Brenda Brownlee had not seen an electric vehicle in nine days. The parking lot of the hotel she manages in Sault Saint Marie was respectably full, and there were plenty of cars passing by on the I-75 Business Spur, but no one was pulled up to the hotel’s electric vehicle charging station.
None of this might seem remarkable, save for the hotel’s key distinction: The Hilton by Hampton is the only place in town that has chargers for electric cars.
Brownlee said it was a lot of work to get the devices ready.
“They’re pretty substantial,” she said. “We had some electrical engineers here. We’ve had to navigate putting in stronger relays on them – fuse relays. … It’s been an interesting project.”
The Biden administration and Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy are both betting big on projects like Brownlee’s. Biden’s infrastructure plan calls for 500,000 EV charging stations across the country. Whitmer announced grant funds earlier this year for 88 charging stations in Michigan. But there are significant barriers to getting electric vehicles on the road in Michigan’s rural Upper Peninsula — starting with the fact that none of the stations funded by Whitmer’s grants are in the U.P.
Charging stations like those at Brownlee’s hotel cost several hundred to several thousand dollars each. Her hotel has four of them.
“It takes a little bit of deep pockets,” she said.
Still, said Brownlee, it’s worth it. The number of people driving electric cars is going to grow, she said, and she wants to be ready.
It’s a sentiment that’s gratifying to Jeff Holt, the director of Sault Saint Marie’s Economic Development Corporation. It’s his job to make the area appealing for businesses and their employees.
He’s already getting calls from prospective new residents about EV charging availability, he said.
“People are calling saying, ‘I want to come to Sault Saint Marie or the area, and I have an electric vehicle. How can I rely on being charged?’ And that is a big problem for us right now.”
In some parts of the country, a robust public EV charging network might not be as important as in the Upper Peninsula, Holt said. Many people could get by just charging their cars at home.
But Holt said that’s not the case in the U.P., where people drive much longer distances to get where they’re going.
“Fifteen miles south of here is the middle – literally the middle of nowhere. I mean, there is nothing,” Holt said. “With the vast land in the Upper Peninsula, we need to strategically place the stations.”
Holt was talking in particular about a type of charging station called DC (for direct current) fast chargers. They can fully charge some cars in less than half an hour, but they’re significantly more expensive than slower stations.
A Charging Station Desert
The charging station at Brownlee’s hotel in Sault Saint Marie is a step down from a DC fast charger. It’s called a Level 2 system, and it takes a couple hours to fully charge most cars.
It also doesn’t solve Holt’s qualms about not having enough charging stations because it’s technically only open to people staying at the hotel (although Brownlee says she’s never turned away someone who needed a charge).
Likewise, Tesla is building a charging station in the parking lot of the Meijer supermarket just south of the city, but its utility to the public is limited, because not all EVs are compatible with Tesla’s chargers.
Transportation experts said this state of affairs in the U.P. falls far short of their hopes.
Mernaz Ghamami, a professor at Michigan State University who directed the study that formed the basis for the state’s EV charging plan, said the state needs many more fast charging stations to make EV driving appealing for most people.
Ghamami said it’s not just residents of the U.P., but also the tourists who visit the region, that will put a strain on charging capacity.
“They definitely need DC fast chargers on their way like gas stations – the same way we do with gas stations – to refuel their vehicle.”
Ghamami and Holt said without a robust network of fast chargers, the U.P. will likely start missing out on a big chunk of tourists in the next few years.
But adding the chargers might actually turn out to be the easy part. What’s harder, especially in a rural area, is the demand they’ll put on the electrical grid.
Mike Heise, the president of Cloverland Electric Cooperative, which supplies power to most of the eastern U.P., said fast chargers require a lot of electrical current to be delivered suddenly, on demand.
That’s not easy for a rural utility company, he said. “When it gets scary is when you think about plugging a lot of vehicles in.”
Every eight cars plugged into a fast charger draws about a megawatt of power, Heise said. Cloverland’s peak power availability is about 60 megawatts.
Too many cars plugged into fast chargers at the same time could be a problem for the grid, said Heise.
He’s not predicting blackouts, but he said Cloverland might need to buy electricity from neighboring utilities at higher rates, unless Michigan heavily subsidizes the cost of expanding power production and distribution in the U.P.
All those infrastructural issues might not even matter, though, if people don’t shift to EVs. Even Heise, who extols the virtues of EVs for reducing emissions and charging on renewable energy sources, said he’s not ready to make the switch yet.
And Brownlee, the hotel manager, said even though she’s sure offering EV charging is the right move for her company, she’s not ready to drive one yet either.
“No thank you. No thank you. I live in the 906 [area code], where the temperatures are extremely cold. I need reliability. I need get-up-and-go. No,” she said.
EV researchers like Ghamami said governments and car companies need to invest not just in products, but also in outreach, to show people what electric vehicles can do.