious move to diversify by the petroleum company. Two more fast chargers will be installed at a nearby downtown site.

How quickly the EV market develops will shape the future of each of these participants — from automakers to utilities and Michigan's economy — and how quickly chargers arrive will help dictate the pace of plug-in sales.

While 80% of vehicle charging will happen at home or at work, the availability of public charging — and consumer perception of availability — is especially important, said Jordan Catrine, EV infrastructure business development manager for GM.

"Foundationally, we know we need more charging infrastructure in the ground," he said in an interview.

It's a reason GM is teaming with Bechtel Enterprises to create a company to build thousands of fast-charging stations across the United States. Bechtel brings construction expertise; GM has anonymized data about travel patterns and dwell times from its OnStar service.

The data can help identify the locations where drivers spend many hours, such as an airport or hotel, which are suited for Level 1 or Level 2 chargers that take hours to fill a battery. Other sites where EV owners spend 30 minutes to an hour need something different.

Such a location is "probably a great place for a fast charger," Catrine said.

As with GM, the ChargeD project was a way for DTE to raise awareness.

"It's a big problem that people are not aware of the technology or its adoption," said Brett Steudle, a DTE senior strategist for EV strategy and programs.

The utility is using the project as a "learning experience" as it's in the early months of its Charging Forward program, a three-year, $13 million EV charging pilot approved by state regulators earlier this year, Steudle said.

"DTE in general is very excited and bought into the electric vehicle future," he said. "We want to be a catalyst instead of a barrier."

Siting is important to DTE, too, because the location of fast chargers on the grid can necessitate upgrades. Such was the case with the downtown project, which required the utility to install a new transformer, an inconspicuous gray metal box, a few feet from the chargers.

Charging Forward, which doesn't include the four downtown chargers, is aimed at helping DTE understand the EV market and how electricity demand from plug-in cars relates to overall system load on the electric distribution grid.

Part of it is for homes. DTE is offering $500 rebates to about 2,800 residential customers who install Level 2 chargers, enroll in year-round time-of-use rates and agree to enroll in future demand response programs. For public chargers, the company is extending rebates of $2,500 to $20,000 to site hosts, who will pay for the charging equipment.

DTE initially planned for 32 fast chargers to be installed as part of Charging Forward, but the company may shift funding to grow that number as it finds heightened interest from potential site hosts, especially those along highway corridors.

"We've actually seen a lot more interest in the fast chargers than the Level 2," Steudle said.

As for the EVs, when will they arrive? Forecasts run the gamut, and while DTE can help raise awareness, it can't control whether drivers choose electric.

"It's a big unknown," Steudle said. "All we can do is try to get through that noise and come up with a realistic forecast for what we think is going to happen."

Electric Road Trip

E&E News reporters take a 6,000-mile road trip in an electric vehicle to explore how the switch from gas to electric transportation will change the economy, environment and daily life of America.
Load more posts