Cindy Thompson has an app that tells her where she can plug in her electric car. It can navigate her to the closest e-pump and feed her real-time information on whether a cord is available to top off her Nissan Leaf.
Thompson can tell you where she can’t find a public plug: the Legends shopping center. Zona Rosa. And, practically speaking, the Country Club Plaza.
When you move on battery power, you start to notice where the car-friendly outlets are and where they’re missing.
Still, if Thompson worries she won’t have enough juice to get where she wants to go, it’s mild range-anxiety.
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“You learn that 100 miles” — the range of her car, like most on the market now — “is a long ways, and there are tons of charging stations out there. I just like to top off when I can.”
That, she says, rarely poses a problem.
The Kansas City area now has about 860 public plug-ins for electric vehicles scattered across some 300-plus locations. The last stage of a build-out expected to wrap up this summer will boost the number of publicly available car cords over 1,000.
There’s nearly a public charging port for every car in the metro area that could use one, an abundance rarely found elsewhere in the country. Planners figure there’ll be enough spots to handle the next five years or so of growth in electric driving.
Kansas City Power & Light Co. built the network because, well, come on. It sells electricity.
Utilities particularly love electric cars. They tend to charge mostly at home and at night, when the electric grid has power to spare.
But to get you to charge your car in your garage after sundown, the utility must first convince drivers they won’t get stranded with a dead car during the day.
So KCP&L spent about $25 million as therapy to battle range-anxiety. That meant planting the charging portals not just where you spend the most time and power your battery the most. The stations have popped up at parks, grocery stores and Targets so you can top off the car in much the same way you charge your cellphone, by your bed, in the car, at your desk.
Electric car drivers say they want charging stations where they work. Nationwide, nearly half are at workplaces. Traffic engineers talk about those as “terminal locations,” where you park and leave your car for hours. But KCP&L, partnered with ChargePoint, also scattered the ports at places where you might linger for just a half-hour.
The aim was to send a message, particularly to potential electric vehicle buyers, that they can drive where they want without fretting.
“You want people to think, ‘I’m never worried that I’m not going to have enough charge,’ ” said Chuck Caisley, KCP&L’s spokesman. “In a normal day, you don’t have to fuel up at all. You can get charged overnight at home. But we want you to know that you can top off if you need to.”
That confidence to cruise, say experts, could determine whether electric cars catch on here.
The Kansas City area is relatively flush with charging stations.
ChargePoint reports about 1,600 ports in the metro area (the bulk deployed by KCP&L) serving a population of roughly 2.4 million people. So far, out of an areawide fleet of about 1.7 million vehicles, just 1,837 electric vehicles were registered in 2016. (Kansas City trailed only Las Vegas in electric vehicle sales growth in 2016.)
Compare that to the city of Chicago, where more than 10,000 electric vehicles share barely more than 1,000 ports. The Denver area has about 6,300 electric vehicles battling for a little more than 400 ChargePoint cords. St. Louis has about 2,200 electric cars sharing just 105 ports.
ChargePoint isn’t the only group with stations. But it dominates, and the differences between the cities hold across all networks. In Kansas City, a public charger for nearly every car. In Chicago, 10 cars for every port.
Virtually all new electric cars on the market today come with batteries robust enough to carry you 100 miles on a full charge. Some, notably more expensive models from Tesla, promise more than double that. The all-plug-in Chevy Bolt goes for about $30,000 after factoring in an available-for-now federal tax credit, and it cover 200 miles between charges.
The average commute in Kansas City takes about 22 minutes across 15 to 20 miles one way. From home to work and back, with a side trip to a restaurant, even electric cars with modest range could cover most Kansas City drivers on most days.
Use a standard household outlet at home charging for 12 hours, and you’ve banked 100 miles in range. Spend $800 to $1,500 for a faster home charging system, and it takes five hours.
That’s usually how it works for Tricia Arnold, who drives about 40 miles a day from her southern Wyandotte County home most days. She’s a planner and accounts for where she’s going and how much juice she’ll need. Before buying her Leaf early this year, however, she studied the charging network and concluded, “Kansas City is one of the best places for electric cars. … It’s peace of mind.”
Not every day is normal, not every outing short or necessarily predictable. The electric vehicle evangelists say technology is whittling away at that problem with beefier battery life.
“That solves part of the problem,” said Kelly Gilbert, the clean cities administrator at the Metropolitan Energy Center in Kansas City.
The charging network aims to solve much of the rest. For a network to succeed — both powering cars away from home and reassuring people that electric cars are practical — experts say visibility matters.
“It’s not enough that you have (charging stations) available and that you have enough of them,” said Kara Kockelman, a professor of transportation engineering at the University of Texas. “People need to know that they’re out there.”
Drivers say shifting to electric alters a certain mindset. Driving on gasoline means five minutes to refuel maybe once a week to accommodate a regular commute. With an electric car, they say, it’s more like keeping a cellphone going. You plug in when you can, topping off when there’s an outlet at hand.
“That’s why you put the charging stations in a variety of places,” said Dan Bowermaster, the electric transportation program manager for the Electric Power Research Institute. “People need to know it’s always within range.”
Kansas City’s network appears to be making a difference. The number of cars in the market grew by about two-thirds in 2016. They’ve become an increasingly easier sell, said Todd Chenault, new vehicle director at Fenton Nissan of Tiffany Springs.
“People come in, and they’ve done their research,” he said. “They know the range is good and they can find places to charge.”
Some buyers, he said, rely entirely on an electric car. More typically, it’s a second car for getting around town, supplemented with a gas-burner capable of traveling well outside town where charging ports grow scarce. It’s possible to drive to St. Louis on a car with 100-mile batteries, if you plot your trip, and plan on half-hour stops at the few fast-charging stations staged along Interstate 70. Getting to Denver is an iffier prospect.
It’s still a tiny niche. Larger SUVs and pickup trucks, vehicles in particular favor in the Midwest, remain a fossil fuel thing. Plus most drivers want a ride that can take them across the country without tracking the nearest electric port and taking long power breaks.
In the metro area, for now, the juice is free. KCP&L used a grant from Nissan to pay for the kilowatts handed out at the stations. That money likely will dry up this summer.
But company spokesman Caisley said many are likely to offer free charges. The utility made deals with employers, retailers and other locations that KCP&L would pay to build the stations. It can cost $200,000 to build a station with a handful of ports. Most of that cost will likely be paid for by the utility’s shareholders, an investment in bringing in more long-term electric car customers, because state regulators have been reluctant to pass the cost to rate payers.
Once the grant money runs out, Caisley said, it’ll be up to the hosts whether they want to pick up the electric bill for the charging stations, or let the utility charge customers. He predicted many will cover the cost as a way to lure customers. Research shows, for instance, that drivers using a plug-in stay at a store longer and buy more. In Kansas City, users of charging stations at stores plug in for an average of more than an hour.
Think of Wi-Fi, he says. A few years ago, hotels didn’t bother to offer wireless broadband. Now, few don’t.
“At first it was … something you added to stand out,” Caisley said. “Then it became something you needed to offer to stay competitive.”
The growth will be far slower than the spread of Wi-Fi because the cost to build systems is exponentially higher. But stores on the Plaza might feel pressure to load up parking garages with chargers.
Bill Kalahurka, University of Missouri-Kansas City math professor, switched to an electric car late last year. He charges at home every night and sometimes on campus during the day. Yet he does look to top off elsewhere, particularly for free. He’s found it easy to find spots, particularly toward the center of town.
“I wish there were more of them around the suburbs. The farther out you get, the fewer you see,” Kalahurka said. “But there’s enough.”