Lisa Putnam hooks her 2017 BMW X5 up to a Tesla charging station at Harrah’s Hoosier Park Racing & Casino. “I charge my car every day,” said Putnam, a VIP host at the racino. “If I’m able to charge here at work, I can go almost three months on a tank of gas.” Andy Knight | The Herald Bulletin
Lisa Putnam hooks her 2017 BMW X5 up to a Tesla charging station at Harrah’s Hoosier Park Racing & Casino. “I charge my car every day,” said Putnam, a VIP host at the racino. “If I’m able to charge here at work, I can go almost three months on a tank of gas.” Andy Knight | The Herald Bulletin
ANDERSON — One of the best features of her 5-year-old BMW X5, according to Lisa Putnam, is that she can avoid a trip to the gas station for up to three months.

But she acknowledges complications that come with owning a hybrid SUV. Those complications provide a taste of what other electric vehicle owners are experiencing as Indiana ponders a transition toward an increasingly electrified automotive future.

Currently, a lack of easily accessible charging stations means that EV drivers in some instances must plan trips to accommodate — both in their schedules and where they go — lengthy stops to add juice to their batteries.

“There’s a thought process involved,” Putnam said. “Charging stations being readily available, the time that it takes to charge, … those are all things that you really need to consider.”

A host of government agencies, state-regulated utilities and private advocacy groups have for years been grappling with the challenge of formulating plans for building out an infrastructure that will meet the needs of a burgeoning EV market while not overtaxing the nation’s existing electrical grid.

At the federal level, the bipartisan infrastructure bill that was signed into law by President Joe Biden in November 2021 includes nearly $7.5 billion for National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure (NEVI) — envisioned as a nationwide network of at least 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations.

Threading that supply-and-demand needle, many officials say, requires significant buy-in from private retailers, who in turn want to see a solid return on investments.

“There are some problems here,” said Doug Kantor, general counsel for the National Association of Convenience Stores. “The NEVI funds, the only way they’re going to be effective, in our view, is if they incentivize private investment. There’s no way to build out the infrastructure that’s needed without that funding being used in ways that create those incentives.”

Indiana’s share of NEVI funding, as determined by a prescribed formula in the bill, is estimated at more than $100 million over the next five years. The Hoosier State faced an Aug. 1 deadline for filing preliminary plans with the federal government outlining how it plans to spend that money on EV infrastructure.

A PATH TO PROFITABILITY?


Consumer advocacy groups are hopeful that appropriately motivated private retailers have a seat at the table when those funding distribution plans are discussed in detail.

“For any fuel retailer, it’s necessary to consider whether it’s worth installing EV chargers,” said Raina Shoemaker, who owns two travel centers near major highways outside Lincoln, Nebraska. “We’re in the transportation industry, and we want to sell you what you want to buy.”

Shoemaker said that, even though grant programs are available to help defray installation costs, a retailer can reasonably expect to put up about $100,000 to install a charging station — money, she said, that can be difficult to part with.

“Retailers right now have no confidence that the EV charging marketplace can be a profitable business,” she said.

According to Liberty Access Technologies, a company that manufactures charging systems for workplaces, schools and private homes, Madison County’s only public EV charging site is at Harrah’s Hoosier Park Racing & Casino.

That facility’s acquisition of four individual charging stations came after electric automaker Tesla approached Hoosier Park’s parent company, Caesar’s Entertainment, with an offer to build the outlets on site. The idea, with little financial risk and in keeping with the company’s interest in green initiatives, made abundant sense to executives at the facility.

“It felt like we were doing something good for the community and for the world, so to speak,” said Todd Berendji, vice president of operations at Hoosier Park.

“What a lot of businesses don’t know about are the incentives that are out there — whether it’s in a grant or from companies like Tesla or other charging companies that can assist that. I think as more of that (money) becomes available, the more prominent (charging stations) will become.”

FAIR COMPETITION

For now, private retailers are skeptical — some would say fearful — of competing with utilities that can hit customers with demand charges, which are fees based on the highest level of electricity used at one time during a billing period. These fees wouldn’t apply to establishments with charging stations installed and maintained by the utilities themselves, which in the eyes of many advocates would put retailers at a significant disadvantage.

“When your tank is low or your battery is low, you need the energy right then,” Kantor said. “You can’t wait for the right load management (interval) to come along. These demand charges can be incredibly high because they demand a lot of electricity very quickly to charge these vehicles and give people a convenient experience.”

AES Indiana, which has installed a dozen EV charging stations in Central Indiana, has seen usage of those stations rise 95% since 2020, according to data from the company. A spokesman noted the company’s support of legislation, signed into law by Gov. Eric Holcomb in March, that allows businesses to offer EV charging without being subject to state utility regulations.

“We are working to make it easier and more affordable for our customers to charge their vehicle — at times that work best for the overall electric system,” the company said in an emailed statement. “By efficiently charging vehicles, we can support EV growth without an immediate need for building additional infrastructure and at lower costs for all customers.”

The Edison Electric Institute estimates more than 27 million electric vehicles will be on U.S. roads by 2030 — the year the Biden administration has set as an informal deadline for 50% of all new vehicle sales in the country to be electric.

With less than 300 public EV charging locations statewide, Indiana trails neighboring states in the Midwest and hovers roughly in the middle of the pack in the country when it comes to developed infrastructure. With EV production accelerating, automakers and others with vested interests in the issue are confident that the state will keep pace.

“I don’t think our state is lagging behind if suppliers can provide an adequate number of chargers to meet the demand,” said Mary Jamerson, owner of Myers Autoworld in Anderson. The new Indiana law, she added, “is a great start to paving the way for more EV chargers to be put in place for ease and convenience to meet the needs of drivers.”

Putnam, who lives in Pendleton and works as a VIP hostess at Hoosier Park, said she can envision moving to an all-electric vehicle in the future, but added that until charging stations become more plentiful, many people will remain unconvinced about making the transition themselves.

“Eventually we’re going to have to think about our environment,” she said. “I’m not sure what will incentivize (retailers) to move in that direction, but they were able to incentivize the automobile industry, and when push comes to shove, it’s better to participate willingly.”

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