Electric Road Trip

How Seattle drives forward on electric buses

SEATTLE — When I stepped aboard one of Seattle's first electric buses, I couldn't help but notice that it was strewn with orange sandbags.

The bags — on the floor, on the seats, leaking grains into every crevice — are a sign of the state of electric transit buses today. In other words, they aren't carrying many passengers yet. The bags emulate the weight of passengers, taking fare-free rides across the region as the buses get ready for showtime.

"Now we're in the early stage of electric vehicles, and we're getting past the get-to-know-you phase," said Danny Ilioiu, the strategic program manager for zero-emissions buses at King County Metro, the transit agency for the county that includes Seattle.

The Seattle region has cheap and clean electricity from hydropower, which makes it easier to justify the jump to electric buses despite their higher price tag. In 2016, with a $4.7 million grant from the Federal Transit Administration, King County Metro tested three buses. One year later, Metro committed to electrifying its entire fleet by 2040.

The transit agencies of Chicago, New York City and Los Angeles soon followed suit.

Today there are 40- and 60-foot buses by three manufacturers — Proterra Inc., BYD Co. and New Flyer — going through their paces.

Metro acquired 10 models on short-term leases in order not to get stuck with lemons. They are navigated on urban routes, suburban routes, and hilly routes, and driven in the rain. Sometimes the buses have fallen below their promised range of about 140 miles in colder weather. Charging equipment is being tested; repair crews are practicing lifting them.

The results? "No bad surprises," Ilioiu said.

Then he added: "Really good. We're excited about the results." Metro's plan is to order 120 buses next year and another 250 by 2025.

One of the biggest hurdles is how to fuel them. How do you build the infrastructure to charge hundreds of buses?

Ilioiu drove me to the neighboring city of Bellevue to see how it might work. At a park-and-ride lot, Metro has built a steel frame, called a gantry, over the path its electric buses run. When a bus approaches it, the driver surrenders control of the steering wheel and the vehicle automatically eases under the gantry, where a mechanical arm drops a charging plug onto the bus roof.

By 2030, Metro plans to build a new bus depot that will deploy this kind of system en masse for up to 250 buses. Some on long-haul routes will stay and charge for hours; others on shorter, closer circuits will cycle through quickly, snatching some electrons before heading out again.

Another challenge involves the cost of electricity. New tariffs need to be worked out with the two utilities that provide electricity in Metro's territory, Seattle City Light and Puget Sound Energy.

Metro has learned some lessons the hard way. With its first electric buses, its demand charges — the amount that Metro pays to the utility for its peak consumption — made the cost of fuel skyrocket. This occurred even though electricity in the region is generally cheap. According to a recent study, the demand charges caused electric fuel to cost 57 cents a mile, far more than the 30 cents a mile for a comparable diesel bus.

The 120 buses that Metro will acquire next year may end up using up to 7 megawatts of power.

"That is a significant budget item," said Radhika Moolgavkar, a special projects manager at Metro who is responsible for negotiating contracts with the power companies. It will be her job to bargain for rates that make electric buses inexpensive to operate, or not.

As we finished our tour, both Ilioiu and Moolgavkar seemed confident that the obstacles to electric buses will be soon in the rearview mirror.

They're excited that the buses could help make electric transportation a reality in the eyes of thousands of bus riders. After riding these buses a few times, Ilioiu hopes, "people will realize they just work."

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.

The charging station that made Seattleites mad

SEATTLE — We are traveling 6,000 miles on the Electric Road Trip and telling dozens of stories. Today we published one that resonates with me, as the events took place just blocks from my house.

The article is about the bold effort that Seattle made to build electric vehicle charging stations on public curbs — and how that effort almost entirely failed.

The curbsides of big cities are one of the unheralded fronts in the move toward electric transportation. The curb, after all, is where thousands of people who don't have garages park their cars. Seattle's idea was to encourage EV adoption by bringing the charging stations to these people.

The most prominent location the city chose was on Broadway East, the main thoroughfare of Capitol Hill, where I lived until very recently.

Ask any Seattleite if they think electric cars are a good idea and they'll say yes. Among popular notions, zero-emissions transportation is right up there with coffee and craft beer.

But in practice, getting ready for electric cars involves trade-offs, especially in a neighborhood with crowded sidewalks and streets, along with a growing resentment against cars in general. The Broadway charging station proposal went down to defeat, because of opposition from an unexpected source.

One of the most interesting parts of reporting on electric vehicles these days is watching them turn from a gauzy, feel-good idea into a hard reality. That reality has some sharp edges that poke against the very people who were disposed to feel good about electric cars.

People in the Capitol Hill neighborhood were poked by the electric car, and so will many others, as electric cars roll out in bigger numbers. We look forward to telling you about them. In fact, if it happens in your neighborhood, let us know. We'd like to tell the story.

See the full-length story in Energywire.

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.

Video blog, week 6: The Northwest

Week 6 of the Electric Road Trip tackled the open road between Billings, Mont., and Seattle. E&E News reporter Peter Behr and his wife, Marty Behr, watched their battery range rise and fall as they crossed mountain passes. They connected with startup companies trying to solve infrastructure challenges that could slow the adoption of electric vehicles in a place like Montana, where people might drive 60 miles to buy groceries.

That landed the Behrs at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Washington state, where scientists are working on the next generation of EV batteries. As Pete noted, "The EV seeds are being planted in many, many ways and in many places, even in the rugged Rockies."

Next week, look for reporting from David Ferris as he travels from Seattle to San Francisco, the fast-paced innovation hub that's giving Detroit a run for its money.

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.

Q&A: Nobel-winning scientist put batteries in motion

Stanley Whittingham, a professor at State University of New York's Binghamton campus, joined two other scientists to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for developing lithium-ion batteries. The research in the 1970s and '80s led to lightweight rechargeable batteries, and it set the stage for modern electric car batteries and grid-scale energy storage.

In an interview with E&E News, Whittingham said research money flowed freely at Exxon Mobil Corp., the company he was working for at the time. Peak oil had entered the lexicon as far as U.S. production goes, and Exxon was eager to try new things.

He predicted a shift to electric vehicles could take a couple decades because of how long people keep their cars. "People typically keep their cars for 10 or 12 years, some people even longer," he noted. That said, the West Coast car market is in transition. "You'll see that happening very fast."

Cost and range anxiety are clearly the major hurdles to broad electric car adoption, Whittingham said. But he had a fun idea for how the nation's capital can set an example: White House officials could use EVs to commute to the Capitol.

The Nobel winner didn't avoid political questions. For example: Can the Trump administration defeat the electric car? "They can try to," he said. But for Detroit automakers, it's about survival on the world stage.

The auto companies don't appear to be backing away from plans to vastly expand their offerings.

Ford Motor Co. today announced a partnership with charging companies Greenlots, a subsidiary of Shell, and Electrify America, a spinoff of Volkswagen, to build out a national network of 12,000 charging stations and 35,000 plugs once Ford starts selling battery-electric models in 2020.

Meanwhile, Whittingham is still plugging away at the lithium-ion battery, with two projects at work with Energy Department funding. He says there are still big leaps to be made in battery performance.

See the full-length Q&A in Energywire.

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.

At PNNL, next-gen batteries can't come soon enough

RICHLAND, Wash. — A visit to the advanced battery team at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory offers a glimpse into the future of electric car charging and an unplanned lesson in why that future needs to arrive sooner rather than later.

My wife and co-pilot, Marty Behr, and I arrived at PNNL just as the lab was announcing a big jump in developing a next generation lithium-metal battery. If perfected, it could double the driving range of a same-sized lithium-ion battery, according to Vince Sprenkle, technical group manager on the energy storage project at PNNL.

"The biggest challenge is the materials we use today will not get us there," said Sprenkle, the son of Missouri teachers with a doctorate in ceramic engineering. He joined PNNL in 2001 and holds 14 U.S. patents on fuel cells, batteries and a high-temperature electrochemical device. He has 22 more patents pending. PNNL named him inventor of the year in 2014.

Lithium metal would be the ideal material for building anodes, the negative posts inside car batteries. The critical hurdle turns out to be a rogue chemical reaction inside the battery that leads to the formation of a harmful growth called dendrites, or, more amusingly, "whiskers."

The whiskers consume the battery's electrolyte, which is the medium for transporting energy, and can lead to short circuits of the battery itself.

PNNL researchers using a specialized electron microscope and other prized research equipment have been able to observe how whiskers form, capturing the clumping of lithium on the anode until the moment when the whisker suddenly sprouts, like a stalagmite inside a cavern. In our recent visit, PNNL researcher Yang He showed off the microscope, a tower of chambers and electronic circuitry.

Capturing the whisker culprit in action has not solved how to stop it from happening; but it shows researchers where and how to look for the answers, Sprenkle said.

"How do I build that lithium anode so it will not grow whiskers? There's a lot of chemistry involved in how you do that," Sprenkle said.

"That is what the team is working on, how to solve those chemistry challenges that will enable a reusable lithium anode."

As a part of the Energy Department's Battery500 project, PNNL is advancing more rapidly thanks to coordinated research efforts across other DOE and university labs.

As we were briefed by Sprenkle and He, our electric Kia Niro was plugged in at a PNNL charging spot with what we hoped would be the primo charging experience on our leg of the road trip, from eastern Montana to Seattle. A bank of chargers was arrayed next to a big solar panel installation, promising carbon-free energy for most of the remainder of the trip.

For reasons unclear, the charger delivered no power. Despite the helpful efforts of PNNL staffers Nick Hennen and Shannon Bates, I had trouble logging on to the ChargePoint unit.

So we ended the day with less than 70 miles of range in the car, and 200 miles to go.

We scanned the online PlugShare map of public charging sites in the area and found a high-voltage direct current charger operated by Greenlots at a Starbucks near Walla Walla, Wash. Starbucks district manager Chris Cantlon said he was happy to recharge us and our car. The fast charger delivers 50 miles range in an hour roughly. The much more common "Level 2" charger, on a par with a home's 240-volt AC dryer outlet, would take eight or nine hours.

We'll need another fast charge to get over the Cascades. Here's to a future battery with twice the range as ours.

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.

America's EV divide, charging buses, cobalt conundrum

The Electric Road Trip this week hit the Rockies and Cascades. We trundled through a snowstorm on the Great Plains and then tested our battery on the steeps, finding meaningful highs and lows.

For example, we approached the Mountain West with both optimism and deep skepticism. We met entrepreneurs in Bozeman, Mont., who are finding ways to make charging stations better. In Billings and Missoula, we talked with auto dealers who believe EVs will struggle in the mountains while spelling hardship for the dealers themselves.

What does the future hold for electric vehicles in the country's wide-open spaces? That's the subject of this week's big story.

— David Ferris

North Dakota is the worst place in the United States to drive an electric car. With conservative politics, an economy based on fossil fuels, and a fondness for big trucks, it is also the worst place to build a political movement for them.

Or so it seems. A reporting trip across the state revealed that power companies, coal lobbyists, school districts and Republicans are seeing an opening to go electric. One major automaker is quietly tapping local dealers to get ready for the coming fleet of heavy-duty electric pickup trucks. It's possible that the unexpected traction means electric vehicles aren't as far off for rural America as people think.

See the full-length story in Energywire.

TOP STOPS

In our latest video blog, E&E News reporters explain how they slogged through the northern Plains during the fifth leg of the 6,000-mile Electric Road Trip.

BILLINGS, Mont. — Reporter David Ferris drove out of Miles City, Mont., into the teeth of a snowstorm. He veered off the interstate in Billings, with 30 miles of range left and breathing a sigh of relief.

MISSOULA, Mont. — Bill Underriner, who owns a clutch of auto dealerships in the Billings, Mont., area, is grim about his service business in a world of electric cars.

DICKINSON, N.D. — A four-member crew of local Tesla owners met with our reporter at the Prairie Hills Mall. The hearty bunch know how to face harsh winters in their EVs.

ROADSIDE ATTRACTIONS

Rhombus Energy Solutions, in Dearborn, Mich., is turning out high-voltage chargers for bus and truck fleets. A team led by engineer Kent Harmon persisted for a quarter-century in the development of the technology. E&E News

Montana entrepreneur Bill Clem's custom-designed public charging units are going into two Harley-Davidson dealerships offering the LiveWire electric motorcycle. E&E News

Cobalt in EV batteries has been tied to child labor. Carmakers aren't doing enough to monitor their supply chains, a report says. E&E News

Lawmakers are imposing fees on EVs with dramatic consequences for the pace of electric car adoption. E&E News

Scientists who developed lithium-ion batteries were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry. Large-scale use of the batteries is giving rise to electric cars. The New York Times

Dyson Ltd. scrapped its $2.5 billion electric car ambitions. After two years of trying, the maker of vacuum cleaners couldn't find a way to build autos. Bloomberg

NEXT TURN

Now we begin our journey down the West Coast and into the heart of the electric vehicle revolution. Starting in Seattle, we will head through Portland, Ore., and Silicon Valley, exploring what is working (and not working) in this alley of experimentation.

There's more to the trip than the newsletter. Check the blog each weekday and lend your opinion to the Facebook page.

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.

The charging endgame is a pull for inventors

A telling benchmark for electric vehicles is how inventors and investors approach the challenges around battery charging. On two legs of the Electric Road Trip, our reporter Peter Behr called on two ventures that are aimed at advancing how EVs are "refueled" with electrons.

Rhombus Energy Solutions, in Dearborn, Mich., is turning out high-voltage chargers for bus and truck fleets. This is the story of engineer Kent Harmon and his colleagues, who persisted for a quarter-century to build charging technology for big fleets. See the full-length story in Energywire.

And in Bozeman, Mont., our EV was refueled at a charger created by entrepreneur Bill Clem, whose industrial designs span surgical devices and snowmobiles. His custom-designed public charging units are going into hotel and retail outlets, and into two Harley-Davidson dealerships that are offering the LiveWire electric motorcycle. See the full-length story in Energywire.

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.

Auto dealers quake at EVs' cut at their service biz

MISSOULA, Mont. — The Electric Road Trip found a handy place to charge up at the Karl Tyler Chevrolet dealership near our hotel here on Saturday, before our climb through Lookout Pass into Idaho.

This has been common. Car dealerships listed on PlugShare, an app for locating charging stations, have welcomed us.

Yet it's still a little surprising to see the welcome mats rolled out. Buying and selling electric vehicles is a tough business right now. There was always a chance an otherwise friendly dealer would let the air out of our tires.

One of the most challenging shifts dealers will be grappling with if EVs take hold is the auto service business. Combustion engines have a lot of parts; electric car parts are modular. There are fewer of them to fix.

"No doubt service revenue will go down, because EVs contain about 40% fewer parts," Frederiek Toney, Ford Motor Co.'s president for global customer service, told the J.D. Power Auto Summit in San Francisco last February, according to a WardsAuto report. All-electric cars have one-tenth the moving parts of gas-powered cars, need no lubrication, and have no emissions controls to replace as the car ages (Energywire, Sept. 25).

Bill Underriner, who owns a clutch of auto dealerships in the Billings, Mont., area, was happy to have us plug in at his Volvo store, but grim about his service business in a world of electric cars. Given all the pressure on dealers to lower new car prices with rebates, he said, revenue from the service shop is essential to a healthy bottom line.

"I'm worried what this means for dealers' futures," he said. "I have 50 service technicians." He and his family predecessors have been selling cars since the end of World War II, so his is a long-term view.

But in Montana, at least, a look at Karl Tyler Chevrolet suggests a day of EV reckoning is somewhere over the ridgeline.

My wife, Marty, and I entered the dealership past a long line of Silverado and Colorado pickup trucks and SUVs. And no wonder.

Sales Manager Brennan Skrutvold said the dealership had sold 12 vehicles on the day we arrived, all trucks and SUVs, the vehicle of choice for Montanans who travel long, rugged routes in all weather to reach hunting, camping and fishing destinations or commute into Missoula from off-highway homes. The heavy vehicles claim 95% of 200-vehicle average monthly vehicle sales.

"We live on a ridge that overlooks the Bitterroot Valley," he said, 50 miles south of Missoula. "For me, and for what my pursuits are outside of work, the electric car doesn't make sense."

EVs need to match performance and price with conventional competitors, he said. "Electric vehicles will probably take off, but in the state of Montana, it's going to take time because it's such a huge state with only 1 million people. You can go a long ways in between places."

Until competitive EV pickups arrive, the market will be slow to adapt, Skrutvold said.

"The issue is, how can we best suit our customer base? And right now, that's not with electric vehicles."

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.

Video blog, week 5: The western Plains

Week 5 of the Electric Road Trip is in our rearview mirror. We headed west out of Minneapolis, across the charging desert and flatlands of North Dakota, before landing in Billings, Mont. Snow dusted our electric Kia as we approached Big Sky Country.

In this video blog, reporter David Ferris shares his adventures in range anxiety with his colleague, Peter Behr. Our reporters call it "range terror." The range indicator starts flashing warnings, and the pace of travel slows to a crawl as fate and luck build to a crescendo. Tune in to find out whether David made it to his destination. Next week, Peter makes his way to Seattle.

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.

Snow is falling. How is our EV (and its driver) holding up?

BILLINGS, Mont. — I started yesterday's journey with apprehension. From Miles City, Mont., I had to drive to Billings, into the teeth of a snowstorm.

Driving in falling snow is always stressful, but this was my first such voyage in an electric vehicle. How would it perform? How would I perform?

When I rolled out of the KOA campground at 6:20 a.m. local time, my headlights detected only a gentle flurry. But that was no comfort; the storm was coming from the direction of Billings to meet me and was forecast to drop 6 to 10 inches. The temperature gauge read 32 degrees Fahrenheit.

The first concern, as with any long trip in an EV, was to have enough range to get to Billings. It seemed like a slam-dunk, since my car battery (full) had 249 miles of range. I needed to go 151 miles.

But this first-ever EV drive in freezing temperatures provided two special worries.

One, they say an EV battery's range drops in cold weather. So I couldn't go as far. The other is that turning on the heat puts strain on the already reduced battery and drops range even further. So how much range could I really depend on?

The solution? No heat.

"I hope you have some warm gloves & long johns/thermal underwear so you don't need to run the heater so much," wrote a well-wisher, Bill Gehn, who had saved us back in Red Wing, Minn. I was ready, with gloves on, a big jacket and a down sleeping bag across my lap.

But half an hour in, cruising 60 mph uphill across the range, I discovered a flaw with my zero-tolerance heater policy. I couldn't put a sleeping bag on my windshield wipers, and the blades were freezing. A sheen of ice was creeping from the corners of the windshield toward the center.

So I turned on the heat to the lowest setting, 62 degrees. The ice just laughed. I got out at a rest stop, knocked the ice off and turned the heat up to 75. The windshield thawed, but the wiper ice remained. So I turned the fan up to high, feeling a welcome flush of heat on my face.

That sent the ice into retreat. But a new problem! Snow.

About 30 miles out of Billings, the flurries turned to heavy flakes and the roadway immediately started thickening with white. I hadn't yet seen a snowplow.

I remembered Bill's other piece of advice: "Those low rolling resistance tires are slippery in snow & ice; be careful!"

Dumb efficient tires.

The tractor-trailer I had been following through the snowy haze stopped for no reason, square in the highway. I couldn't wait! I swung around him and zoomed on, all alone, no traffic anywhere in a whited-out world. I had to make Billings; it wasn't going to get any better out here.

Finally, at 9:40 a.m., with 30 miles of range remaining, I veered off the interstate in Billings, pointing my nose toward the local Volvo dealership. It had a charging station and was right across from my hotel.

I coasted into the snowy charging spot and breathed a sigh of relief. I'd never been so glad to see a car dealership in my life.

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.
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