Could a $2-billion penance from VW be the national community service project that helps US electric-vehicle infrastructure reach critical mass?
We'll find out soon, as Electrify America — the organization launched in February by Volkswagen Group of America to invest $2 billion over the next 10 years to build out and strengthen zero emissions vehicle (ZEV) infrastructure across the United States — has kicked into gear in its mission to launch up to 500 charging station locations as part of its retail program alone. The effort is VW's method of fulfilling its obligation in a court settlement with the federal government following the company's diesel emissions scandal involving 800,000 vehicles. The settlement requires $800 million to be spent in California and $1.2 billion to be spent across the rest of the country.
In June, as part of this initial investment, eight upgraded stations in Maryland and Virginia were EA's first rollouts among the 50 new and upgraded 50kW dual-standard fast chargers that will be installed at retail properties in 10 major metro markets across the countr: Boston, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Miami, New York, Philadelphia, Portland (Oregon), Seattle and Washington D.C.
In August, following the approval of its $200-million first-phase Cycle 1 Zero Emissions Vehicle (ZEV) Investment Plan by the California Air Resources Board, EA started searching for 350 sites in that state alone, focusing on Los Angeles-Long Beach-Anaheim, Sacramento-Roseville-Arden Arcade, San Diego-Carlsbad-San Marcos, San Francisco-Oakland-Hayward, San Jose-Sunnyvale-Santa Clara, and the Fresno metro area as well as charging station sites along major California highways. Sites will be located within targeted areas determined by supply-and-demand gap analysis down to the census tract level. EA plans to spend that first tranche of $200 million over the next 30 months.
As explained by EA, "charging locations are being selected for their visibility and accessibility to major highways and thoroughfares in addition to proximity of retail. Each site will provide open and universal access to the next generation of EV charging technologies including up to 150kW charging speeds within metro areas and up to 350kW charging speeds along highways, enabling drivers of future fast-charge capable EVs to recharge a 200-mile EV in as little as 15 to 30 minutes. Electrify America also plans to build charging stations at multi-family homes and workplaces as part of its commitment to increasing ZEV adoption in California."
Prodded in part by California legislators and regulators, Electrify America anticipates that more than 35 percent of the initial $200 million investment will be in or serve disadvantaged, low-income and underserved communities, especially those impacted by pollution in the past. Also in the budget is a $44-million "Green City" pilot program with the City of Sacramento focused on increasing access to ZEV technology.
“We are pleased that Volkswagen can now move forward with its ambitious plan to help bring electric vehicle technology to corners of California ignored in earlier efforts,” said CARB Chair Mary D. Nichols in July. “This will help the state as a whole, and especially some of our disadvantaged and underserved communities, to shift to the cleanest vehicles on the market to help clean the air and fight climate change.”
It was the work of CARB technicians that forced the company to admit the use of the so-called “defeat device” in 2015. VW has paid out more than $15 billion in claims and penalties for using those defeat devices, and this ZEV investment is one of multiple pieces to mitigate the environmental harm caused by its actions.
Nationally, EA has contracted JLL to source qualified locations and provide site feasibility studies for this effort. JLL Executive Vice President Walter Wahlfeldt and Senior Vice President Adam Cook are leading the team for site selection and due diligence.
“Electrify America’s investment in zero emission vehicle infrastructure is the largest of its kind ever made and will revolutionize charging infrastructure in the U.S.,” said Wahlfeldt in a JLL release. “We’re currently looking for accessible and regularly trafficked real estate locations that support drivers for the long term and will keep the network of charging stations sustainable. The stations are brand-neutral and are designed to service fast-charge capable EVs now and into the future.”
JLL is seeking sites with property owners that include but are not limited to: mall REITS, restaurants, retailers, gas stations, mixed-use developments and hotels. And here's the amazing part: Unlike many EV infrastructure programs that get bogged down by sticker shock, this time around, EA will install, operate and maintain chargers at its sole expense, including new utility service requirements and utility service accounts.
JLL's Adam Cook says the JLL team leading the program for EA starts with Wahlfeld's retail strategy consulting team, which works with JLL's network of 180 retail brokers across the nation. Because of the program's complexity and technology requirements, JLL's multi-site expertise, within its project and development service group, is leading the effort. Its program director manages the site selection team as well as a team of project managers and site validation personnel, who survey utility and permitting requirements and put together feasibility analyses. The JLL team works with EA's Rachel Moses, head of strategic partnerships and real estate, and Anthony Lambkin, EA's senior manager of EV charging infrastructure operations, who until December held a similar post within Nissan North America.
Asked how this unique program's site selection decision matrix differs from others in the retail sphere, Cook notes that the economic model of EV charging doesn't yet have an industry standard. Then comes the need to explain the technology, and the EV industry's chicken-and-egg conundrum: Build the network first, or make more cars first?
"There's a lot of noise in the marketplace," Cook says. So progress has been slow. But the EA program has the opportunity to change that for two reasons: future-oriented technology built to meet charging needs for a long time, and, crucially, a guaranteed $2 billion on the table.
"There's never been a program so soundly backed," he says. It's usually via grants or funding streams that run dry. "A guaranteed $2 billion is a great stimulus to make sure this happens."
All up-front costs and the management and upkeep of the stations are covered, with no capital obligation on the part of the host. That just doesn't happen. So, Cook says, "I'm telling retail properties, hosts and asset managers that now is the time."
Making the case stronger are promises more familiar to retail site selection: the concept of "guaranteed dwell" (i.e. the EV driver staying in the vicinity of the station); the tendency of more than 80 percent of EV chargers to purchase something when they stop and charge; and the attractiveness of making that location a habitual stop among a high-income demographic, which, Cook says without irony, "is really fueling that retail engine."
Any Brand Will Do
While retailers are all about brand, the charging stations are not. And being brand-agnostic is the way to go as more than 20 different EVs are expected to come along in the next few years to join the Leafs, Teslas and Golfs of the world. That includes a series of midsize and SUV models, which Cook sees as a turning point all its own in getting past that bump in the road to critical mass in overall EV adoption.
As for the complexities of working under a program tightly devised and reviewed by the US EPA and CARB, he says, "There is an extremely robust site selection strategy logarithm agreed to with all government entities, and we're performing within the confines of that. If we ever have to deviate from that, it requires special review."
Which locations are priorities? A marketing map shows 17 key metro areas, as well as an approximate path of the national highway footprint. They were chosen based on a matrix involving national travel patterns, income levels, areas that have been early EV adopters, and EV sales, among other factors.
"Charging sites will be present in 38 states, built along corridors with a high correlation with the EV Charging Corridors recently designated by the federal government," says EA. "Sites will be, on average, about 70 miles apart, with no more than 120 miles between stations, meaning many shorter-range ZEVs available today will be able to use this network." More than 300 community-based charging station sites will be installed outside of California in workplaces, retail, multifamily residential locations and municipal lots and garages in 11 target metro areas: Boston, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Miami, New York City, Philadelphia, Portland, Raleigh, Seattle and Washington, D.C.
VW has gone down this road before: In September 2016, it completed the 18-month Express Charging Corridors Initiative in partnership with BMW and the ChargePoint network to install 95 DC (direct-current) charging stations along the most heavily populated and highly-trafficked regions primarily along I-95 on the East Coast, enabling EV travel from Boston, through the New York City and Philadelphia areas to Washington, D.C., and along Interstate 5 and Highway 101 on the West Coast, connecting metropolitan areas from Portland, Ore., through the San Francisco Bay Area and Los Angeles to San Diego. Branches from the main Corridors extend to popular destinations such as Cape Cod, the Hamptons, the Jersey Shore, Lake Tahoe, Napa, and Sonoma. The chargers are strategically positioned both within and between relevant metropolitan areas, spaced approximately 50 miles apart.
As for property types, Cook says, "Anything ranging from a strip center and mixed use to regional shopping center are the first and foremost ideal targets. In key markets where we want to make a big statement, we're looking at the potential for outparcel development and partnership with other brands. It's about creating a space where people feel safe getting out and plugging in."
Because the bill is being paid already, and due to the benefits that should accrue to retailer in particular, Cook says it's not a question of if they should host, but how soon. "They might as well now, when they don't have to invest capital in this expensive infrastructure," he says, which sometimes runs to several hundred thousand dollars when utility upgrades are tallied.
So, what's the timeline?
"For this first phase of several hundred locations, as soon as possible," Cook says. "We want sites open this year, in 2018 and a bit into 2019. The minimum life expectancy of these arrangements is 10 years. There's a guaranteed full maintenance, upgrade and data reporting package. The speed to market is rapid."
Everyone has heard about the promise of EVs, but that chicken-and-egg problem has always combined with the high cost of charging infrastructure to hold them in check and hold back property owners from investing in such amenities, Cook says. "This is a unique and urgent opportunity for those portfolios to take advantage of it," he says. "It doesn't happen every day."
Thus a corporate ethical failure and subsequent punishment, instead of producing golden parachutes for executives, could produce a golden egg for sustainable transportation.