Wisconsin Public Service Studies Electric Car Use

Right now, there are no places in Door County for electric car owners to plug in their cars outside of their homes. They might be able to juice up their batteries with personal chargers, but only if a local business is generous with its outlets and electricity.

All that will change this spring, when the Door County Visitor Bureau installs two electric car charging stations in its Sturgeon Bay parking lot. Read more about it here>>

There were only about 1,200 registered in the state as of August, according to Michael Moore, senior renewable and product services coordinator for Wisconsin Public Service (WPS). And for electric vehicle owners, there aren’t very many places around the state to charge up.

WPS has three public charging stations in Green Bay, and Moore said they don’t get a lot of use, but the use is growing. The one at Bay Park Square Mall was used for 20 hours in 2012, and 500 hours in 2013. Forty-three drivers used the station for more than 340 charging sessions.

“Since they’ve been installed, each one of these is being used more and more,” Moore said. “What we’re seeing is that as more vehicles become available, there are more people in town that have them. They’re finding out these [charging stations] are available and they’re beginning to use them more.”

WPS joined the collaborative research and demonstration project between General Motors (GM), the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) and the utility industry to evaluate electric vehicles, with a $30.5 million grant from the Transportation Electrification Initiative administered by the U.S. Department of Energy through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.

WPS leased a Chevy Volt, an extended range hybrid vehicle that runs on both gasoline and a battery. The battery can be charged from a wall outlet or charger, and can power the car for about 40 miles per charge, in good conditions.

“We had somewhere between 30 and 40 employees use it over the last couple of years and the large majority of people really like it,” Moore said. “Almost everyone found they didn’t use any gas during the week driving back and forth to work and doing errands. When they needed gasoline was if they went somewhere on the weekend.”

Data on car use, like how long batteries took to charge and how far the cars could get on a charge in certain conditions, was sent back to EPRI. WPS employees also took notes on their experience driving the vehicle and commented on any advantages or disadvantages they encountered during the week, such as if they liked driving the cars, or if it was a hassle to plug them into a home outlet.

Here are some more statistics from the research project:

• It cost participants about $0.83 to charge the battery, or only $0.42 on WPS’s lower night and weekend energy rate

• Participants drove an average of 28.5 miles per day on electricity

• As of December 2013, 57 percent of participants’ driving was powered by the battery, the other 43 percent by gas.

“We did learn that cold weather has a direct impact on how far the battery will go,” Moore said. “However, we had very little maintenance performed on the Volt with only one oil change during the year.”

Extreme heat or cold impacts the battery, but Moore said auto makers are working on that problem.

“There’s a tremendous amount of research being done on new generations of batteries that can store more energy and are lighter,” he said.

While the Chevy Volt project will wrap up this spring, WPS and EPRI have embarked on a new research study where WPS will get two full-size Chevy vans and one full-size Chevy pickup truck to use in the field and see how they work.

“We want to know if we can run those vehicles, if they’ll serve our needs,” Moore said. “We have to be able to keep the power on, so will these vehicles work as well when needed? Will we be able to reduce our operating costs? …Electric vehicles are great, but if you’re going to use them in a business you want to understand the costs or savings associated with them.”

WPS will also compare compressed natural gas vehicles to traditional diesel or electric vehicles. Compressed natural gas engines are more common on big semi trucks, and use about half as much fuel as diesel engines.

An increase in natural gas and electric vehicles would benefit WPS – the utility service that provides power to more than 750,000 customers in Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

“As a utility we are both an electric provider and a natural gas provider, so as we look down the road we’re seeing the possibility that electricity and natural gas will become a growing transportation fuel,” Moore said.