Is it Time to Recharge Normal's Push for Electric Vehicles?

Electric Car Charger EVTown Flip.jpg

Looking back on Normal's EVTown initiative and its impact on the community

Town of Normal Mayor Chris Koos says he first saw Mitsubishi's electric vehicle technology nearly a decade ago on a sister cities trip to Japan. Three and a half years later, Mayor Koos and other local officials began exploring the idea of bringing that technology to Normal.

After examining the feasibility of the concept, they formed the ‘Bloomington-Normal Electric Vehicle Task Force’ to evaluate and engage community interest. As Normal’s Town Planner, Mercy Davison, explained, the original EVTown initiative had two main objectives: embracing new sustainable transportation and letting the world know “we are progressive and interested in the future.”

Mercy Davidson Normal Town Planner Vertical.jpg

Mercy Davison

Normal Town Planner

Contrary to popular belief, the Town of Normal did not spend local taxpayer revenue on EVTown. Normal received approximately $100,000 in grant money that was used to purchase 49 charging stations, Davison said. Six stations were installed at the Town of Normal, including a level-3 fast-charging station. Other entities, including the City of Bloomington, Illinois State University, and Illinois Wesleyan University all made requests to receive the chargers. The entities that received the chargers paid for the installation and the electricity used for charging.

The town considered adding a payment structure to the charging stations, but after analyzing the situation, installing and maintaining a payment system would cost far more than the revenue it would generate. Although the absence of payment systems would mean a lack of data on the number of people using the chargers, Davison stood by the original decision. She said allowing owners to charge their vehicles for free would cost very little while providing peace of mind for potential EV owners. (Charging a Mitsubishi i-MiEV fully would require six hours at the Town’s chargers and cost approximately $1.60).

One of the Town of Normal's i-MiEV electric vehicles in UpTown Station (Christian Prenzler for AdaptBN)

One of the Town of Normal's i-MiEV electric vehicles in UpTown Station (Christian Prenzler for AdaptBN)

Back in February 2011, the EVTown initiative set a goal for 1,000 electric vehicles on the road by 2014. At the time, the only fully-electric vehicles in the area were the new Mitsubishi i-MiEV and the Nissan Leaf. It's unclear how many Nissan Leafs have sold since then, but there have been nearly 500 i-MiEVs sold, according to Ryan Gremore, President and General Manager of O’Brien Auto Team.

By the end of 2014, Mitsubishi had only sold approximately 1,800 total i-MiEVs in the entire US. This means that although the numbers are below the original goal, the i-MiEV has sold quite well in this area, compared to the rest of the country. 

"We wouldn't have been as successful without (the chargers)... to have the entire city back that kind of change, endorsed by infrastructure, people, and awareness. It was critical to the success," Gremore said.

Although the initiative didn’t meet its objective, perhaps it was simply ahead of its time. Since the introduction of the EVTown initiative, electric vehicle technology has progressed significantly. In 2011, the per charge ranges on the Mitsubishi i-MiEV and Nissan Leaf were 62 miles and 75 miles, respectively. The Mitsubishi i-MiEV was discontinued in late 2016, while the Nissan Leaf has undergone a complete overhaul. The 2018 Leaf now has over 150 miles of range.

A main driver of increasing interest in electric vehicles has been Tesla’s Model S and Model X. Both vehicles, introduced in 2012 and 2015, respectively, have tremendous performance and range. The Model S is the quickest vehicle in production in the world and carries and range of 335 miles, while the Model X seats 7 with a range of 289 miles.

In its push for more electric vehicles, the Town of Normal didn’t forget about Tesla. In the summer of 2013, Normal became the first non-coastal city to receive Tesla Superchargers. The Superchargers--installed, maintained, and paid for by Tesla--allow Tesla’s vehicles to charge at astonishing rates. At the time, the council voted 5-2 in favor of giving Tesla four parking spaces. Councilmen Scott Preston and Jeff Fritzen voted against the measure.

According to data from August 2014, Tesla had provided charging for 233 unique vehicles, 764 charges, and enabled over 115,000 miles of range. The supercharging stations provide Tesla vehicles with 170 miles of range in as little as 30 minutes. Tesla provides Model S and X owners with free charging. Tesla's upcoming Model 3 vehicle and future Model S and X owners will have to pay for charging. Davison said the company is planning on doubling the number of stations in the garage to eight.

The four Tesla Supercharing stations in the Uptown Station parking garage. (Christian Prenzler for AdaptBN)

The four Tesla Supercharing stations in the Uptown Station parking garage. (Christian Prenzler for AdaptBN)

Mayor Koos described several scenarios in which Tesla owners said the only reason they stopped in town was to charge at the Superchargers. It appears the sacrifice of four parking spots allows Normal to become a pitstop for Tesla owners around the Midwest.

The Town of Normal expected more local businesses to participate in the EVTown initiative or at least promote it with employees. While some businesses did support the initiative and even purchased electric vehicles, the largest employer in the area, State Farm, did not.

“We really thought that some of the other big employers might find a way to really promote it… we’re dancing around it--State Farm. It’s a huge audience of people and that just wasn’t the route State Farm wanted to go, I guess… I’m sure they had their reasons for not pushing it. But that would have been our most logical way (to push the initiative to the next level),” said Normal Town Planner Mercy Davison. While she didn’t blame the company’s lack of involvement for the missed goals, additional publicity would likely have helped significantly.

As we prepare to begin a new year, it’s important to understand the significant changes in the electric vehicle environment. EV's are becoming more affordable and now have faster charging times and larger ranges. Tesla’s upcoming Model 3 starts at $35,000, charges 170 miles in 30 minutes. On the largest battery pack ($45,000), it has a range over 330 miles. Chevy’s new all-electric Bolt starts at $36,620, charges 90 miles in 30 minutes and has 238 miles of range. The 2018 Nissan Leaf starts at $29,990, charges 88 miles in 30 minutes and has 150 miles of range.

The all-electric Chevy Bolt has seen demand from local buyers. Sam Leman Chevy delivered several pre-order vehicles this fall. Both the sales team and customers have shown a strong interest in the vehicle, said salesman Trent Rarick. The dealership staff undergoes special training on electric vehicle technology in both sales and service. The dealership recently received its first non-preorder Bolt and continues to see customers interested in the technology. But, while certain EV-fanatics purchased the vehicle, traditional dealerships still struggle to sell electric vehicles. Perhaps this is because EVs require less maintenance, traditionally a major source of revenue for dealerships.

Outside of the new long-range EVs, nearly every automaker is investing heavily in the technology. Tesla is building a massive $5 billion battery factory in Nevada. The company expects to deliver hundreds of thousands of Tesla vehicles next year. General Motors is investing billions of dollars in EV technology and is developing twenty all-electric vehicles over the next six years. Volkswagen plans to spend a staggering $84 billion to produce 300 all-electric cars by 2030. Volvo launched a brand new all-electric vehicle, Polestar, and all vehicles produced after 2019 will be either plug-in hybrids or all-electric.

While the Rivian plant is relatively quiet, the company has big plans to bring it back to its glory days. (Christian Prenzler for AdaptBN)

While the Rivian plant is relatively quiet, the company has big plans to bring it back to its glory days. (Christian Prenzler for AdaptBN)

Of course, let’s not forget Rivian’s newly acquired factory, located on the west side of Normal in the complex that housed a Mitsubishi plant until 2015. Rivian expects to put its first vehicle in production by 2020, but hasn't released any additional information. However, they have doubled their headcount, largely from both established automakers and Silicon Valley technology companies. Rivian’s CEO, RJ Scaringe, hinted at big plans for the future and says he appreciates the area’s interest in electric vehicles.

When Normal launched its EVTown initiative in 2011, it was a wild bet on an emerging trend. Looking back, it appears that the transition to electric vehicles is now a matter of when, rather than if. Now the question is, should Normal revisit--and perhaps recharge--the EVTown initiative?

Christian Prenzler