UNCA plans to grow with electric vehicle development

Jackson Lockard

Contributor

jlockar1@unca.edu

Photographed by Jackson Lockard.
Attendees learn more about current electric vehicles at an exposition held at UNCA.

With rapidly advancing technology in the electric vehicle sector, UNCA takes steps to try to keep up with the growing need for infrastructure support, but it won’t be easy, said UNCA Interim Co-Director of Sustainability and Environmental Specialist Jackie Hamstead. 

“If E.V. ownership grows exponentially, as expected, it will be difficult to keep up with,” Hamstead said.

In North Carolina, Asheville helps to lead electric vehicle integration in the state, according to retired automotive engineer Dave Erb.

“Bottom line, Asheville is a place that is very open to new ideas, and this is no exception,” Erb said. “We’re very much a leader. If you go back to when hybrids like the Prius first came out, we were one of the parts of the state that adopted those really quickly. They weren’t every car on the road, but we picked up hybrids quickly here. The same thing has been happening for the last 10 years with plug-in electric vehicles.”

In 2011, 0.1% of all new car sales were electric. In the first half of 2021, that figure rose to 2.5%, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Despite the 25 times increase, work must continue, said Duke Energy’s North Carolina Electric Transportation Manager Donald Hamilton.

“Recently, 72% of the car sales in Norway were electric, compared to 2.5% in the U.S.  So, the US has a long way to go,” Hamilton said. “The current administration has lofty goals that should help accelerate the E.V. sales across the U.S. This should help everyone achieve their carbon goals, but we need to get those past legislation for that to become a reality. I do anticipate E.V. sales will continue to grow exponentially.” 

To increase these sales figures, supply chain upgrades will be necessary, said retired engineer David Hrivnak.

“I think the change is already underway,” he said. “The challenge now is the supply chain, the demand is there, we’re waiting for it to catch up so manufacturers can sell electric vehicles in volume.”

With this change underway, UNCA anticipates more demand for E.V. chargers, but supply chain issues hampered UNCA charger installations, according to Hamstead.

Current support for electric vehicles includes four existing chargers on campus, with two located at the P12 deck and two outside of the Reuter Center. Installation of the newest charging stations at the P12 deck in 2018 was thanks to a $10,000 grant from Duke Energy.

According to Hamstead, UNCA is already preparing for the increase in electric vehicle ownership among students and faculty. 

Administrators and staff work to identify future locations for electric vehicle charging stations on campus, with current plans to install several new chargers this fall, she said.

“We received a grant to support the installation of four new E.V. chargers in P19 lot across from Brown Hall,” Hamstead said. “We hope to have these installed by the end of the year. Campus operations and the Office of Sustainability have also partnered to purchase two new chargers that will replace the ones at the Reuter Center that are out of order.”

In addition to other concerns, she said UNCA faces difficulties with getting chargers installed due to issues with the nation’s supply chain.

“Supply chain issues are impacting E.V. charging infrastructure, much like everything else right now,” Hamstead said. “Chargers are on backorder and take months to receive. E.V. charging stations require a lot of electrical and networking infrastructure which ramps up the cost and limits where chargers can be installed. Sustainable transportation is a rapidly evolving field. We are working to stay current with the latest technologies that might address some of the most common challenges.”

Current chip-based supply chain issues led to difficulty in finding electric vehicles to test drive, making some potential electric vehicle buyers hesitant, according to Erb. 

“Drivers are hesitant, but irrationally hesitant,” Erb said. “My challenge as an advocate is to break through that irrationality. The fact is, this is a great area for electric vehicles, and any place where you have a significant rural population is a really good place for electric vehicles because that dramatic difference in the per mile cost of energy, people in rural areas commute a lot farther than people in urban areas do.” 

Erb, Hamilton, Hrivnak and other members of the local Blue Ridge E.V. Club work as supporters of the electric vehicle movement in the region.

Recently, UNCA partnered with the Blue Ridge E.V. Club to hold an electric vehicle show during Greenfest.

“The goal of these events is to provide an opportunity for the campus community to be able to see a variety of electric vehicles and meet their owners,” Hamstead said.

The challenge in introducing the public to electric vehicles lies within accessibility, Erb said.

“The best way to have people make the change to electric vehicles is to have them drive them, talk to a neighbor who owns one, to really understand what they’re like,” he said.

According to Erb, although it may seem daunting, the systems to sustain electric vehicles exist already to an extent.

“There’s about 280 million cars in this country. If somehow the ‘E.V. fairy’ came and made those cars electric, then we would be sorely lacking in infrastructure,” he said. “Although, we would not be as far off as a lot of people think, because everybody with a house has the infrastructure to charge their car.”

In the past 10 years, the number of electric vehicle charging stations in North Carolina increased 416-fold from just six chargers in 2011 to 2,497 chargers in 2021, according to a report by the U.S. Department of Energy.

This coupled with the existing home infrastructure acts as a sufficient grid for most electric vehicle owners, according to Hamilton.

“I have two level II chargers,” he said. “One at my house on the coast and one at my parents’ house in Western N.C. I use these chargers for 95% of my charging needs, the same as most people.”

Duke Energy plans to incorporate more chargers across the state in an effort to provide more support for electric vehicle owners, according to Hamilton. 

“Near term, we plan to install 20 DC Fast chargers across N.C. along highway corridors,” he said. “We plan to install 80 level II chargers at multifamily dwellings, 160 level II chargers at public spaces, including libraries, public parks and community colleges. We are governed by the N.C. utilities commission and are seeking substantially more chargers in the coming years, but we will have to wait to hear their ruling.”

To finance chargers beyond Duke Energy’s plans, funds come from a settlement from Volkswagen, provided after the emissions lawsuit, according to Hamilton.

“I am a member of the N.C. Highway Electrification Coalition, and we are working with federal and state stakeholders to push the infrastructure,” he said.  “The VW settlement funds are now being allocated across the state which will also help expand that.”

These funds also assisted in funding the planned charger upgrades on UNCA’s campus, Hamstead said.

We got $20,000 from the VW settlement which is administered by N.C. DEQ,” she said. “The grant supported the project but didn’t fund it completely, we will also have to use university funds.”

While greater charging infrastructure should be implemented, increases in range helped to mitigate that need, Erb said.

In 2011, electric vehicle range on average was 68 miles. By 2020, that figure increased by 281% to 259 miles, according to a report from the U.S. Department of Energy.

“The norm for mainstream cars 10 years ago was 80 to 100 miles. Now the norm is 200 to 250 for cars that are quite affordable. Basically, any car that can go over 200 miles reliably and has a DC fast charge port, can do pretty much everything you do in your gas car with almost zero inconveniences.” 

Concerns over range persist, but aren’t necessary, according to Hrivnak.

“People say they won’t buy an E.V. until it goes over 400, 500, 600 miles of range, but the reality is, we take 650-mile trips in a day easily in our E.V.,” he said. “No, the range isn’t that high, but we can charge it up fully over lunch.”

In considering ownership costs, among various factors, buyers consider maintenance and fuel efficiency, two figures that decrease significantly with an electric vehicle, according to Erb.

“Electric vehicles run for about three cents per mile of electricity, that’s a good ballpark number for most of them,” Erb said. “Based on gas being about three dollars a gallon, a Prius doing 50 miles a gallon is costing you about six cents per mile of gas, and that’s with one of the most efficient cars on the road. With the average gas car, it’s costing you 12 cents per mile of gas.”

In North Carolina, the average price per gallon of gas stands at $2.72. In contrast, a comparable eGallon costs $0.96, 183% cheaper, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Energy.

“The maintenance is much lower as well, you don’t do oil changes, you don’t do timing belt changes, you don’t change spark plugs, you don’t do tune-ups, it’s just much cheaper to run,” Erb said.

As for UNCA, the school continues to monitor the need for electric vehicle infrastructure and support, according to Hamstead.

“I’m not aware of a strong demand from students, but we are watching market trends and anticipate an increased demand in the near future,” she said.

The challenge of adapting and meeting the needs of electric vehicle adoption may be daunting, but doable, according to Erb.

“If we go really, really fast, it’s going to take us 20 years to convert over to electric vehicles,” Erb said. “In that time, the infrastructure will happen because we’ve done this before. Back in ‘50s and ‘60s mainly, we went in this country from almost nobody having air conditioning in their house, to almost everybody having it. That’s a huge increase in electric demand, and we did it. That amount of load is a little smaller than the added load you will see from adding the infrastructure for electric vehicles. Nothing on this scale is easy, but in the grand scheme of things, it’s not that hard either.”