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Advanced charging infrastructure in Portland, Ore. allows electric vehicle drivers to go further, faster

Kyle Thibaut
Portland may be associated with the "Dream of the 90s" thanks to IFC's Portlandia, but after a visit to check out their EV charging infrastructure, we'd have to disagree. Portland is modern, progressive, and prepared to take on a large EV population.

Nissan provided us with a 2013 Leaf for the weekend to try out Portland's EV networks and note how fast the charge times were. We drove 300 miles in 48 hours, with about 14 hours spent with the car on. No matter how you slice it, that's a lot of driving; but for an EV with a limited range, that would be darn right impossible without a little help.

The support for these EV infrastructure initiatives come from non-profits, local and state governments, and private corporations. From Electric Avenue near Portland State University, to the collaboration of all corporate and municipal efforts tied to what's known as "The West Coast Electric Highway," Portland has it going on.

The West Coast Electric Highway is a federally funded initiative that will install over 80 public charging stations throughout Oregon, including 43 DC fast chargers and 43 Level 2 chargers (60 currently, 86 by end of year).

Oregon is also a part of a national EV deployment initiative called "The EV Project" that is managed by ECOtality. So far they have installed around 400 Level 2 commercial chargers, almost 800 Level 2 residential chargers, and 14 DC fast chargers within the Willamette Valley. According to their site, "drivers of the Nissan LEAF zero-emissions electric car and the Chevrolet Volt plug-in hybrid with extended range, who qualify to participate in The EV Project will receive a free residential charger."



For our trip, we kept to the fast chargers. Because The West Coast Electric Highway's fast chargers are equipped with CHAdeMO connectors, there are only three vehicles we could use to test the network: Tesla Model S (with accessory), Nissan Leaf, and Mitsubishi i MiEV. We went with the Nissan Leaf.

When going over the details of the trip, Nissan spokesman, Tim Gallagher, suggested we take advantage of the Electric Highway and take a trip outside of the city. We weren't sure how feasible it would be to take an all-electric Leaf from the comfort of the city to the outer borders of Portland's nature areas, so we sought some help from the State of Oregon EV Lead, Ashley Horvat. Horvat is very well versed in traveling around Portland by EV. In fact, she owns a Leaf herself, and takes weekend trips regularly to both the coastal and mountainous regions of Oregon.

Charging A Nissan Leaf EV In Portland, Oregon


While meeting up in a trendy coffee shop (when in Portland...), Horvat presented myriad ways to get out to the more natural areas simply by stopping at one of the many fast chargers scattered strategically around Oregon. She also pointed out the importance of the iPhone app called Plugshare, which maps the location of all area chargers. The app made it simple to locate charging stations, identify if they were Level 2 or DC fast, and know whether they were being used or not.

Ashley told us that the Oregon Department of Transportation is collecting a lot of helpful data from the chargers. For instance, the average time people spend at a station is only 12 minutes. 12 minutes of fast charging can often provide enough range to continue on to the next station.

TRANSLOGIC

The state-owned charging stations are AeroVironment (AV) branded; AV pays the electricity costs and the operation and maintenance of the network. The State of Oregon pays for the chargers and installation -- roughly $100,000 per site.

The state also pays for the infrastructure of getting electrical lines to the station, which can be expensive, especially when having to dig under roads. But it's paying off, says Horvat. In the month of April, there were over 500 DC fast charging events. And now, Nissan is selling more Leafs in Portland than Altima sedans.

To see the effectiveness to the initiative, we drove east from Portland along the Columbia River Gorge Highway to our first stop 44 miles away in Cascade Locks. The route was abound with beautiful vistas and steep, sharp cliffs. Given the time of year, the scenery was very lush and green.

http://www.theevproject.com/overview.php

At the first charging station, we plugged in for about 15 minutes and watched the range climb all the way back to 84 miles. We could have kept going, but the next charging station and a popular restaurant was only another 30 miles. The next charging station would have us in the town of Hood River, a quaint little main street town known for its microbreweries that overlook the river. At this point in the trip, it was time to eat--while charging the car, of course.

The main attraction for the trip east was Mt. Hood; a mountain that has snow on it year round. Our journey would take us from about 160 feet in elevation to nearly 6,000 feet. This elevation change resulted in our range dropping very quickly, from 80 miles to 25 miles in about only 20 miles of driving. With about 22 miles until the next charger, we started to worry that we wouldn't make it.

Just as we began to accept that the car was likely to run out of range in the middle of a massive cellular dead zone, the road began to point downward. The next 10 miles were all downhill, with grades as steep at 8%. The Leaf graciously recuperated kinetic energy via battery regeneration. Mile by mile and we saw the range meter rise back up to over 50 miles. As we discovered, the Leaf's range meter bases a lot of its forecasting off the past few miles, so while we saw a huge drop in range, the Leaf still had quite a bit of energy left.

We made it to the next station with enough range to skip the charge, but we decided not to risk it and stopped for brief 11 minutes before continuing on.

TRANSLOGIC

At about 20 miles closer to downtown Portland, the Plugshare app alerted us of a Ecotality Blink DC fast charger at a nearby Fred Meyer grocery store. We took advantage again. Fred Meyer is a Portland-based grocer that has two 60 kW DC fast chargers at many of its stores, compared to the AV chargers which are only 50 kW. As long as you have a Blink card, you can quickly charge up for free.

Currently, all DC fast charging is free in the Portland area -- but not for long. You may need a keyfob or RFID card to operate the stations, but there is no formal charge yet. Some locations will begin to charge by the amount of time connected to a station, while others may charge for using the parking spot or charge a monthly subscription for unlimited use.

Our electric-powered trip in and around Portland opened our eyes to what's possible when citizens, government and businesses work together toward a common goal. Hopefully Portland's advanced EV infrastructure will serve as an example for rest of the country.