08/23/2019

What’s The Charge… For An Electric Car Charge?

5:32 minutes

a white electric car is charging on a pump
As more people drive electric vehicles, more charging stations will be needed. A change in state law aims to boost the industry. Credit: David Boraks/WFAE

state of science iconThis segment is part of The State of Science, a series featuring science stories from public radio stations across the United States. This story, by David Boraks, originally appeared on WFAE 90.7 in Charlotte, North Carolina.


One day in the not-too-distant future, drivers of electric cars could pick charging stations the same way owners of gas guzzlers choose pumps now—by price. New rules being adopted around the country, including North Carolina, are clearing the way.

In North Carolina, owners of electric vehicle charging stations who want to get paid can only charge users according to how long their cars are plugged in.

But that’s a problem because not all vehicles draw power at the same rate so users of faster-charging vehicles pay less. It’s a work-around to North Carolina’s electricity monopoly laws.

“The way the system was set up, the only entities that can sell electricity in North Carolina are registered utilities,” said Stan Cross, CEO of Brightfield Transportation Solutions in Asheville. The company, founded in 2010, owns solar-powered charging stations in North Carolina and other states from Florida to Massachusetts.

He said the current system isn’t fair for drivers, but it has allowed companies like his to begin building private charging networks.

Changing The Rules

Under the new North Carolina law, Brightfield and other companies will be able to charge by the kilowatt hour, making electric vehicle charging just like the dollars-per-gallon pricing of a gas pump. The new law took effect when Gov. Roy Cooper signed it July 19.  Cross said it will take a while for charging companies to change their systems, so it’s not clear yet what prices will look like.

“As we transition to kilowatt hours, we’ll kind of see what the market will bear, and that will vary just like the price of gas varies,” Cross said. “You know, in some areas that are more remote it may be more expensive, and some areas where there’s high volume, it may be cheaper. ”

Cross said the change also could help charger providers grow their businesses, by making it easier to predict revenues.

Private providers like Brightfield and Chargepoint—the nation’s largest charging station owner—are expected to face more competition, including from the state’s biggest electric utility, Duke Energy. In April, Duke announced a $76 million plan to install at least 2,500 charging stations around the state. That’s currently awaiting regulatory approval.

Brightfield operates a specialized version of a charging station, which includes a solar panel canopy. The stations are connected to the electric grid, and Brightfield buys electricity from electric utilities, to ensure 24-hour reliability. But the solar panels also generate electric power, which is sold back to the power company. Cross said the amount of power they generate is about equal to the power they buy.

States Taking Action

The North Carolina Clean Energy Technology Center at North Carolina State University says in a newly updated report that 43 states plus the District of Columbia enacted changes in electric vehicle laws in the second quarter of 2019 alone. Most involved rebates for buyers, new vehicle registration fees to make up for lost gas-tax revenues, and programs to add charging stations.

One of the biggest trends, according to North Carolina State, is for states to do what North Carolina did—exempt charging station owners from state utilities law restrictions.


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Segment Guests

David Boraks

David Boraks is an environment and energy reporter at WFAE in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Segment Transcript

IRA FLATOW: Now we’re going to move on to check in on the state of science.

SPEAKER 1: This is KERA News.

SPEAKER 2: For WWNO.

SPEAKER 3: St. Louis Public Radio.

SPEAKER 4: Iowa Public Radio News.

IRA FLATOW: Local science stories of national significance. Many states are trying to get more drivers to use electric cars, but here’s something we haven’t quite figured out yet. How should drivers be charged for a charge? A new law in North Carolina will change how electric charging stations in the state operate to make them more like gas pumps.

David Boraks is an environment and energy reporter at WFAE in Charlotte, North Carolina. He’s here to fill us in. Hi, welcome to Science Friday.

DAVID BORAKS: Hello, Ira. How are you?

IRA FLATOW: Fine. Let’s talk about this. Before the law, how did the price of electric charging stations work now in North Carolina?

DAVID BORAKS: Well, the way it works right now is that owners of electric vehicle charging stations, if they want to get paid for this, they have to charge users by the amount of time it takes to fill up your battery with electricity. And that’s a little bit of a problem because not all cars charge at the same speed, and there are lots of variables there.

IRA FLATOW: So there’s really– so if I have a fast speed charging car, I’ll get more electricity in the same time, and that’s not equitable, basically.

DAVID BORAKS: That’s right. And folks who run these charging stations in the industry say it’s not fair to charge that way, and that includes Tesla, which is kind of the big guy in the field right now.

IRA FLATOW: Mhm. All right. So how’s charging going to work from now on?

DAVID BORAKS: Well, the law in North Carolina and many other states now is changing to allow them to charge by the kilowatt hour. And you could think of that as much the same as charging per gallon of gas the way it comes out of the pump for your gas guzzler right now. So that should change the picture entirely, and that will be much more lined up with the amount of energy that you use to charge.

IRA FLATOW: So are there any concerns about how well this will work, whether it’s going to be rolling out smoothly or not?

DAVID BORAKS: Well, there’s a lot to be done before we get here in North Carolina. There are a few places around the country that already have charging stations that are metered by the kilowatt hour. But in North Carolina, all the stations up until now have had to operate according to the time.

And so the owners of these stations now, their next task will be to update their equipment or get new equipment to do this. And then there’s the whole question of how much we’ll pay for this.

IRA FLATOW: Mhm. So this actually could work for gas stations, let’s say, who want to put a charging station in there because they know that there are more Tesla’s than other cars on the road. I mean I have one. I’m sure a lot of people are buying them. But they could start to make money from the charging, right?

DAVID BORAKS: They could. And actually, it’s a great question. Why haven’t we seen this yet? Why haven’t some of the big gasoline chains put in at least one charging station there?

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. So but now, if you give them an incentive that they can make some money, right, and they can charge by the gallon, so to speak, or the kilowatt hour.

DAVID BORAKS: Yes.

IRA FLATOW: This is a way for them to make some dough also.

DAVID BORAKS: And that’s really why North Carolina legislators decided to change the law and why the governor signed the bill. There are a lot of companies lined up to compete in this area, so we’re going to see a lot of evolution in the next few years. But we could see separate stations. We could see existing gas stations doing this. And of course, there’s all the places where you find a charger right now, which are everywhere from your grocery store parking lot to your company office garage.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah. I know I stayed at a hotel recently because I had to travel 200 miles to get there. And I picked that little hotel because they had a charging station, right, as part of the hotel. I guess that could be more of a trend here because you could not only have gas stations, but you could have hotels that could charge for it.

DAVID BORAKS: Absolutely. And some of the companies that are active in the charger space, they’re actually selling chargers to anybody who wants to install them. And so it has become popular for some businesses to offer this as an add on. And oftentimes, at these places, it’s free. I don’t know what you paid at your hotel there. But oftentimes they do that as an extra service, as an add on. I think we’ll more and more begin to see this as a moneymaking opportunity for people who operate chargers.

IRA FLATOW: Yeah, mine was free. I mean, they actually put their own real Tesla charger in there, a couple of them. I mean, that’s the way they got people in there. Let’s move on to another aspect of this because you’ve reported on how there’s such a demand for electric cars, and North Carolina is reopening its lithium mines.

DAVID BORAKS: Yeah, that’s right. There’s a company that has been looking in Western North Carolina at a site that used to be a lithium mine. Back from the 1940s up to the 1980s, there were lithium mines about 30 miles west of Charlotte. And that was at a time when the main uses for lithium were as like an industrial grease, as an additive to ceramics to make them stronger. And everybody’s familiar with lithium as an antidepressant drug.

But that industry looked elsewhere to South America and Australia for lithium until we got to this point now where everybody has a lithium battery in all their devices and their automobiles. And so that’s caused some investors to take a look at these old mines in this area west of Charlotte and begin testing.

And there’s a company called Piedmont Lithium that I have written about, which is looking at an area that stretches from the tip of one county all the way to the South Carolina border. And they have acquired about 2,200 acres of land or contracts on land. And they foresee about a 25 year supply of lithium here. And they’re talking it up as the biggest supply in North America right now of traditional lithium deposits.

IRA FLATOW: Wow, because it is very rare, David. Thank you. Thank you very much. This is interesting stuff. We’ll have to have you back soon. Thanks for taking the time.

DAVID BORAKS: All right, thanks.

IRA FLATOW: You’re welcome. David Boraks, environment and energy reporter at WFAE in Charlotte, North Carolina.

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