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Columbia Business Monthly

Duke Energy pilot program would focus on increasing adoption of electric vehicles

Feb 04, 2019 11:33AM ● By Kathleen Maris
By Leigh Savage

Duke Energy is hoping to kick off 2019 with an electric vehicle pilot program designed to help meet the needs of the growing market. One component of the program: the installation of charging installations across South Carolina, stations which will allow vehicles to power up in under half an hour.

“Our goal was to roll this out in 2019, and we’re still on track to do that,” said Lang Reynolds, manager of electric transportation for Duke Energy. The three-year, $10 million pilot must be approved by the Public Service Commission of South Carolina before it can begin.

Reynolds, who is part of an economic development team at Duke Energy, says the company views electric vehicles as a way to save money for customers by displacing gasoline usage. “It’s more economical for our customers, and savings accrue to a significant extent when electric transportation increases,” he said. 

The pilot includes four programs: 
  1. A rebate and participation payments for up to 400 residential customers who install qualifying Level II charging equipment in exchange for utility management of home charging during defined hours. (Level II equipment allows customers to charge their vehicle up to six times faster than a standard outlet.)
  2. A school bus charging station program that will replace older diesel school buses with about 30 zero-emission electric school buses.
  3. Financial support to eligible transit agencies who procure electric transit buses.
  4. Duke Energy will install, own, and operate up to 30 DC Fast Charging installations across South Carolina to provide infrastructure and facilitate EV market growth. These DCFC chargers typically take just 20 minutes to an hour to recharge a vehicle. 
Duke is also looking at large companies and original equipment manufacturers (OEMs), preparing for the future of electric vehicle product offerings. “We’ve seen that as important in our states to get ahead of this trend,” he says. “It’s important to support our auto manufacturers.”

In addition, he says, increasing efficient usage of the electric grid can put downward pressure on rates. “We can preserve low electric costs, making our service territories more attractive for new business,” he said.

A Growing Need
Charging infrastructure is important to customers, who tell Duke that lack of stations is a barrier to buying electric vehicles. 

“In other states across the nation, and worldwide, really, electric transportation is becoming a more active player, so we want to play a larger role in increasing the level of charging infrastructure,” Reynolds said.

The absolute number of electric vehicles in South Carolina is small, but the growth is very strong, Reynolds said. Growth was around 100 percent in 2017 and is tracking to be above 100 percent for 2018. “In terms of market share, it will end up around 1 percent in 2018, so it’s a small portion, but it’s growing extremely quickly,” he said.

According to the Auto Alliance, registrations for electric vehicles in 2017 statewide totalled 1,137, with an additional 1,636 for plug-in hybrids and 42,749 for registered hybrid vehicles. Total registrations equalled about 1 percent of all registered vehicles. 

For new purchases, 95.5 percent of buyers purchased cars that use gas, 2.8 percent purchased diesel, and 1.43 percent purchased a hybrid. Just 0.1 percent purchased a purely electric vehicle and another 0.15 percent purchased a plug-in hybrid. 

Landon Masters, clean transportation and communication specialist with the S.C. Energy Office, said some projections show that electric and hybrids could account for more than half of all new auto sales by 2040. His office has been working statewide to boost charging infrastructure and raise awareness for drivers, including adding signage so drivers know exactly where charing stations are located. 

Statewide, there are 235 charging stations, according to the U.S. Department of Energy Alternative Fuels Data Center, most clustered around the larger cities of Greenville, Columbia, and Charleston, as well as up and down the coast. There are 2,211 gas stations, according to the Auto Alliance.

Leslie Fletcher, communications manager for the city of Greenville, said the current number of stations is meeting demand, and a new unit was recently installed at the River Street Garage in an effort to be proactive. The city installs one or two charging stations per garage. The parking staff has not seen any stations underutilized, nor has there been any issues with customers not finding a charging spot. The primary complaint is that some users want to leave their car there all day as opposed to just the four hours it takes to recharge their vehicle. 

Masters agrees, and said that in Columbia, Charleston, and other larger metro areas, charging stations are available due mainly to stimulus funding from 2008 and 2009. He has not heard from users that more are needed, though he has heard that directional signage is helpful, because chargers might be hard to find, even with an app. “We’re working to make sure the ones we have are more visible,” he said.

Also, South Carolina was the second state in the nation and the first in the Southeast to add signage along alternative fuels corridors, “which let drivers know there is enough fast charging along those sections so they don’t get range anxiety, or fear they’ll run out of electricity,” Masters said. “When they see these signs, they know they have enough juice.” Sections that were deemed “electric-vehicle ready” by the Federal Highway Administration in 2016 include stretches of I-26, I-77 and I-85.

“Electric vehicles are coming to South Carolina, but more investment is needed to grow the adoption of this evolving technology and the benefits it brings to the state,” says Kodwo Ghartey-Tagoe, Duke Energy’s South Carolina president. “We must prepare for this by providing for and better understanding the electrical needs of this growing population.”
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