By Sam Schipani
This story first appeared in the March 2022 issue of Bangor Metro. Visit BDNoffers.com to subscribe.
Electric vehicles seem to be zooming around everywhere these days, but not everyone is along for the ride.
In rural states like Maine, there is considerable anxiety around electric vehicles having to do with being able to get from point A to point B without running out of juice and getting stuck in the middle of nowhere.
The electric vehicle charging infrastructure in Maine, however, is surprisingly widespread and constantly growing. Between the network of public charging stations and the ability to install home charging infrastructure, “refueling” an electric vehicle is often even easier, more reliable and cheaper than filling up a tank of gas – but it can depend on where you’re driving.
Barry Woods, employee-owner and director of electric vehicle innovation at ReVision Energy, said that the first step for new electric vehicle drivers is to rethink what it means to “fuel up” your car. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, 80 percent of electric vehicle charging happens at home rather than at public charging stations.
Add that to the fact that newer electric vehicles nowadays have a range of more than 250 miles, and Woods said that the anxiety around access to public charging stations is often overblown.
“I think people overestimate the need for public charging infrastructure in terms of the use of the car,” Wood said. “It’s like a cellphone.”
Charging at home
Electric vehicle chargers come in a few different varieties. Level 1 chargers, which are often included with the vehicles, provide a slow and steady charge, adding about 5 miles of range per hour of charging.
Woods said that Level 1 chargers can be sufficient for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, which have gas on board to use in a pinch, or as a back-up charger for fully battery electric vehicles.
But most homeowners will opt to install Level 2 chargers in their home, which are faster and more efficient than their Level 1 counterparts.
“Think of it like a dryer or a hot tub or a plasma tv which uses faster, higher amperage pushing more electricity into the car,” Woods said. “A Level 2 can fill an all battery electric overnight within 8 to 10 hours.”
The cost to install Level 2 charging will depend on a number of factors, including the capacity of your home’s electrical panel and the distance between it and your desired charging location, but according to the Efficiency Maine Trust, the equipment ranges in cost from $500 and $900, and necessary electrical upgrades often cost on average between $500 and $1,500. Woods said that charging a vehicle can add $30 to $50 to a monthly electric bill as well, but drivers usually save between $50 and $100 on gas every month, so the systems eventually pay themselves off.
Woods also added there are tax credits that homeowners can take advantage of in order to pay for the home charging systems, though receiving them isn’t always straightforward. Such federal tax credits, Woods explained, will often lapse, but apply retroactively once they are put back in place.
“My shpiel on the federal tax credit it’s like bad parenting, rewarding your kid for making your bed last week,” Woods said. “They’ll pay you six months from now for having done it even though you didn’t know you were going to get the credit today. Welcome to the United States.”
As more people start building these at-home chargers, however, it presents challenges for the electric grid. Rebecca Schultz, Climate and Clean Energy Senior Advocate at the Natural Resources Council of Maine, said that most people will charge their cars after work, which is already the peak period of use on the electric grid.
“If EV owners all come home from work in the evenings and all plug in their cars at the same time, this will add strain to the grid during a time when electricity is already in high demand,” said. “In many states, EV owners are moved onto these time-of-use rates by default to smooth the transition toward an electrified transportation sector, and Maine needs to be considering this as well.”
Until then, though, electric vehicle owners can plug their vehicles right before bed instead of when they get home from work – a new addition to the modern bedtime routine.
Charging on the road
Even if most electric vehicle charging happens at home, there is some comfort in knowing the safety net of public charging infrastructure is there – though refueling a vehicle when it runs primarily or fully on electricity is a new process.
Woods said that if he is on a long trip and running low on fuel, he will charge just long enough to have the range to get home with a bit of a buffer, because he knows he will be able to then charge his car at home.
“Fueling with electricity is more about sipping than gulping,” Woods said. “Most drivers only charge for 15 to 20 minutes. Mostly they’re topping off the vehicle.”
Amalia Siegel, EV Program Manager for Efficiency Maine, said that there are currently more than 280 public charging stations across the state, and the number is constantly growing. There are still some areas where charging stations are sparse, particularly north and east of Bangor in the North Maine Woods areas and on the stretch of Route 9 between Bangor and Calais. Some chargers can also only be used by certain vehicles, like Teslas.
Some public charging stations are Level 2 chargers, but Level 3 chargers – more commonly known as DC Fast chargers – are the creme de la creme of electric vehicle charging. While Level 2 chargers are basically just an amped-up version of their Level 1 counterparts, DC Fast chargers are a different technology altogether. Level 1 and Level 2 chargers take the alternating current from the house grid and convert it into the direct current for the car battery, DC Fast charging stations bring a direct current – hence, the “DC” – right into the battery at a much faster rate.
DC Fast chargers are expensive, though. Installing a DC Fast charging station, which can fully charge a vehicle’s battery in under an hour, costs upwards of $100,000, which Siegel said can make it cost prohibitive for businesses to install them without a large subsidy – nevermind homeowners installing home charging stations and shouldering the costs themselves.
Siegel said Efficiency Maine’s primary objective for the next year is to begin development of DC Fast charging projects in Washington and Aroostook Counties, so that there is no more than 50 miles between DC Fast chargers on main travel routes – an easy distance for even the shortest-range electric vehicles.
“Currently we have met that goal on I-95 and 295 from Kittery to Augusta, and from Augusta north to Farmington and Skowhegan,” Siegel said. “All other corridors are still pending.”
The cost of electric vehicle charging infrastructure combined with Maine’s low population density makes this expansion challenging, though. Schultz said that hosts of electric vehicle charging stations recoup the cost of the infrastructure through use. There are some programs in place to help hosts – for example, Central Maine Power has a pilot project to cover the cost of installing equipment and reduce certain charging costs – but Schultz said that “it’s not clear it is enough” to make the economics work for hosts.
Still, public charging infrastructure is moving forward. Efficiency Maine has provided grants to install 34 DC Fast charging plugs and 178 Level 2 plugs across the state. Additional funds will be awarded for projects in Aroostook and Washington counties within the next year, and a recently passed federal infrastructure bill will also bring at least $19 million to the state for building out EV charging infrastructure.
“Mainers can expect to see a significant expansion of the EV charging network in the coming years,” Siegel said.
Efficiency Maine has an interactive map of all the state’s charging on their website, efficiencymaine.com/vehicles/charging-station-locator.