The popularity of electric vehicles has increased in recent years – with sales in the U.S. trending upward since 2015. But EV sales still only made up a little over 2 percent of the U.S in 2018.
One reason some may still remain uneasy about going electric is “range anxiety” – the ability to find a charging station when you need one.
Contributor Jon Hurdle looks at how the First State is faring when it comes to combating “range anxiety."
If you want to do your bit to curb carbon emissions and eliminate gasoline costs from your budget, it’s tempting to ditch the car and buy an electric vehicle.
EVs, once an exotic alternative to conventional automobiles that attracted just a handful of eco-zealots, are growing in popularity as prices come down, driving ranges go up, and climate-change worries multiply.
But what about “range anxiety”, the fear that your EV will run out of charge before you reach your destination, and that you’ll be left stranded en route with no idea of where to plug in and recharge?
The good news, EV advocates say, is that Delaware drivers of gasoline-less cars no longer need to be worried that the vehicles won’t make it from, say, Wilmington to Rehoboth unless they somehow find a charge on the way.
Delaware now has 157 charging stations in 48 locations, according to the latest count from the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, allowing drivers of the latest EV models to travel the length of the state, and even some of the way back, without recharging their vehicles.
While DNREC has installed chargers at some highway rest stops, transit centers, and its own offices, most of the outlets are provided by private businesses such as convenience stores that see them as a way to attract customers while promoting a green agenda.
Royal Farms, for example, operates 10 chargers in five locations in Kent and Sussex Counties in a program – the first by a private company in Delaware -- that began in 2015.
Tom Ruszin, Fuel and Environmental Leader for Baltimore-based Royal Farms, said the company began to develop EV charging stations by working with the University of Delaware, and sees the program as an extension of its environmental policies.
“We have a culture of sustainability,” Ruszin said. “We build our stores to LEED standards, and we were looking for some programs that would tie into that. EV charging was one that we looked at, and we decided it fit with our business model.”
With a projected increase in EV ownership, Royal Farms decided it was time to make chargers available to its customers, and has invested some $350,000 in the Delaware locations.
The chargers – in Dover, Milford, Smyrna, Georgetown and Laurel – are all so-called Level 3 fast chargers that typically take about 20 minutes to top up the charge for an EV, and cost the average user $4.30 in the first quarter of 2019, Ruszin said. While that’s a fraction of the cost of filling your tank with gasoline, it also takes a lot longer but assumes that customers will take the time to eat or use the restrooms at the company’s stores while their vehicles are charging.
Still, it turns out that few EV drivers are using the Royal Farms chargers so far. In the first quarter, the busiest charger was in one of the Smyrna locations, and that averaged only about one charge a day, Ruszin said.
He acknowledged that the chargers have not attracted the number of users that the company hoped. “It’s not what we were hoping for this far into it,” he said.
Some chargers also exist at Delaware locations of Wawa, a Royal Farms competitor, but Wawa did not respond to several requests for details.
Despite the slow usage of the Royal Farms chargers, other indicators suggest brighter prospects for Delaware’s EV market. More drivers are taking advantage of a DNREC rebate program that pays up to $3,500 toward the cost of a pure electric or hybrid vehicle, an incentive that has been used by 1,130 vehicle owners in the last four years, according to Kathy Harris, the department’s Clean Transportation Planner.
In 2015, DNREC set up a competitive grant program for alternative fuel infrastructure, and helped Royal Farms install five fast chargers south of the Delaware & Chesapeake Canal, Harris said. For workplaces, the program will cover 75 percent of the cost of installing a charger, up to $7,500, and new residential chargers can get a rebate of 50 percent up to $500.
DNREC uses the number of rebates as a rough guide to the number of EVs on the road in Delaware, and while that clearly pales by comparison with the number of conventional cars, there’s a clear increase in interest in EVs, Harris said.
“We are getting more and more in every week, so the interest is definitely increasing, and I think that’s why we are also seeing an increase in the number of private companies installing charging stations,” she said. In one 30-day period in early 2019, DNREC received more applications for the rebate program than in any month during the past three years, she added.
Harris attributed the pickup in part to a big increase in the range of newly available EVs. The 2019 Chevy Bolt, for example, has a range of 238 miles driving on battery only, while the 2019 Nissan Leaf can drive 226 miles before it needs a new charge, according to the manufacturers.
Those ranges – more than twice the distance between Wilmington and Lewes – are significantly longer than the 75-110 mile range that was typical for EVs when DNREC’s rebate program started three years ago, Harris said.
“The range is increasing to give people comfort that they won’t run out of charge before reaching their destination. As the infrastructure is developing in the state, I would assume that range anxiety is starting to decrease,” she said.
And while new EV prices aren’t cheap – the manufacturer’s suggested retail price on the Bolt, for example, is $36,620 – the prices become more competitive with conventional cars once the state rebate and a $3,750 federal tax credit are factored in, she said.
While the number of charging stations in Delaware is now theoretically enough to eliminate range anxiety, any driver considering buying an EV may not yet be aware of where the chargers are, and that remains a potential obstacle to the expansion of the market.
The number of EV chargers in Delaware could increase if a new bill introduced by Delaware Senator Tom Carper becomes law. The Clean Corridors Act of 2019 would secure $300 million in federal funding over 10 years for the installation of electric chargers and hydrogen filling stations along the national highway system.
“By expanding and improving access to electric and hydrogen fuel stations with legislation like the Clean Corridors Act, we can increase consumer demand for these vehicles, while reducing air pollution and ensuring that these cars of the future are built right here in America,” Carper said in a press release.
Willett Kempton, a University of Delaware professor and a long-time advocate for EVs, said an app called Plugshare.com offers EV drivers an easy guide to the location of charging stations for all kinds of EVs throughout Delaware and the world.
“Once they understand the system, there isn’t any reason for range anxiety to exist in Delaware,” said Kempton, who heads an EV research and development group at UD.
While DNREC and companies like Royal Farms are increasing the number of publicly available chargers, the key to EV driving is fully charging your car at home and then using remote chargers to top-up the charge, Kempton said.
“Mostly, you set up something at home. It just becomes automatic, it’s part of parking,” he said.
But while advocates like Kempton and Harris highlight recent gains in EV infrastructure, the shortage of users at the Royal Farms chargers shows that Delaware has a way to go before wholeheartedly adopting the emissions-free vehicles.
Ruszin of Royal Farms said the usage of its chargers in Maryland is about four times that in Delaware, probably because many of the Maryland locations are urban, where people typically drive shorter distances than in Kent and Sussex Counties.
The company has no plans to add more Delaware chargers but neither does it intend to remove them, even if they are sparsely used at present, Ruszin said. Rather, it continues to anticipate that more drivers will need to charge up as the number of EVs on the road steadily increases.
“We want to keep them there, and as EVs pick up market share, hopefully there will be opportunities to expand,” he said.