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Utilities want to amp up EV charging in the Tri-Cities

The Fred Meyer in Kennewick in Kennewick has eight Tesla charging stations to power electric vehicles. Benton and Franklin County PUDs along with Richland energy utility are planning on increasing the number of electric vehicle charging stations in the area.
The Fred Meyer in Kennewick in Kennewick has eight Tesla charging stations to power electric vehicles. Benton and Franklin County PUDs along with Richland energy utility are planning on increasing the number of electric vehicle charging stations in the area. Tri-City Herald

Tesla Motors sent just the right gift to Stacie and Russ Hamilton when the couple opened an all-solar winery in Benton City about 18 months ago: two Tesla charging stations.

For the Silicon Valley-based electric vehicle maker that provides free charging to its customers, it made perfect sense. Its Puget Sound customers needed places to charge their cars when they stray beyond Seattle and its abundant charging stations. Places like Washington wine country.

Benton City is 200 miles from Seattle and its 433 stations, and 100 miles from Ellensburg and its eight stations. A Tesla can travel more than 200 miles between charges, but infrequent charging stations tend to give drivers a case of range anxiety. A station in Benton City keeps Tesla drivers humming right on through to Walla Walla.

Not content to cater to just Teslas, the Hamiltons spent another $5,000 to install a standard EV station for Nissan Leafs, Volkswagen Golfs and other electric models. Both set ups are powered by a 151-panel solar array on the Hamilton Cellars roof.

It was a prudent investment for the winery. Wine sales to EV drivers have easily covered the cost, said Stacie Hamilton. It doesn’t hurt that Tesla screens automatically display the next charging station, technology that puts the Hamilton name in front of drivers as they cover long stretches in cars that start at $63,000.

“If you can afford a Tesla, you can probably afford wine,” she observed.

Hamilton Cellars is host to one of the 18 local charging stations catering to Tesla drivers and others, according to Plugged In, a web site that maps charging stations.

The figures include one Tesla SuperCharger base with eight units at the Kennewick Fred Meyer and 17 smaller business and government locations such as Washington State University Tri-Cities and several local car dealerships. It does not include home-based charging stations that car owners install in their garages for overnight charging.

A coalition of local utilities wants to raise that number to boost the area’s energy credential and make it easier for both locals and visitors to keep electric cars charged.

The Mid-Columbia Energy Initiative is loosely organizing the Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Transportation Alliance (EVITA) to pursue grants and other support to promote more charging stations and infrastructure catering to the growing number of electric vehicles prowling Washington roads. Members include the Benton and Franklin public utilities, the Richland energy utility and Energy Northwest.

The hope is that targeting drivers of electric vehicles will support sustainability initiatives, reduce transportation-based carbon emissions, brand the Tri-Cities as an energy leader, expand the customer base for local utilities and support wine-related tourism.

Washington already is a leader in electric vehicles, ranking fourth in the nation in the 2016 U.S. Clean Tech Leadership Index, an annual publication by Portland-based Clean Edge Inc. There were 12,113 electric vehicles registered in Washington in 2015, one for every 580 residents. More than 90 percent of the state’s electric vehicles are based in the Seattle metro area.

Drivers on the west side have a choice of charging stations with one spot for every 8,400 residents. With 18 spots, the Tri-Cities has one for every 15,000 residents.

“There’s not a question in my mind that we’re going to have more electric vehicles,” Bob Hammond, energy services director for the city of Richland, told the city council at a workshop session. The council will consider formalizing its role in EVITA through an inter-local agreement when it meets June 7.

Stacie Hamilton said adding charging stations was a natural for a business fully powered by renewable energy. And electric vehicles attract attention.

The Bellevue Tesla dealer brought two models to the Hamilton Cellars grand opening and invited visitors to take them for a drive. U.S. Rep. Dan Newhouse (R-Sunnyside) was the first in line, she said.

“People really loved it.”

She said it’s good for the Red Mountain vineyards too. People who stop for a charge wind up intrigued by the area and end up curtailing their trips.

“We find a lot of them aren’t familiar with Red Mountain, and they end up staying,” she said.

Wendy Culverwell: 509-582-1514, @WendyCulverwell

There were 12.113 electric vehicles registered in Washington state in 2015, with more than 90 percent based in the Seattle metro area.

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