Electric vehicle technology poised to surge onto the municipal scene

  • MilliporeSigma has EV chargers set up in the employee parking lot of its Jaffrey plant. Staff photo by Ben Conant

  • MilliporeSigma has EV chargers set up in the employee parking lot of its Jaffrey plant. Staff photo by Ben Conant

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 7/26/2021 2:13:22 PM

Electric vehicles become more ubiquitous every year, and local municipalities are beginning to adapt. Peterborough’s incoming municipal electric vehicle charging station is one recent local reflection of national momentum to electrify municipal fleets and provide public charging infrastructure.

“Something that’s pretty apparent and obvious to everyone is that these electric cars make sense,” said Department of Environmental Services transportation program specialist and Granite State Clean Cities Coalition coordinator Jessica Wilcox. Although towns may not have been in the business of providing or subsidizing gas stations to motorists in the past, electric transportation has the potential to reduce emissions, use energy more efficiently, and improve air quality, including in school zones in the case of electric buses. Those are interests that can benefit many communities, she said.

And the interest is there: Wilcox says she gets calls on a weekly – if not daily – basis, from municipalities interested in charging infrastructure or converting their vehicle fleets. New options for electric mid- and heavy-duty equipment have some towns looking at converting school buses, garbage trucks, police cruisers, and other municipal vehicles, she said. “The increase in interest is definitely noteworthy,” she said. Local municipalities might be the state’s pioneers in this regard: in 2019, Governor Chris Sununu blocked a proposal to phase in an electric fleet of state vehicles.

As of June 2021, there were 2,690 electric vehicles registered in New Hampshire, accounting for about half a percent of the state’s total registered vehicles. There were 21,010 registered in Massachusetts, 1,920 in Maine, and 2,230 in Vermont. All states surrounding New Hampshire have committed to the Zero Emission Vehicles Program, which seeks to increase zero-emission vehicle sales over the next decade. Meanwhile, “range anxiety” isn’t the drawback it used to be as new cars roll out with battery technology improvements, Wilcox said, allowing them to travel farther on a single charge.

Even though 80 percent of electric vehicle charging happens at home, there still needs to be some infrastructure throughout the state to accommodate locals and tourists alike as those numbers grow, Wilcox said.

There are currently over 130 public charging locations throughout the state, and New Hampshire is in the process of re-releasing a request for proposals to build a series of fast chargers (Level 3) along federal highways after a 2019 call for submissions failed to find a suitable applicant, Wilcox said.

Chargers are one aspect of electric vehicle technology that appears to be coalescing on a standard, Wilcox said. Although Tesla Superchargers only service Teslas, other contemporary fast chargers can service any make of vehicle – including Tesla – by offering both CCS and CHAdeMO chargers, according to the EV Safe Charge website.

Privately owned chargers are also taking off.MilliporeSigma, a life science manufacturing facility and one of Jaffrey’s largest employers, installed four chargers for clients and employees to use in 2016. “The ability to charge your vehicle at work makes it a convenient option for most EV drivers,” MilliporeSigma spokesperson Thomas Layman said. It also furthers the company’s initiative of reducing its carbon footprint, and to make it easier for employees to live lower-carbon lifestyles, he said. They are well used: “Over the past year we’ve seen a total of 2,655 hours of charging through 967 charging sessions initiated by 15 unique drivers,” Layman said. That energy equates to about 1,000 gallons of gasoline, he said. The company also offers incentives for employees who buy qualifying hybrid and electric vehicles, he said.

How does a town get started?

There are myriad resources for municipalities pursuing electric vehicle projects, Wilcox said. Connecting with communities that recently completed a similar project is a great way to discuss potential pitfalls and visualize a successful implementation plan, she said. The Nashua Regional Planning Commission recently organized a working group to explore electric school buses, she said, and the Wolfeboro Police Department, which recently received a Tesla from an anonymous donor, pledged to collect information to compare the vehicle’s performance against traditional cruisers. There is also support available through the US Department of Energy technical response team, she said.

Is one way better than another for a town to wade into electric vehicle technology? “Every community is so different,” Wilcox said. Installing a charging station, for example, could be easy or complicated and expensive depending on a town’s unique conditions, such as whether there’s already electrical infrastructure in a paved parking lot, or whether the town wants to charge money for its use, she said.

It may be smart for a town to start by purchasing an electric fleet vehicle, Wilcox said. “It will be noticed and create awareness and trust,” as the community sees it being used, she said.

“It is sort of an emerging technology, a little more complicated than you’d expect,” Peterborough Assistant Town Administrator Seth MacLean said, when asked what other towns should know about taking on a municipal charging station project like Peterborough’s. MacLean credited Peterborough’s careful selection of a good vendor and its dedicated ad-hoc energy committee with the project’s thus-far success. “You want a vendor who’s going to not just provide a project but shepherd you through the whole process,” he said. There’s still a wide variety of hardware and prices out there, since the technology is new and a lot of small companies are vying for a foothold, he said, so a strong vetting process is important.

The Peterborough Energy Committee provided “invaluable” research and outreach to other towns, work that identified potential problems well in advance, MacLean said.

One such problem was that of demand charges. Demand charges are calculated based on a commercial energy meter’s highest possible demand within a half hour period, MacLean explained to the Select Board recently. “It is essential to understand how they are calculated on municipal bills, what they would be in a particular application, and then how to mitigate them,” Peterborough Energy Committee Chair Emily Manns said.

A cautionary tale came to Peterborough from Derry, which installed a four-port charge station downtown in 2018. Visitors could charge their vehicles for free, as the Derry Town Council hoped the chargers could invigorate the downtown economy, Director of Public Works Mike Fowler said. A couple vehicles visited every day, and although there was more use by neighborhood residents than anticipated, users seemed to like the system and the town was prepared to foot the $150 to $200 monthly energy bill, he said. Then, something changed a couple months in.

“The bills went up on the order of 200 and 300 percent, virtually overnight,” Fowler said. They discovered the price hikes were caused by a change in Eversource’s billing mechanism for demand charges, and that the high tariffs would stay in place regardless of how much or little the chargers were used, he said. Derry shut down the chargers this May, and they’ll stay off until the town finds a way to reduce the demand charges, Fowler said. Towns should get advice from an electrician, Eversource account reps, and become well versed in their electric utility’s policies as they explore charging technology, he said. “We thought we had done most of our homework, but unfortunately, the rules changed,” he said.

Peterborough plans to install a separate energy meter for each charge port in order to cut down their anticipated demand charge, MacLean said.

MacLean estimated a town could get a 10- or 15-year advantage on the future status quo by jumping on electric vehicle technology now. “It’s certainly going to expand, we know that. The technology is more ubiquitous, vehicles are getting more prevalent and cheaper,” MacLean said. “It’s clearly not going in the other direction at this point,” he said.


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