Wisconsin Technology Council: “Road to widespread electric vehicle use is long, but bumps can be smoothed”

By Tom Still

MADISON, Wis. – Judging by commercial advertisements and the evangelical reviews of proud owners, nearly everyone will be driving an electric vehicle within a few years.

The real timeline for EV adoption is quite a bit longer than that – optimistically, 50% U.S. penetration by 2030 – but not so long as to be a mirage on a hot desert highway.

That consensus emerged during a March 29 panel discussion in Madison, where three speakers with different perspectives on the rise of electric vehicles outlined both the promises and perils tied to society’s coming transition from internal combustion engines.

Availability of charging stations, laws governing who can build and manage such stations, battery technology, supply chain troubles, manufacturing conversion rates, tax policy and more will likely combine to lengthen the adoption rate.

At the same time, consumer EV choices are growing rapidly, production of vehicles is stepping up, and early adopters such as delivery fleets, the U.S. Post Office and trucking companies are paving the way.

The bit of the electric spear will be charging stations, the availability of which determines how far EVs can go before the “range anxiety” of their drivers kicks in.

“So, how are we going to decide where to put these charging stations? The way I think about it and the way we’re looking at it, at least from a research perspective, is related to something (we call) an origin destination study,” said David Noyce, a professor in the UW-Madison College of Engineering who specializes in transportation planning and the future of on-the-road vehicles.

Noyce said creating charging networks in high-use areas should come first, followed by an effort to fill in what he calls “intermediate charging needs” that most worry many owners of electric vehicles.

Part of the answer, Noyce said, lies within the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passed late last year by Congress. It calls for spending $79 million over five years in Wisconsin alone for charging stations.

That assumes state government can agree on the rules surrounding how to put those dollars to work.

“There is a really big legal issue,” said Art Harrington, a veteran attorney whose practice centers on energy and sustainability issues. “That’s whether providing charging stations to the public, or indirectly, is a regulated public utility” under a state law that has stood basically unchanged for a century.

The Wisconsin Legislature took a run at the issue in its last session, but a bill failed to pass both Houses. At the core of the debate was whether large public utilities are best suited to reliably provide such charging stations, or if a decentralized model involving smaller, privately owned changing stations makes more sense.

Godfrey Kahn’s Harrington said the large public utility model could be more cost-effective and provide an edge in supply availability, pricing regulation and consumer protection. It could also be more vulnerable to hacking, less likely to quickly use renewable energy sources, and prone to face challenges in balancing peak charging hours with demand.

The decentralized model would be more likely to rely on renewable energy right away and would not offer an easy target for mass hacking interruption, Harrington said. However, smaller stations would not find it easy to connect systematically and may be more costly for consumers in the long run.

A long-range answer may be “in-road” charging systems, Noyce told about 90 people at the Wisconsin Technology Council forum, but they’re still being tested and remain very costly per mile of installation.

Sean Baxter, the president of the Madison-based Kayser Automotive Group, has a recurring view of consumer interest. Sales of EVs represent about 5% of his business today – and he expects that to grow as cars and trucks become more available. For many people, he added, cost is also a factor.

“It’s still an expensive proposition for a lot of people,” Baxter said. “The average price of an EV is probably in that $50,000 to $60,000 range. That’s out of reach for a lot of the buying public still.”

Electric vehicles are primed to be a bigger part of the mix, but existing gasoline- and diesel-powered cars and trucks are generally built to last and make up the vast majority of what’s on the road today. The tipping point may come when the costs of operation for EVs and traditional vehicles move closer together.

Still is president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He can be reached at tstill@wisconsintechnologycouncil.com.