Just over 10 years ago Western Michigan University unveiled its first four electric vehicle charging stations. By 2014 it had a total of 22 chargers, prompting a British publication to rank the university as the fourth most “electric vehicle-friendly” campus in the United States. But a WMUK investigation found that Western has not kept up with maintenance for the chargers and that the ones that are left are no longer reliable. This story has been updated with additional information about WMU's contract with a private company called ChargePoint.
Over the last decade, some electric vehicle chargers on campus wore out and were scrapped for parts. The total number of chargers dropped to 14. Now, on some days, half or more of those charging stations are out of service.
Driving around campus one recent afternoon I found five stations that charged my vehicle. The most common problem when they don’t work is that the nozzle on the charging station won’t release. That means it can’t be plugged in to charge a car.
“We’re finding now we are at that point of entropy where those first generation of chargers has sort of aged out. They’re breaking and we can’t fix them and we can’t get parts and we’re running out of our own parts,” said Jeff Spoelstra, the director of the Office for Sustainability. “We’re at that point of ‘okay, now what?’”
A $700,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Energy in 2012 paid for most of WMU’s electric vehicle chargers. That investment inspired Carla Koretsky, the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, to buy a used electric Smart ForTwo 3-years ago.
“The chargers by Miller were actually on my regular running route and I was like, ‘hmm, I wonder how this works?’” Koretsky said. “That was a definitely a factor in my decision to get an electric car was the fact that it would be super convenient to charge right on campus. I had assumed that you would have to pay to charge and then when I looked into it and realized that it was actually free to charge, it was even more of a bonus.”
Just before the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown campus, Koretsky said she noticed more and more electric cars and plug-in hybrids competing for chargers. At the same time, many of the of the chargers near the Miller parking garage stopped working. As dean, she was one of a handful of essential workers with an electric car who remained on campus during much of the pandemic.
“Up until now I’ve never had a problem. I’ve always been able to get a slot if I wanted one,” she said. “I do wonder, as people come back and more of them are in use, if we will start to see a capacity issue.”
That’s likely. As Koretsky noted, several chargers near Miller had stopped working before the pandemic. Some simply broke or aged out, but others stopped working because WMU stopped paying fees to ChargePoint, a private company contracted to service the chargers. ChargePoint did not do nuts-and-bolts maintenance for the stations, but rather, provided network and data services for them.
“We, as a university, made the choice to not subscribe to the annual fees for individual stations some years ago,” said Spoelstra. “The stations at the time continued to work, they just simply weren’t on the ChargePoint digital network. We also became ineligible for assistance from ChargePoint because we weren’t subscribed.
“It makes sense, right? Looking back in time it would have been great if we had pulled all the financial resources together and subscribed over all those years for those chargers. But we didn’t, and now we’re at that point of old chargers aging out, no subscriptions paid, so we don’t have many options.”
At least five charging stations that can service ten cars at the same time could be brought back online, but Western would have to resume paying annual service fees to ChargePoint. That would cost at least $5500 for a five-year commitment.
When the program began with the grant from the U.S. Department of Energy, Jeff Spoelstra handled the data. He said not many people used the chargers at first. But that eventually changed.
“We came out of the gate strong. We had more chargers than users and then 5-years later we were at saturation. And now we’re in a harder place, which is entropy. And we’re at a point, we have to decide on reinvestment,” he said.
As people return to campus in a couple of weeks, Spoelstra said several groups are working together to look for solutions. Specifically, he said they are looking for funding to replace or fix the chargers and address another goal: to electrify Western’s vehicle fleet.
“Solving this problem has not been something that anyone’s been working on during COVID,” said Spoelstra. “But with the fall semester about to kick-off and I know students are going to come back to campus, new students are going to show up with electric vehicles. I would love to be able to offer a whole lot of options for them.”
Spoelstra said he’s heard from several of Western’s electric car drivers. Many have expressed the same idea that Koretsky had to help get WMU back online.
“If it came to it and I had to pay to charge on campus, I would prefer that to having no charging on campus,” said Koretsky. “If it is an issue of becoming cost prohibitive because Western has been covering all the costs, it wouldn’t be a problem for me to pay some out-of-pocket. I think it would still be far less expensive than a gasoline engine car would be.”
“It’s definitely possible,” said Spoelstra, “and I think it will be a part of whatever we decide to do in the next few years.”