Washington Electric: can EVs drive tourism?

EV Update’s US correspondent Mary Catherine O’Connor hits the road in a Nissan Leaf. Here’s the first of two pieces about her experience on Washington’s electric highway, and the impacts of EVs on tourism.

It all started at a solar energy conference. Ron Johnston-Rodriguez, who at the time was the director of economic development for the Port of Chelan County, Washington, met a couple of solar industry professionals who were also experts in the burgeoning field of electric vehicles (EVs).

This led Johnston-Rodriguez to consider whether his hometown of Wenatchee, Washington, with its bountiful and cheap electricity generated by numerous hydroelectric plants along the Columbia River, might be a fitting place for widespread EV development and use.

“At the time, I didn’t think pure EVs would take off, even to the degree that they have today. I thought it would be mostly plug-in hybrids. But I thought, these could really work in Wenatchee”, he notes.

Now, thousands of phone calls, emails, and meetings later, Johnston-Rodriguez has become a driving force in making Wenatchee, Washington, an EV hotspot in the US.

Johnston-Rodriguez leads the Plug-In Center, which was established in 2006 in order to help make North Central Washington a center for research, development, demonstrations, information, education, and community-wide deployment of electrified vehicles.

Today, EVs are becoming a vital element in the city’s and the wider Wenatchee Valley region’s efforts to stoke tourism, as I learned during a recent visit to the region.

In mid-June, the Washington Department of Transportation, together with the West Coast Green Highway (http://www.westcoastgreenhighway.com/ ) project, unveiled four new level 3 (direct current) EVs fast chargers along the Stevens Pass Scenic Byway.

These cover the section of US Highway 2 that links Wenatchee with Seattle, Washington, up and over the 4,000-foot Stevens Pass summit.

The chargers make the Wenatchee Valley an attractive new roadtrip destination for the approximately 1,850 plug-in electric vehicle owners who live in Washington State – most of whom live in the Seattle area.

Using only level 2 chargers, the 140-mile drive would require drivers of most EVs to make at least two multi-hour charging stops, making it an untenable vacation journey.

But with the new level 3 chargers, the two-and-a-half-hour drive in a gasoline car is now a four or five hour journey in an EV.

“We get upwards of 3 million people a year traveling to this part of the state”, says Johnston-Rodriguez.

“Seventy percent of them are from Seattle, and ten percent of all the jobs in our region and our county are related to tourism. We knew that we needed to focus on getting EV drivers from Seattle, which is one of the major cities in the country for electric vehicles.”

The ground work
The West Coast Green Highway project was conceived as a way to help connect Seattle and other towns and cities along Interstate 5, the major north-south corridor that connects all many cities – as well as the Canadian and Mexican border cities – on the West Coast of the U.S.

Johnston-Rodriguez saw an opportunity to leverage the West Coast Green Highway project and create an east-west extension of the level 3 chargers along the Stevens Pass Scenic Byway.

The project took two years and the cooperation of many stakeholders, he says, but the value proposition of developing the extension was clear.

With rates as low as 3 cents per kilowatt hour, cheap electricity is one the region’s greatest assets and it makes it a natural area for electric vehicle use.

With a growing regional wine industry, two nearby ski areas, a strong agriculture-tourism presence and access to tremendous outdoor recreation opportunities, the Wenatchee Valley is already a draw for tourism.

The hope is that offering a strong EV charging infrastructure over the Stevens Pass Scenic Byway will make the Wenatchee Valley an especially appealing vacation destination for Seattle’s EV drivers.

“I think it's going to start slowly and then build from there”, says Marcia Janke, the tourism director of the Wenatchee Valley Visitor's Bureau.

We have larger and larger groups of people who are interested in EVs and in saving energy, she notes. The chargers provide them with a way to get from Seattle to the east of the state that “was not available before”, she says.
“They can hop in their electric car, drive over the mountains, they have places to charge them up, they can run around to wherever they want to go and then get home safely and with plenty of charge. They know that they are going to be able to get here and back.”

Accommodating driver needs
Pulling into Leavenworth’s Sleeping Lady Resort, one doesn’t expect to see EV chargers among the groves of aspen trees set against a background of rocky mountain peaks.

These two ChargePoint chargers are what brought me to the mountain resort, where I stayed during my road trip in a Nissan LEAF.

At the vanguard of green and sustainable hotels, the Sleeping Lady was the first resort in Eastern Washington to offer its guests EV chargers when it installed the devices in August, 2011.

“We installed the chargers to support the EV movement to support our environmental commitment and to attract EV drivers, as they are our demographic”, says Lori Vandenbrink, Sleeping Lady Resort director of sales and marketing.

Thus far, she adds, only about a dozen visitors have used the chargers, but the new high-speed chargers along the Stevens Pass Scenic Byway are expected to bring many more EV drivers to the resort.

Twenty-two miles to the east, near downtown Wenatchee, the Spring Hill Suites by Marriott sits at a busy intersection. Its modern architecture and detailing conveys a forward-thinking approach to lodging and this is amplified by the level 2 chargers, made by Schneider Electric.

“This hotel is one of the greenest in the Marriott line”, says the property’s general manager, Felicia McAbee.

“So EV charging stations were a perfect fit. Also, our clientele is one that can afford EVs, which are not inexpensive. So we felt it was very important to install them for our guests as an amenity. It is something that we offer as a benefit to staying with us.

She says the chargers were installed in May and since then three guests have used the chargers, which is actually more than she expected to see in the near term, given the very low percentage of EVs on US roads and the fact that the hotel has done very little advertising about the chargers.

Two of the guests came to the hotel expressly because of the EV chargers. “They came here, they plugged in and then they asked ‘OK, what's there to do’?” explains McAbee.

Mapping the success
Since they were switched on in mid-June, the four level-3 charging stations along Highway 2 have been used more than 200 times, charging batteries with more than 1,402 kWh of electricity and diverting the consumption of around 137 gallons of gasoline.

The Nissan LEAF I drove in reporting this story is among the cars that have plugged in to these chargers, making me one of the relatively lucky few drivers (so far) to enjoy a tailgate-emissions-free road trip from Seattle to Leavenworth and back.  

It is too soon to tell whether or how much the new level 3 chargers will succeed in attracting EV drivers to the Wenatchee Valley region (including Leavenworth).

Certainly, more EV models coming to market in the coming years should boost the currently paltry number of EV drivers in and around Seattle.

But there will be some technical hurdles to consider, such as the lack of level 3 charging input in the new, first generation Ford Focus EV.

The idea of using a charging infrastructure to attract the growing niche of EV drivers, however, is catching on in Washington.

In the short time since the chargers have been installed along Highway 2, stakeholders in nearby tourism destinations have started considering how extending the charging infrastructure into their communities might serve their tourism efforts, as well.

The Cascade Loop is a 400-mile driving tour that encompasses the Stevens Pass Scenic Byway but also includes parts of the San Juan Islands in Puget Sound, as well as the Methow Valley and the mountainous North Cascades National Park.

Annette Pitts, the executive director of the Cascade Loop Association, says that one of her mandates is to not only attract tourists to the towns along the Cascade Loop, but also to entice them to spend time in those towns.

Courting EV drivers will do that by default, since even with level 3 charging, there is still a built-in down time while the cars charge up.

“I want people to get onto the Cascade Loop and then I want them to get out of their cars, and to go into the businesses, meet the locals, support the economic development, and get out and get some fresh air. They can go have dinner, find a family farm. There are so many interesting things to do around the Cascade Loop”, Pitts says.

Building a charging infrastructure around the entire loop of highways would also cast the tourism industry as forward-looking.

“It is going to bring a whole new demographic of traveler to the loop”, says Pitts.

“Electric vehicles are important not only to our present modes of transport but also to how we could be moving ourselves along in the future … The world is changing and we need to change with it.”

Mary Catherine O’Connor (www.mcoconnor.com) is an independent journalist, covering transportation and other energy-related topics.

To comment on this article, please contact the editor at: oliver.balch@evupdate.com