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Getting Us From Here to There: Vermont’s Evolving, and Expanding, EV Charging Network

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Kate Stephenson with her electric car at a charging station in front of the State House. Photo by John Lazenby.

Here are two important achievements by our ambitious “brave little state” of Vermont — one famous and nationally acclaimed, the other so far beneath the radar that few of us realize that we can claim bragging rights. 

The first, of course, is that Vermont managed to fully or at least partially vaccinate 80 percent of its eligible population against the COVID-19 virus before any other state reached that threshold. It has made us a safer, healthier, and happier state. But the other one also has implications for our quality of life, if we can build on it. On a per-capita basis, Vermont has the most electric-vehicle charging stations, available to residents and travelers alike, of all the 50 states. 

Dan Dutcher, senior environmental policy manager for the Vermont Agency of Transportation (VTrans), is quick to put that fact in perspective. “We have to admit,” he says, “that we have a leg up on most of the other states when you’re talking about percentages of the population, because we have a really low denominator.” That is, there aren’t many of us.

“But we’re not resting on our laurels,” he adds. “One of the things I do is try to carry out the legislature’s priorities, which are reflected in the [annual] transportation bill. For three or four years now the transportation bills have been loaded with policies and programs to address greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector.”

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For that purpose, it’s critical that we replace fossil-fuel-powered cars, trucks, and buses, in large numbers, with electric vehicles (EVs). Their energy source is far cleaner in Vermont because our electric grid relies significantly on renewable energy sources, and the New England energy grid, of which we are a part, has scaled back its reliance on the foulest generating fuels, including coal. 

This motorcycle is being charged at a station in front of the State House in Montpelier recently. Photo by John Lazenby.

Electric vehicles, however, tend to be more costly than conventional vehicles to purchase — even though they are demonstrably cheaper to operate and maintain — so the state has created programs and incentives to lower their cost. Dutcher points to the 2019 transportation bill, called Act 59, and specifically Section 34, which inaugurated an “Electric Vehicle Incentive Program” with state funding of $1.1 million. Subsequent transportation bills continued the program, including another $2.7 million set aside in June.

Under its provisions, people earning 160 percent or less of Vermont’s median household income can qualify for up to $4,000 in assistance to purchase or lease an EV that costs $40,000 or less. Along with federal incentives of up to $7,500, and rebates, bill credits, and other support provided by electric utilities including Green Mountain Power (GMP) and Vermont Electric Cooperative, this approach has been effective.

“We’ve been going through all the funding that’s been allocated,” says Dutcher. “We were very surprised how popular this incentive has been with people. These incentives — from the utilities, the state, and the feds — can all be stacked, and that can bring a vehicle lease down under $200 a month.” 

Green Mountain Power is particularly bullish on its purchase-rebate program, which its website describes as applying to all-electric vehicles — those powered solely by electricity — at $1,500, and plug-in hybrids (gasoline and electricity) at $1,000, with a smaller rebate ($750) for used vehicles. “If it plugs in and costs less than $60,000,” the website crows, “it qualifies.”

But there’s another hurdle to clear for widespread adoption of EVs. It’s called “range anxiety”: the fear of depleting your battery’s stored power before you’ve completed your journey — or, at its worst, getting stranded. 

To counteract this, state policies have promoted getting more “Level 2” charging systems into people’s homes to replace the dawdling “Level 1” chargers that come with vehicle purchases. 

Yet it’s the public EV-charging infrastructure that state policy seeks aggressively to address — with success so far, judging from our nationwide, per-capita leadership. Level 2 EV charging stations can be easy to miss, even when you’re looking at them; many look like a cross between a parking meter and a 1930s-era gasoline pump. But they’re out there, in office parking lots, in parking areas associated with commercial enterprises such as Hunger Mountain Cooperative in Montpelier and the Red Hen Café in Middlesex, at Montpelier and Harwood Union high schools, at the Vermont State Employees Credit Union, in the parking area serving the Comfort Inn and Maplewood Vermont Travelers Service Center in Berlin. There are several along Gov. Aiken Avenue in Montpelier. 

When Dutcher and others, such as Dave Roberts, cite our per-capita leadership in charging stations, this is what they’re referring to. Roberts is with Drive Electric Vermont, a division of the Vermont Energy Investment Corp.

Everyone, however, concedes that we’ll never achieve the clean-energy goals envisioned, and in fact required, by Vermont’s Comprehensive Energy Policy merely by proliferating Level 2 charging facilities ever-more broadly around the state. There’s a Level 3, which is more accurately referred to as DC (direct current) fast charging, and if Vermont is to develop a truly impactful vehicle-charging infrastructure these must spread like wildfire.

“The big picture is encouraging,” says state Sen. Andrew Perchlik, D-Washington. “We [in the Senate] do not find ourselves butting up against the executive branch. There seems to be a broad consensus that electrification is something we want to do.”

But it’s complicated.

One Man’s Journey in Recharging

Todd Sternbach, now an IT consultant who lives in Montpelier, had his appetite for electric vehicles whetted earlier in his career, when he worked for Vermont’s Agency of Natural Resources. The agency’s air pollution control division owned EVs that employees could reserve for occasional use, and Sternbach signed up frequently.

“I’ve always been interested in fuel efficiency, and environmentally minded about vehicles,” he says. “I wasn’t necessarily dead set on an electric.”

Todd Sternbach, of Montpelier, with his all-electric Chevy Bolt and his Australian shepherd, Ivy. Photo by Will Lindner.

Those interests led him to purchase a Volkswagen diesel, which he enjoyed tremendously. “It got great fuel efficiency,” he recalls. “Fifty miles per gallon on the highway.”

It was the very car, however, at the center of the 2015 VW emissions scandal, when the German manufacturer was found to have violated the U.S. Clean Air Act by incorporating software designed to cheat on mandatory emissions tests. When the legal dust settled, Sternbach qualified for a company buyback.

“It was a pretty good deal,” he says. “I got good money for a seven-year-old car.”

In fact, we all benefited from that settlement. The state allocated $2.8 million (just 15 percent of Vermont’s total award) to the Department of Housing and Community Development to lead an interagency project to build out Vermont’s electric vehicle supply equipment network — meaning, the charging stations. In 2020, another $1.7 million of VW’s money was earmarked for a project, currently underway, to finance charging installations at 11 purposely selected locations.

Back in 2017, money in hand, Sternbach contemplated a replacement for his VW diesel. He heard about the Chevy Bolt, which was then being introduced in California. It was a hatchback, suitable for hauling the equipment he carries for work, and was one of the first purely electric-powered cars (non-hybrids) to strike a blow against range anxiety.

“It was advertised as having a 240-mile range,” he says, “which was a big deal for me because I drive to Burlington regularly, and sometimes to Middlebury.” 

On a trip to visit relatives in California, he found an opportunity to drive one, and eagerly placed an order with a dealer back home. He received the car in May 2018.

Sternbach and his wife, Christie Sternbach-Feist, have a one-car garage attached to their home, and the garage has standard 120-volt electrical outlets — the same as the outlets for a toaster, a lamp, a radio. Your iPhone. As EVs generally do, their Bolt came with a cable that attached the car’s inboard charging unit to the plugs on the wall.

That’s Level 1 charging. 

And it’s slow. Drive Electric Vermont’s website says Level-1 systems typically provide three-to-five miles of range per hour of charging.

“So overnight you’ll get 40, 50, or 60 miles,” says Sternbach, “and that might be plenty for most people.”

But it wouldn’t provide sufficient mileage for a round-trip to Burlington or Middlebury, regardless of the greater charging and mileage capacity of his Bolt. If it were an extended trip, his charge could deplete, “and I might eventually have to go to a public [charging] station.”

Public charging doesn’t cost much — according to the state’s electric vehicle website, it’s often the equivalent of spending $1.50 per gallon of gas — but it does take time. So Sternbach invested in a Level 2 charger for his home. He reports that he can now get as much as 25 miles per hour of charge.

 “So overnight I can go from empty to full.

“The utility of that, for home charging, is great,” he says. “You don’t have to go to a gas station! But you do always have to be mindful of what you’ll need the next day.” 

(Which provides a glimpse into the acquired mindset of an EV owner, which many more of us will become. There’s also the calculation that in cold weather, the range of EVs can decrease by 30 to 40 percent, because of heating systems and other variables, so instead of 240 miles the Bolt might provide 160 or so miles on a full charge.)

The rub, for Todd Sternbach, was that Level-2 charging requires a 240-volt outlet, which residences have more commonly in their kitchen for the electric range, their laundry room for the washing machine, perhaps their basement for the water heater. Rarely are they in a garage — and there wasn’t one in Sternbach’s. The new charging apparatus costs roughly $600, and the electrician’s fee for installing 240-volt power in the garage added at least a couple hundred more.

But now the Sternbachs are all set. (They have another car, too — gasoline powered — but Christie also enjoys the Bolt). 

“There’s another thing,” Sternbach adds. “I like cars that are environmentally responsible, but I wouldn’t buy a car that’s not fun to drive. EVs have a lot of torque and acceleration. Teslas are absurdly fast. The Bolt is a fun car, for sure.”

On a quick drive around his neighborhood he demonstrates (very responsibly!) the pickup he so admires, the car’s responsiveness, and something EV savants call “one-pedal driving” — slowing the car dramatically merely by backing off the accelerator. The brake lights come on anyway, Sternbach emphasizes, so cars behind the EV know it’s slowing down. And — a double whammy — “regenerative braking” replenishes the battery with energy produced by the friction of slowing the car.

Plus, EVs are mechanically simpler and cheaper to maintain.

“I finally had brake work done and a wheel bearing changed recently,” Sternbach said in May 2021 about the car he has owned since May 2018. “And a week ago a battery that’s used for ignition died.

“But that’s it!”

Retaining the Recalcitrant ‘One in Five’

It’s too bad Sternbach didn’t wait a little longer before buying his costly Level-2 charging equipment, because he’s a customer of GMP, which now provides them for free to customers who purchase a new or used EV. (It does not pay the electrician’s bill for installing a new 240-volt circuit.) Washington Electric Cooperative (WEC), the other major utility serving central Vermont, has a similar program.

The offers from these companies are motivated by several factors. For one, Act 56, passed by the Legislature in 2015, has an “energy transformation” component that requires electric utilities to spend a portion of their revenue encouraging and assisting their customers (or “members,” for electric cooperatives) to reduce their fossil-fuel consumption. But while those are required expenditures, there’s something in it for the utilities, too. The energy source most likely to replace fossil fuels is, of course, electricity, which they happen to sell. 

But it’s more than that. Kristin Kelly, GMP’s director of communications, explains.

“We provide free chargers so our customers can charge [their EVs] conveniently at home,” she says. “The chargers are Wi-fi-enabled, and connected to us at GMP. When there’s an energy peak on the grid we can turn down the flow of power to your charger to reduce our overall electricity usage.”

The energy that utilities purchase on the open market during peak events, such as heat waves, is extra expensive and comes almost exclusively from fossil-fuel-powered generating plants. If GMP, WEC, and other utilities can reduce their demand at such times, they save money and inflict less harm upon the environment.

Customers are notified ahead of time, through Wi-fi, that their EV chargers will be turned down or off, and they can override that command if they wish. But Sternbach, who’s on GMP’s program, says that’s a costly choice. “If you don’t go along with it you’ll pay, like, three times the normal rate.”

Washington Electric’s approach is encapsulated in its Project Powershift program, which “shifts” its members’ vehicle-charging period to begin automatically at 10 p.m. and run overnight, when demand is low. As EVs become more universal they will add significantly to the strain placed upon our power grid; Powershift seeks to moderate that impact and avoid increasing the cooperative’s wholesale power costs.

Home EV chargers don’t count toward Vermont’s primacy in public charging stations. But since most vehicle recharging is done at home, they are a critical component of the overall EV charging infrastructure, and therefore of our success or failure at reducing carbon generated by our transportation sector. The national website “Green Car Reports” recently published a study that revealed why programs like GMP’s and WEC’s, that promote and optimize Level-2 charging, are vital. It found that “47 percent of homeowners with Level-1 charging stations were unaware of financial incentives for installation of Level-2 home-charging stations.”

It continued: “[U]pgrading to Level-2 charging is important because Level 1 isn’t adequate for frequent use or long trips…. One recent study suggested that lack of Level-2 home charging was a big reason why one in five EV owners go back to gasoline [vehicles].”

Perchlik, who drives an electric Ford Mustang Mach-E, says, “The people selling the cars have never said, ‘You should make sure you have a Level-2 charger.’ Salespeople need to focus on that. We at the state are trying to incentivize that, to make sure anyone who buys [an EV] has a Level 2 available to them at home or at work, so they don’t have to sit at a public charger for 30 minutes, or for hours.” 

‘Fast?’ It’s All Relative

And yet… Level 2 is also slow, at least compared with pumping gas outside a convenience store. Vermont needs to move, in a big way, to Level 3 — those DC fast-charging units. They’re still not as fast as pumping gas, but Drive Electric Vermont’s Dave Roberts has said, “These new fast-charging options will provide up to 225 miles of range in 30 minutes, enabling more EV travel options across Vermont and beyond.” 

Perhaps the most fully developed charging spot in central Vermont is in the Comfort Inn parking area near I-89 in Berlin. It includes eight Tesla chargers, as well as DC fast chargers, such as this one, installed by Green Mountain Power. Photo by Will Lindner.

But consider the obstacles. The DC fast chargers are expensive to install, and because they transfer so much electricity in a condensed time frame they must be connected to three-phase power, which could, in places, require costly restructuring by the utility serving the area. (Look at the power lines where you live. If you see three wires at the top, running from pole to pole, that’s three-phase power. If there’s one wire at the top, that’s single phase power, and inadequate for fast-charging purposes. Single-phase power is the norm in rural areas, which means most of Vermont.) The costs of such upgrades, and of their operation in the future, could present rate complications for utilities and their customers, beyond the scope of this article.

Direct current fast chargers are also expensive to operate, and in the first years of their use, while EVs remain relatively rare, they’re not likely to bring much revenue. Vermont’s state programs have addressed this issue through contracts with the companies selected to develop the infrastructure.

 “Grantees have to agree to operate them for seven years,” says Dutcher, of the Vermont Agency of Transportation. “Hopefully by then the market will be more attractive and they could keep them going on their own.”

An additional complication is that, while Level-2 chargers work with all electric vehicles, DC fast chargers are not uniform. Roberts explains there are two kinds of connections, one serving Nissan and Mitsubishi EVs “and then the one used by basically everyone else. Hopefully down the line there will be one plug — at least for non-Tesla vehicles.” 

(Tesla, barely mentioned here, is a world unto itself; its nationwide charging infrastructure is proprietary. Locally, an eight-unit block of Tesla fast chargers can be found, along with public Level-2 chargers, in the Comfort Inn parking lot in Berlin.)

Nevertheless, in the face of these headwinds, Vermont is aggressively developing its EVSE infrastructure with a heightened focus on fast charging. In February, Gov. Phil Scott announced a new round of funding to support the development of 11 new EV charging sites. “When these stations are completed,” the governor’s press release declared, “nearly every Vermonter will be within 30 miles of a fast-charge station.”

In a sense, the 11 new stations, now under development, are a freebie for Vermont, because of the $1.7 million funding derived from that now-six-year-old Volkswagen settlement. The award went to Blink Charging, an international company that’s banking on a bright future for electric vehicles and the equipment needed to power them.

“This time we asked a single bidder to apply for all the locations,” says Gary Holloway, of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development. “The VW funds provided Blink Charging with 80 percent of the total project cost. Blink had to match it with 20 percent. We define the geographic regions we want, but they work with site hosts within those regions.”

And the emphasis now is clearly on fast charging.

“The 11 locations are going to get two fast chargers as well as one Level 2,” says Holloway. “The goal is to build out highway corridors with fast-charging stations to help meet the governor’s goal of having them within 30 miles of every Vermonter.”

Holloway, too, believes the industry will eventually settle on a fast-charging plug configuration that will serve all (non-Tesla) EVs. For now, though, Blink and other grantees will install equipment that can accommodate the Nissans and Mitsubishis and everyone else.

Other grantees? Yes, more are coming. The newest round of funding for $750,000 — more modest because it comes from VTrans rather than VW — will support six new charging sites.

“These are at locations that would fill a major gap [in the infrastructure] or build in redundancy in high-use areas,” says Holloway. “It will be the same formula: two fast chargers and one Level 2 [at each site.]”

Proposals were due in June. Holloway anticipates decisions by the end of the summer. 

Meanwhile, GMP, too, is helping fill in the map with its Charge Fast pilot program, announced in March 2020. It will complement earlier programs through which the utility has deployed public charging stations.

“It provides financial incentives to help organizations — a business, or a community group, for example — install fast chargers with the goal to get them in areas underserved for fast charging,” says GMP’s Kelly. “We have about new 20 sites that are in process right now.”

It only makes sense. There’s (electric) gold in them-thar hills.

Montpelier Cites a Niche in Need

Kate Stephenson doesn’t expect new EVSE awards for Montpelier anytime soon. She’s not even sure Montpelier needs them.

“We have quite a few public chargers. I drive around and look at them all the time, and a lot are not being used very often,” says Stephenson, a resident who serves on the Montpelier Energy Advisory Committee. (She does that driving around in an Audi e-tron. “It’s a hybrid with a small electric range,” she confesses. “I have no range anxiety.”) 

“We’ve had our own public charger on city property, behind City Hall, for at least 10 years. People pay to use it, and the city pays the electric bill.”

Had construction gone forward on the public parking garage at the Capitol Plaza in Montpelier, the city would have installed 20 charging stations there. The state had awarded some $125,000 for them, but rescinded the money after the Hilton Corporation scrapped the project in April, citing delays caused by opponents who challenged its permits.

Also, Stephenson doubts that Montpelier will place high on the state’s priority list for DC fast chargers along the I-89 corridor because there’s already one, at the Vermont State Employees Credit Union, a quarter mile from Exit 8.

Where she perceives a need, however, is in multi-unit housing. Residents like Todd Sternbach, who own their own homes, can conveniently recharge with their own Level-2 (or, alas, Level-1) charging systems. But those who live in apartments, who park more than an extension cord’s length from their dwellings, and may not have the resources, nor the permission, to install a dedicated 240-volt outlet anyway, are virtually excluded from EV ownership — and, importantly, the advantages of avoiding $3-a-gallon gasoline and the maintenance demands that come with their gas guzzlers.

“That’s the focus I would love us to have,” says Stephenson.  “How do we work with landlords for existing multi-family housing? Because not a lot of new multi-family housing is going in around here.” 

The state is not unaware of this disparity. Requirements to provide charging facilities can be imposed on developers through Act 250 and other permitting processes, but as Holloway, of the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, observes, “There’s not a lot of new construction like that happening outside Chittenden County.”

And yet this year, he says, the legislature provided $1 million in funding to be directed toward multi-unit dwellings owned by nonprofit organizations. It’s applicable to both affordable and market-rate housing.

“It’s a pilot round,” Holloway explains.

And it’s also the beginning of a broader conversation. There’s an EVSE interagency work group that hopes to develop a definitive program this year.

“We’re just getting ourselves started,” Holloway says, citing participation in the project by housing groups. “The majority of what we’d look at in Vermont is retrofit — existing multi-unit housing infrastructure — and there’s a lot of complexities to that. That’s why we’re calling it a pilot project; it’s targeted toward a specific sector of multi-unit dwellings, those that are nonprofit-owned, so we can begin to get a handle on this. We’ve never had a program directed toward multi-unit dwellings before.”

Stephenson and her fellow energy committee members may want to keep an eye on it.

The future is gaining on us. Regarding electrified transportation, it portends an interesting combination of extreme convenience — avoiding gas stations and simply powering our cars and trucks while we sleep — and inconvenience: the need to linger someplace for a half hour or more while “fast” chargers do their thing.

When change is imposed upon us by necessity — in this case, moderating climate change — it can be unwelcome and disorienting. But Vermont’s vision of a fully developed, fully engaged electric-vehicle-charging infrastructure is grounded in optimism, and a commitment to a societal evolution that needs to happen.