Clean Charge Network

Who’s doing it: Kansas City Power & Light
Partners: Nissan and ChargePoint
Charging stations planned: 1,001 240-volt stations; 15 Nissan-branded fast-charging stations
Cost to install: $20 million
Cost to consumers to charge vehicles: Free for the first 2 years. Nissan will cover electricity costs at the 15 quick-charge stations. Station hosts, such as retailers and entertainment venues, will do so for the others.
Who’s managing the stations: ChargePoint

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Kansas City is famous for a lot of things — cattle, barbecue and jazz to name a few. Being a mecca for the green vehicle movement? Perhaps not so much.

But that may change. Early this year, Kansas City Power & Light announced a bold plan to install more than 1,000 electric vehicle charging stations over its service area, which covers Kansas City, Mo.; Kansas City, Kan., and a swath of rural western Missouri and eastern Kansas.

With its $20 million Clean Charge Network, KCP&L is with one stroke vaulting a heartland metropolis ahead of such electric-drive hot spots as California in the race to install an EV infrastructure. It’s a daring attempt to solve the chicken-and-egg range anxiety problem that has hobbled EV sales for automakers such as Nissan, which is one of the sponsors of the network.

“If you build it, they will come,” says Chuck Caisley, KCP&L vice president of marketing and public affairs.

The Clean Charge Network, announced in January, initially will consist of 1,001 240-volt stations and 15 direct current fast-charging stations. One station is capable of charging two vehicles at a time. KCP&L has installed about 150 of them and plans to finish the job this year. Already, requests for the stations have exceeded the number KCP&L will install.

“A thousand charge stations in the Midwest is impressive in scale and reach.”

Mike Tinskey

KCP&L hopes the network will jump-start a kind of virtuous cycle: more charging stations will end range anxiety, which will in turn promote increased sales of electric-drive vehicles. That will translate to the sale of more kilowatt-hours of electricity. Down the road, those EVs, once fully charged, will feed electricity back into the grid while they’re plugged in.

“This is the Rosetta stone for figuring out a problem every utility around the U.S. is trying to figure out,” Caisley said during an interview last month at KCP&L headquarters here. That problem is that while electrical usage is declining, the cost of maintaining the power grid isn’t. So, utilities are looking for new ways to sell electricity.

What’s novel about the KCP&L initiative is that unlike, say, California or the Pacific Northwest, the Kansas City area has not been a hotbed of EV sales.

“It’s a pretty bold move for KCP&L to take this step when it hasn’t been proven to date there is a big demand for electric vehicles in the area,” says John Gartner, analyst for Navigant Research, which specializes in new technologies and clean energy.

Anxious automakers

Anything that will boost EV sales is music to the ears of carmakers, which have invested heavily in EVs to meet stringent fuel economy and emissions standards only to watch sales slide along with gasoline prices.

Nissan, maker of the Leaf electric car, has made EV infrastructure a priority. It is a co-sponsor of the KCP&L program. Fifteen 480-volt DC fast-charging stations will be Nissan-branded and capable of charging a depleted Leaf to 80 percent full in about 30 minutes. That compares with five to eight hours for a 240-volt Level 2 charging station. Level 2 stations account for the bulk of the network. Nissan will cover the cost of electricity at its branded stations for two years.

“Over the past century, we’ve spent trillions of dollars to develop a sophisticated global infrastructure around petroleum. Gasoline service stations are now so common in the industrialized world that people often forget conventional cars have a limited range,” Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn said in published remarks late last year.

“We are in the early stages of building the same type of infrastructure around EV charging. Whenever we see a concentrated initiative to boost EV infrastructure, we see EV sales grow.”

Nissan spokesman Brian Brockman said having more chargers in the market raises awareness of EVs: “It’s like having an advertisement for electric cars. [Customers] see the charging station, and it reminds them those charging stations exist.”

Ford Motor Co., which makes the F-150 pickup and Transit van at its Kansas City Assembly Plant, also applauded KCP&L’s initiative.

Says Mike Tinskey, Ford global director of vehicle electrification and infrastructure: “From a local standpoint, Kansas City Power & Light is out in front. Some of the California utilities recently submitted proposals for similar scale, but those are still in the approval process — making Kansas City the leader from a utility standpoint.

“A thousand charge stations in the Midwest is impressive in scale and reach.”

Ford manufactures several electric-drive vehicles, including the Focus Electric, C-Max Energi and Fusion Energi.

There are about 1,200 plug-in vehicles in KCP&L’s coverage area in eastern Kansas and western Missouri, which has a population of about 2.5 million, according to utility estimates.

Pasquale Romano is CEO of ChargePoint, the Campbell, Calif., company that produces and manages the charging stations. “Every market we look at that stations get put in, car penetration tends to follow it very directly,” he says.

ChargePoint manages about 22,000 charging stations around the country through a cloud network that includes a smartphone app that tells users where they can locate open stations.

“Currently, there are very few charging stations in Kansas City other than at Nissan stores and other automotive dealerships. Availability of charging stations through shopping centers, restaurants and grocery stores will make a huge difference.”

Adam Williams
Hendrick Nissan Kansas City

Romano says it takes time to establish a sustainable infrastructure for EVs. California is one example.

“California had lots of early grant programs not funded by utilities. We’re talking four to five years ago to prep the market for EVs. It has become a self-sustaining market.”

What makes Kansas City’s project unique is the dearth of EVs, says Gartner of Navigant Research. From its base of a little more than 1,000 EVs on the road, Kansas City will have more charging stations per EV than hotbeds on the West Coast once the network is up and running, says Gartner.

“Los Angeles is going to have around 91,000 [EVs on the road], San Francisco 44,000, and for San Jose, 31,000. None of them have 1,000 public charging stations.

“That’s why it is very bold for Kansas City Power & Light to go out with such relatively little electric vehicle penetration.”

KCP&L will work with auto dealers to educate them on the network, Caisley says: “As the system begins to be 50 to 60 percent deployed later this summer, we’ll be sitting down and having meetings with dealer networks here.”

Adam Williams, general manager of Hendrick Nissan Kansas City in Merriam, Kan., in the southwestern part of the Kansas City metro area, said sales of the Leaf at his dealership have been paltry, about one or two cars per month. He attributes that to range anxiety.  He believes the Clean Charge Network could “really open” Leaf sales.

“Currently, there are very few charging stations in Kansas City other than at Nissan stores and other automotive dealerships,” he said. “Availability of charging stations through shopping centers, restaurants and grocery stores will make a huge difference.”

Hendrick Nissan, which already has four 240-volt chargers, is on the waiting list for one of the 480-volt fast chargers.

Though EV sales have been slow, the number of manufacturer offerings continues to grow, says Genevieve Cullen, president of Electric Drive Transportation Association, a Washington, D.C.-based group promoting electricity in transportation.

“In late 2010, there were just two vehicles,” Cullen said. “Now, less than five full years later, there are two dozen available in all price points and electric ranges.”

The Clean Charge Network has more requests for stations than the number it will install.

Like Wi-Fi rollout

Yes, gasoline prices have been low, and SUV sales have been booming, but that hasn’t deterred KCP&L.

“Within the past 45 days, we’ve seen [gasoline] prices as low as $2.25. They were $2.69 a few days ago. Even at those prices, electric vehicles are a compelling proposition” at an equivalent cost of 70 cents per gallon, says Caisley.

It is too early to fully gauge the impact of the network, but Caisley says interest levels are high, judging by speaking requests and polling that shows increased willingness to buy an EV.

“We’re oversubscribed,” he said. “Ultimately, we’ll have more locations interested than charging stations to put out.”

Retailers are putting charging stations in prime locations. Caisley says stations eventually will be installed at stores from all four major grocery chains in the area. For retailers, says Caisley, having an electric charging station is a way to burnish their green reputation.

Caisley likens the effect of having charging stations to having Wi-Fi in coffee shops 15 years ago. Because EVs tend to attract affluent, educated customers, retailers hope a network of stations will draw customers willing to spend money.

Says ChargePoint’s Romano: “We see a tremendous amount of loyalty with EV drivers to businesses that decide to put in charging at the early stages of the market.

“To start a market for electric vehicles, you need some entity to carry the water initially. KCP&L has decided to pick that up.”

For KCP&L, the decision to jump in made sense.

“The cost of operating the grid continues to go up, and the number of kilowatt-hours consumed is staying the same or going down,” says Caisley.

KCP&L is obligated to maintain a network that can support peak midsummer loads when temperatures soar into the 90s and air conditioning is blasting. EV owners charge primarily at night at off-peak times. Eventually, EVs will feed electricity back into the grid when they’re plugged in, and their batteries are fully charged.

Caisley says the utility found out the biggest barrier to buying an EV “was customers didn’t have a place to charge during the day. So it was range anxiety.”

“We looked at what was going on around the U.S. We were shocked to find that outside California, utilities were pretty slow to get involved in this.”

So KCP&L took the plunge. Now, electric utilities around the country, along with car manufacturers, will be watching the KCP&L experiment very closely.

You can reach Bradford Wernle at bwernle@crain.com.


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