Georgians adore their electric cars. With more than 26,000 plug-ins quietly cruising its roads, the Peach State holds the title for the nation’s second-largest fleet. Most are found in Atlanta, whose 500 charging stations make driving on electricity easy, practical, and of course free of tailpipe emissions. Hitting the open the road outside the city, however, proves more difficult.
To leave Atlanta, drivers usually take Interstate 75 or 85. The two highways converge in the heart of the city and extend like a giant X to the outer suburbs before carrying on to Tennessee, North Carolina, Alabama, and Florida. But electric drivers embarking on a 250-mile trip to, say, Charlotte, North Carolina, would notice that fast-charging stations peter out about 50 miles from the city, leaving motorists out of luck and power.
Experts cite “range anxiety,” or the fear of being stranded, as the biggest impediment to electric vehicle adoption. The average plug-in can go about 100 miles before needing to power up, and a lack of charging infrastructure across the Southeast and beyond remains a challenge for the industry.
What’s needed to boost EVs is the rapid expansion of a network of charging stations, especially DC fast chargers, says Tom Ashley, senior director of government relations for Greenlots, an EV software company. While the most common “level 2” chargers take an hour to load a car with enough power to go 10 to 30 miles, DC fast chargers can provide about 40 miles in just 10 minutes.
In the Southeast, level 2 chargers are most prevalent in Florida, North Carolina, and Georgia, where utilities like Florida Power and Light, Duke Energy, and Georgia Power have initiated programs to deploy charging stations. (In comparison, Alabama and South Carolina are EV deserts.)
These utilities see EVs as a way to make money while doing good. Not only do the cars serve as a new market for electricity sales, but they help the utility companies incorporate more renewables in their energy portfolios, take advantage of excess generation in states with new nuclear reactors (like Tennessee, Georgia, and South Carolina), and minimize their reliance on peaking power plants, which run only during times of high energy demand.
“It’s a good environmental story, and we also see that EV charging at night, when the electric load drops, is a benefit to the utility,” says Randy Wheeless, a spokesperson for Duke Energy. Duke plans to install 200 public EV charging stations this year as part of a settlement over the company’s violation of the Clean Air Act.
More money for more chargers is needed for EVs to compete with the mainstream car market. And thanks to another settlement, this one involving Volkswagen’s 2015 emissions scandal, a whole heap of cash is coming from the German auto company to promote electric vehicles. Over the next decade, Volkswagen, with oversight from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the California Air Resources Board, will funnel $2 billion into EV education and charging stations. The funds would work out to $6 million per state per year if divvied up evenly (though they won’t be). One of the ways cities can get a piece of this action is by submitting project proposals via the Electrify America website, which lays out Volkswagen’s plan. Regardless of who gets what, the goal is to install 300 charging stations, both level 2 and the DC fast variety, across 15 metropolitan areas. An additional 200 fast chargers are slated to connect the coasts.
An extra $2.7 billion will go into an Environmental Mitigation Trust to reduce nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions, which will be managed state by state. Fifteen percent of each state’s allocated NOx funds can be designated for zero-emissions vehicle deployment. That means there’s a possibility that Georgia could get $10 million more to spend on EV infrastructure.
“The [VW] funds could help if our governor decides that the full 15 percent be given to EV charging,” says Don Francis, executive director for Partnership for Clean Transportation in Atlanta, adding that the money could begin filling in the existing gaps along the I-75 and I-85 corridors.
The remaining funds will be used to reduce NOx through various means such as public transportation. Many cities may choose to convert their bus fleets to compressed natural gas, which emits less NOx than diesel, but other are opting for plug-in electric busses.
“I believe strongly that the heavy duty transportation space will be the first to go battery electric,” says Matt Horton, chief commercial officer for Proterra, an electric bus company with a manufacturing plant in Greenville, South Carolina, and another in City of Industry, California. “We’re replacing them with energy-efficient vehicles that have 22 miles per gallon versus 4.” His company has sold about 100 buses thus far. In the next 18 months, he says, that fleet will more than double. “It’s an industry that uses a tremendous amount of diesel fuel. Switching to electric can save a lot of money.”
Two years ago, the city of Seneca, South Carolina, established the world’s first all-electric municipal bus fleet, and other southern cities have been taking note. Miami is in the process of purchasing 75 electric buses, and Proterra has been speaking to MARTA, the mass-transit system in Atlanta.
At the height of EV sales in Georgia in 2014, about 3 percent of all car purchases were electric, well above the national average. One year earlier, Nissan shifted the production of its Leaf from Japan to Tennessee and also incentivized its zero-emissions vehicle lease program by dropping prices to as low as $199 per month for 24 months. Coupled with Georgia’s $5,000 tax credit, customers were able to walk out of a dealership with the keys to a leased car after paying only a couple thousand dollars. EV sales in Georgia increased by a factor of five from 2012 to 2013, and then doubled again in 2014. But then in 2015, Georgia’s legislature ended the tax credit to find savings for a transportation bill. Instead of a tax break, the state began requiring a $200 annual registration fee. The move caused EV sales in the state to free-fall 90 percent.
Consumer rebates have been doing their part to help EVs merge with mainstream car culture, but those EVs need a reliable and ubiquitous charging network first and foremost. Only then will an Atlantan be able to putter around the city in a clean, green automobile and then cruise over to Charlotte without a second thought.