In America’s Heartland, A Power Company Leads Charge For Electric Cars
In the world of electric cars, there’s a chicken-and-egg problem: More people might buy electric vehicles, or EVs, if they were confident there would always be a charger nearby. And businesses might install more chargers if there were more EVs on the road.
Now, utilities are stepping forward to solve this problem, and not just in California or the Northeast. A $20 million project launched two years ago by investor-owned Kansas City Power & Light, whose service area straddles the Kansas-Missouri border, has turned a Midwestern metropolitan area into one of the fastest-growing electric vehicle markets in the country.
“There’s a little movement afoot here in the middle of flyover country,” says Chuck Caisley, KCP&L’s vice president for marketing and public affairs. “We’re awfully excited about the prospect of this kind of transportation, and so we wanted to be catalytic to that.”
At a time when Caisley estimates there were only 400 to 500 electric cars in the area, KCP&L announced it would install 1,000 charging stations throughout its service territory of more than 800,000 customers.
The stations are going up at workplaces, in apartment garages, at grocery stores, in city parking lots and malls, and near the baseball and football stadiums. The idea is to allow people to charge their cars as they do their cell phones, plugging in as they go about their daily lives.
For the first couple years, charging at the Clean Charge Network is free — and will remain free until at least this summer.
On a recent day, Sara and Adam Foote parked their car at a charging station in a public garage in Leawood, Kan., while they went for a drink. In the hour or so they spent in the bar, they added about 25 miles of charge to their Nissan Leaf, which they purchased 15 months ago.
“We’ve adapted our lifestyle, but I’d say that the charging stations — the abundance of them in Kansas City, has definitely made it very easy for us,” Sara Foote says.
For KCP&L, this project is about clean energy and clean air, but it’s also about selling more electricity without having to build more power plants. Caisley says KCP&L’s power grid, which was built to work on hot summer days when air-conditioning use is at a maximum, is underutilized 80 percent of the time. Customers have already paid for the electrical grid and the power plants. A dramatic increase in electricity use would drive down KCP&L’s per-unit cost, and could mean lower power bills for its customers.
“When you turn on an additional TV in your home, that’s not enough to change that equation,” Caisley says. “But when you talk about a segment [the auto industry] that’s as much as 25 to 30 percent of the entire economy, and electrifying it, you’re talking about a significant amount of increased electricity use, which means we’re now using that infrastructure that customers have paid for so much more efficiently.”