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Forbes: 10 EV Charging Lessons Learned From Portland's Electric Avenue
Author: Justin Gerdes, Forbes contributor
Posted: March 27, 2012

To read the original story in Forbes, go here. 

In part I of this series, I described the launch of Electric Avenue, an innovative electric car infrastructure demonstration project located in Portland, Oregon. In this post, I present 10 lessons learned since the two-year project launched, in August 2011.My guide, on a recent visit to Portland, was George Beard, Strategic Alliance Manager, Portland State University (PSU) Office of Research & Strategic Partnerships. In our interview, and in a tour of Electric Avenue’s seven electric vehicle charging stations, Beard shared what PSU and its main partners, the City of Portland and Portland General Electric (PGE), have learned so far.

1) The “Big Gulp” theory of charging: “Here’s something we’ve seen that surprised us,” Beard said. “People who have [a Nissan Leaf] will often come to Electric Avenue, and they will charge up – if they have one of those CHAdeMO – TEPCO Level III [direct current] quick charging connectors. They might be in the bottom 25% or 20% of their battery range.”

“People will come and plug in and quick charge for 5 or 10 minutes. I call it the ‘Big Gulp theory of charging.’ They’re not looking to get a full charge, but, rather, they’re acquiring somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 to 50 miles. We see people saying, ‘I’ll plug in for 5 minutes because I can get enough miles to get home’ because they’re not going on extended trips.”

“The convenience of this cannot be underestimated,” he said.

The popularity of “Big Gulp” charging prompted Beard to wonder if DC quick chargers should be given priority over Level II charging stations, which will charge a depleted battery in 3-4 hours, for public EV charging.2) Locate next to a transit hub and provide hospitality services: “What we did here that was accidentally brilliant is that we located Electric Avenue adjacent to a mobility hub,” said Beard (see map). “We have a street car system coexisting with a light-rail system, with bus service, with car service, with pedestrian boulevards, with bike lanes – this is an iconic place in the world.”

“Someone could easily come in [to Electric Avenue] and get 10 hours of parking on the street – that’s almost unheard of in the downtown core. They can get fueled up for free, and they can get on our streetcar system or on the light-rail train, which is part of our “Fareless Square,” and go into the commercial part of the city, the retail part of the city, go up to the Rose Garden and catch a Trail Blazers’ game. And then come back. You can literally move on electrons rather than carbon.”

Electric Avenue is located next door to PSU’s Urban Plaza. “Within a short walk of Electric Avenue,” Beard said, “parkers can grab a coffee or ice cream, make a phone call, get warm, and go to the bathroom.”

3) Cluster the charging stations: “The act of clustering these in an ‘oasis’ rather than having them scattered around has been important,” said Beard. “If I owned an electric vehicle, I would feel more comfortable putting it in a place that’s designed to support them in some numbers. Rather than being the isolated oddball stuck behind the Costco. Having it in an urban place, in a safe, visible area seems to be worth something and is greatly appreciated.”

4) Solve all of the problems at once: “The infrastructure challenges appear to be potent enough that it’s better to solve something once and provide the necessary electrical service than to try to solve it on a one-off basis a bunch of times,” Beard said. At Electric Avenue, PGE “did the heavy lifting on upgrading, providing all of the ‘plumbing’ for the electricity and service of the charging stations.” PSU was responsible for planning and procurement. Beard said PSU did an open, public solicitation to invite EV charging companies to deploy gear. “Because [we] were early in the game, we ended up getting very favorable agreements with our partners.”

5) Plan for operations and maintenance: A little over six months into the demonstration, the Electric Avenue partners have learned that some of the chargers are more durable, and some are wanting in their industrial design. “Some of them are used because they are pleasing, and some are avoided because they’re not,” said Beard. Some of the chargers have been defaced. The GE device was tagged, for instance. On our tour of the site, Beard showed me where a charging nozzle and length of cable had been pinched by a copper thief.

They have also found that “every object is a potential target for either tagging, or even people putting their litter or trash on it” (some chargers have a sloped top, Beard noted, which prevents passersby from putting a beer bottle or coffee cup on top). “We’ve learned that we have to go out and clean it every day – have to walk the site and make sure that the avenue is ready for use. Whose job was it?” he said. They hadn’t thought through the operations and maintenance.

6) The industry needs a standard for charger-to-car communication: Level I and Level II EV chargers have a standard SAE J1772 connector (analogous to a gas pump, or the USB port on your laptop) that enables any EV to connect to any charger. “The physical connectors all worked fine,” said Beard. “But the communication routine seems to have been out of sync.” In some cases, EV owners received error messages inside the car because the cars and chargers couldn’t communicate.

The glitches weren’t causing damage, Beard said. “Because we had co-located all these devices, it triggered dialogue and exchange, and got our local providers in direct and frequent communication with GM and Toyota and Nissan. These early standards weren’t mature enough; they’re far more reliable today than they were six months ago.” Beard said he believed Electric Avenue played a role in trouble-shooting the necessary adjustments.7) Prepare city codes for EVs: Beard repeatedly emphasized that the City of Portland is a wonderful partner, but he also cited a few examples where existing city codes could be updated to accommodate electric cars (see also #8 below). Portland, for instance, has a prohibition against curbside advertising. The ban could prevent Electric Avenue from, Beard suggested, using the charging terminals as an information kiosk – announcing tonight’s lecture, or the Saturday farmer’s market. It could add value for EV owners, and for passing pedestrians. (PSU owns the property; the City of Portland controls the curbside right-of-way.)

8) Pay attention to the signage: Early on, Beard said, gas-powered cars parked illegally at Electric Avenue. (Beard said a few of these enterprising drivers stuck a charging nozzle in the front grill of their car in a lame attempt to fool the parking cops.) “There were two reasons for it,” he said. “One, our signage was abysmal. It wasn’t because some malevolent idiot tried to think of the most obtuse ways of creating signage. Our friends in the Transportation Bureau at the City of Portland, and our friends at Oregon Department of Transportation, the DMV, all have this book of codes. And it’s backward-looking. It’s the best practices over the past 100 years. It isn’t designed for electric vehicles.”

9) Do marketing: “We didn’t market this, either intelligently or deliberately,” said Beard. “It’s taken a while to have people discover it.” Nevertheless, he said, usage has increased. Several times he has noticed all seven charging bays occupied. The charging stations tend to be used more in the afternoons than mornings. “We do know when people connect, and we know how much electricity has been consumed,” he said. One project analyst estimated that in its first five months electricity tapped at Electric Avenue charging stations was equivalent to 20,000 electric miles.

10) Decide on a metric for success: “How do you judge success?” Beard asked. “The number of charging transactions? The number of visitors? For us, it’s an R&D project.” He went on, “We’re not under pressure to add to what we have there [the seven charge spots], but we are under mounting interest to help other jurisdictions create their own Electric Avenues – in our state and other states.”

In the coming months, Beard said the project partners will undertake a more formal survey of Electric Avenue users. “We will devote a week of watching and counting and interviewing people who come and visit,” he said, likely with the help of PSU business and public policy students.

“The simple fact and a true confession is that we don’t know our travelers and visitors well enough yet. We want to find out not only where did they start their day, but where are they going? Are we merely a stagecoach stop for them? Or, are they stopping in because they have business in the city?” Beard asked.

“We’ve made an affirmative decision to at least see what we can learn about this, to share it with anyone who’s interested, and to learn from others.”

Note: This is part II of a two-part series on the future of electric car infrastructure as viewed from Portland’s “Electric Avenue.” In part I, I describe how Electric Avenue is helping to drive EVs into the mainstream.