As some of San Antonio’s most prominent corporations criticize a climate plan that calls for a transition away from fossil fuels, the announcement of a new electric vehicle charging station doesn’t seem like an event that would draw the enthusiasm of big business.
But that wasn’t the case at a media event announcing a new charging station for electric vehicles at a Walmart on the city’s North Side. At the event, officials with Walmart, one of the world’s largest retailers, joined others from CPS Energy and the City to celebrate a transition toward electric-powered transportation.
“Electric energy with a zero-emission goal is just a natural segue and a natural fit for what we see [as] our business model,” David Drastata, a market manager with Walmart, said in an interview. “This is the future, and we want to be a part of it.”
The station at the edge of Walmart’s parking lot at 4331 Thousand Oaks has six 150-kilowatt and two 350-kilowatt chargers, the first fast direct-current chargers in San Antonio.
The chargers are “the most updated and high-powered chargers that are available on the market,” said Mario Osio, project development manager for station developer Electrify America, a company building charging stations across the United States.
Unlike lower-powered chargers known as Level 1 and Level 2 that take hours to fully charge a vehicle, the Level 3 charging station announced Monday takes “minutes instead of hours
,” to charge a vehicle, Osio said. The new chargers will work only with fully electric vehicles, not plug-in hybrids, he said.
In roughly 50 minutes, Osio said, a customer can park his or her vehicle at the station and get a full charge while shopping. Electrify America charges a $1 “session fee” plus 30 to 35 cents per minute, with a 40-cent-per-minute charge for idling after a vehicle is charged.
CPS Energy is supplying power to the site as part of its efforts to “bring concierge service to the energy business,” Paula Gold-Williams, the municipally owned utility’s president and CEO, told the crowd at the event.
CPS Energy already maintains a network of about 150 Level 2 charging ports around San Antonio. Overall, the city has about 250 similar ports, officials said.
Around 2011, the utility “needed to help seed the market and make sure there were charging stations out there,” so it used federal funding to bring San Antonio its first set of chargers, Gold-Williams said.
Since then, the utility has decided it “really doesn’t want to be in the charging business,” she said.
“We think anybody can get into this business,” Gold-Williams said in an interview. “I think it’s great Electrify America can take this on, but we think that oil and gas companies, particularly ones that do the fueling, can diversify their business by getting into the charging-station business as well.”
The announcement about the new charging station comes at a time when many local institutions are dealing with big questions about the future of energy and transportation in San Antonio. That conflict has swirled around the City’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan, which calls for San Antonio to drastically curtail fossil fuel use.
For Walmart, the new station is already proving to be a money-maker. Drastata told the Rivard Report that customers have been using the stations for about two weeks, even before any formal announcement about them. He compared the implementation of electric vehicle chargers to supermarkets starting to provide gas and diesel service at their stores decades ago.
“It’s had a great spillover effect into our stores,” Drastata said.
Even Councilman Clayton Perry (D10), who has repeatedly criticized the Climate Action and Adaptation Plan, was there to praise the new chargers in his district.
“Technology today is moving so fast,” Perry said from the podium. “We have to embrace that. It’s good for our economy, it’s good for our environment, it’s good for all of us.”
Electric vehicles are a big part of the recommendations in the climate plan, the draft version of which calls for San Antonio to be carbon-neutral by 2050 in part by reducing fossil fuel-powered vehicles on local roads. Vehicles make up 38 percent of the city’s annual emissions of the greenhouse gases that climate scientists say are driving rapid global warming, according to the climate plan.
“There’s a lot of consternation about the [climate plan] right now – residents as well as industry – about the cost of the [plan] and what it’s going to do to individuals’ pocketbooks here in town, along with businesses that may leave,” Perry said last week at a CPS Energy briefing before City Council.
Asked after Monday’s media event whether he had done any research on the economics of this electric vehicle charging station in his district before decided to lend his support, Perry said “no, not at all.”
“I haven’t looked at any costs of this,” Perry said. “But that’s a good point. What are these stations costing us? But there’s a payback as well. … That all needs to be figured into the formula as to what it’s all going to cost us.”
Perry also said his criticism of the climate plan’s lack of detailed financial analysis has to do more with its call for CPS Energy to move away from any technology that emits greenhouse gases by 2050. No one has yet released an analysis of the impact on CPS Energy customers’ bills of moving away from coal and natural gas power plants.
As for the electric vehicle chargers, CPS Energy officials have set what Gold-Williams called a “pilot rate” for the companies that build chargers, such as Electrify America. That’s a monthly charge of $175, plus a $7 “demand charge” per kilowatt-hour. CPS Energy then charges 20 cents per kilowatt-hour from 4 p.m. to 9 p.m. on weekdays and 6 cents per kilowatt-hour for the other parts of the day.
This nearly threefold increase in rates during the late afternoon and early evening are a result of the utility’s peak demand period, the time of day when the gap between electricity supply and demand is the smallest even as the utility works to make sure all its power plants are producing.
Some environmental advocates have said CPS Energy should implement such price signals in its residential and commercial rates, akin to the San Antonio Water System’s method of charging more per gallon of water as a customer’s monthly use goes up. Currently, CPS Energy charges the same price for electricity throughout the day.
Asked about this, Gold-Williams said CPS Energy leaders are concerned about the spike it would cause in the average customer’s bill. Instead the utility is introducing time-of-use rates into one small but growing share of its overall market.
“We think it’s really good to start with a product like this, introduce it, get used to it, hear the pros and cons of it, and over time find ways to introduce it more broadly,” she said.