ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
This week, we're talking about cars - electric vehicles or EVs. And today - how a utility company set out to solve this chicken-and-egg problem. Which will come first, millions of EVs that need chargers or millions more charging stations that service EVs? Our story does not unfold in environmentally conscious California or in the liberal Northeast. Rather, it is smack in the middle of the country in the Kansas City area in both Kansas and Missouri.
We're at the home of Tricia Arnold, a retired satellite engineer. She shows us the Nissan Leaf parked in her garage. She used to own a Honda hybrid and a VW diesel. Driving a clean car is clearly important to her.
TRICIA ARNOLD: I just think it's the way it's going to be. And the sooner we all adjust to that idea, the better (laughter).
SIEGEL: Tricia moved to Kansas to take care of two grandsons whose battery-powered toy cars are in the garage, too.
ARNOLD: They have plug-ins just like grandma does (laughter).
SIEGEL: Like most EV owners, Tricia Arnold charges at home. She could recharge the Leaf with ordinary household current. But a full charge would take about 20 hours. So, like many others, she has installed a level-2 charger. It uses the same voltage that runs a clothes dryer. And the charging is up to five times faster. Her Leaf can go about 100 miles on a charge. And she says she is fanatical about plugging in since most of her driving is chauffeuring her grandsons.
ARNOLD: Sometimes, I'll pick them up for school. And they'll say, oh, we want to go to Lawrence and go Pokemon hunting, for instance.
SIEGEL: Lawrence is about 30 miles each way.
ARNOLD: I've got to think, do I have enough charge? Oh, where do I need to go to get a charge? I've only charged outside of the house one time. And I did that yesterday just so that I'd be able to tell you guys that I have charged once outside the house.
ARNOLD: But it happens to be at the park where they like to play. So I just take the kids over to the playground, play for half an hour. And the car's charged.
SIEGEL: At least enough to get home. For other electric car owners in Kansas City, charging is surprisingly easy even when they're not at home. I met Adam Foote and his wife, Sara, in suburban Leawood, Kan.
ADAM FOOTE: We're in the Park Place parking garage. Park Place is a local community. There's a lot of bars and shops. Sara and I were just heading down for a drink. So we figured we'd come here and charge up.
SIEGEL: There are two charging stations here. Each can take two cars. They've parked their Nissan Leaf between a Tesla and a Chevy Volt.
FOOTE: All you really have to do is similar to popping a gas cap. There's a little trigger beneath here. And that opens up the charging port in the front.
SIEGEL: They might spend an hour or so in the bar, which will add 25 miles of range. If the battery is fully charged, Adam gets an alert on his smartphone. Adam and Sara do this a few times a week.
SARA FOOTE: We've adapted our lifestyle. But I'd say that the charging stations - the abundance of them in Kansas City has definitely made it very easy for us.
SIEGEL: Which brings us to the utility, Kansas City Power and Light or KCP&L. The charging stations in this garage are part of KCP&L's Clean Charge Network. It's a project the utility began two years ago to get way out in front of consumer demand. Chuck Caisley is the utility's vice president for marketing and public affairs.
CHUCK CAISLEY: We're awfully excited about the prospect of this kind of transportation. And so we wanted to be catalytic to that.
SIEGEL: At a time when Caisley estimates there were just 400 or 500 electric cars in the area, KCP&L announced it would install 1,000 charging stations at workplaces and apartment buildings, grocery stores, city parking lots, malls, near the baseball and football stadiums. And for the first couple of years, charging would be free. The idea is you charge your car as you would charge your cell phone, plugging in as you go about your daily routine.
CAISLEY: You know, we do customer surveying. And everyone said that if they knew where to charge them, they would get more information, and they would buy. And so that's kind of the seeds that germinated this.
SIEGEL: For the utility, this $20 million project is about clean energy and clean air. But it's also about selling more electricity without having to build more power plants. Chuck Caisley says KCP&L's power grid, built to work on hot summer days when everyone's air conditioning is at full blast, is underutilized 80 percent of the time.
CAISLEY: Customers have already paid for the electrical grid. They've already paid for the power plants that make the electricity. And that cost is divided by the number of units of electricity people use. If you're using more, that drives down the per-unit cost of electricity and benefits everybody.
SIEGEL: Of course, people have to be using a lot more electricity for that to happen.
CAISLEY: When you turn on an additional TV in your home, that's not enough to change that equation. But when you talk about a segment that's maybe as much as 25 to 30 percent of the entire economy and electrifying it, you're talking about a significant amount of increased electricity use, which means we're now using that infrastructure that customers have paid for so much more efficiently.
SIEGEL: And, Caisley says, the electricity they're selling is getting cleaner all the time. Fossil fuels generate a declining share of the area's electricity. Nuclear and renewables account for nearly half of it.
CAISLEY: We just happen to sit in the Saudi Arabia equivalent of wind.
SIEGEL: Wind (laughter).
SIEGEL: KCP&L asked utility regulators in Missouri and Kansas for permission to add a fee, two or three cents a month, to everyone's bill to help pay for the installation and maintenance of the charging stations. Missouri regulators have yet to rule. Kansas regulators said no. They said the utility failed to prove a need for such an extensive network of charging stations. And they said KCP&L didn't make a compelling argument for why it should be taking the lead. David Nickel is with the Kansas state agency that represents the interests of utility customers.
DAVID NICKEL: We think KCP&L is certainly free to roll out whatever clean-car-network program they want. The question becomes whether or not they impose those costs upon a captive consumer. And our take on that is simply not - if KCP&L wants to charge their EV users or, perhaps, their shareholders, that's certainly permissible.
SIEGEL: So you're saying, go ahead and build charging stations. But don't ask the ratepayers to pay for it.
NICKEL: That sizes it up perfectly.
SIEGEL: A version of this played out on a much larger scale in California a few years ago. Initial regulatory resistance there gave way to a legislative mandate to provide infrastructure. Despite the Kansas ruling, KCP&L has moved forward. They're up to 850 of the 1,000 charging stations they've planned. And the other day, an electrical crew was putting up another six stations in a parking garage of a high-end apartment building.
LARRY KINDER: You can see the power coming out of the power panel over here and the conduit running down here.
SIEGEL: Larry Kinder is the founder and CEO of LilyPad EV. He sells, installs and maintains charging stations for customers across the country. His biggest customer by far is KCP&L. In his home office, he can monitor the stations they've sold to see when they're in use and how long they're in use.
KINDER: OK. Station status...
SIEGEL: Here's a measure of their abundance. I watched with him for about an hour around 9 o'clock one morning. Of those 850 charging stations, only about 75 cars were charging. But, he says, he's learned this. If you build it, they will come - and sometimes very quickly.
KINDER: Last week, we installed a charging station at a location. I provisioned it, put it on the network. And not two minutes later, it was in use. Now, that was an employee sitting in their office, watching the electrician do the installation. And he ran out, moved his electric car, plugged it in (laughter) and charged his car. (Laughter) It was wonderful.
SIEGEL: Larry Kinder has driven EVs since before you could buy them commercially. He's already thinking about what's needed next. For road trips that aren't interrupted by long charging stops, you'll need more high-speed or fast chargers that can add, say, 90 miles of range in a half hour. Those are much more expensive to install. KCP&L has installed a handful of them. And other companies have begun to invest along highway corridors.
KINDER: We're a little bit beyond the wild, Wild West. But I think not everything's laid out. This is all still evolving and will still be evolving for 10 years or more.
SIEGEL: The early returns from Kansas City are encouraging for electric cars. It has become one of the fastest growing markets for EVs in the country.
(SOUNDBITE OF POP GUIANA SONG, "STROBO")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.