Plugging In: Electric vehicles slow to take root in northern Michigan

Electric vehicles aren’t exactly flying out the door at Bill Marsh Auto Group.

Co-owner Jamie Marsh says that electric and hybrid cars probably account for less than one percent of the company’s sales.

Marsh says that the Bill Marsh Auto Group has been working to get more experience with electric and hybrid vehicles. In recent years, the company has added several vehicles in these classes to its dealerships throughout northern Michigan. These cars include the Ford C-Max, a compact hybrid; the Chrysler Pacifica, a minivan with a plug-in hybrid version; and the Hyundai Ioniq, a mid-sized car with hybrid, electric and plug-in hybrid options. The all-electric version of the Ioniq is not yet available in the state of Michigan.

However, while Bill Marsh Auto is offering these cars, that doesn’t mean they are hot sellers. For example, Marsh says that the company has sold about 10 Chrysler Pacifica models in the past 18 months. The Ioniq is a little hotter: Bill Marsh sells about four per month.

According to Marsh, there are a few reasons for the slow adoption. Electric and hybrid cars typically cost more upfront than traditional combustion engine vehicles. Gas prices have also been relatively affordable in recent years, which means most consumers aren’t feeling the sting in their wallets that might push them to consider more fuel-efficient vehicles. Marsh also thinks the geography of northern Michigan is not conducive to a plug-in vehicle, given the long stretches of rural land between cities like Traverse City, Cadillac, Charlevoix or Gaylord.

“The big question is, when will hybrids and electrics be a really substantial part of the retail auto business?” Marsh said. “And I don’t know the answer to that. My speculation would be that it’s probably going to be 10 years or more before we can say, ‘Boy, this is really a big chunk of our business.’”

Not that local businesses and organizations aren’t doing their part to push eco-friendly transportation. Numerous local hotels – including the Grand Traverse Resort and Spa, Cambria Suites, Sugar Beach Resort, West Bay Beach Inn and The Inn at Black Star Farms – have invested in charging stations. There are also charging stations in various parking garages, at area car dealerships and also at LochenHeath Golf Club.

Cherryland Electric is an electric vehicle proponent. According to Rachel Johnson, Cherryland’s member relations manager, the electrical cooperative offers $2,000 rebates to customers who purchase an electric vehicle. Similarly, if a member wants to install a Level 2 charging station at their house, Cherryland offers a $500 rebate. Even commercial customers can get $1,000 for each Level 2 charging station they install.

Level 2 charging stations are the norm right now, says Johnson. These stations sit between Level 1 charging and DC Fast Charging (DCFC) on the electric car charging spectrum. Level 1 charging refers to plugging your car into a household outlet. This method takes about 22 hours to deliver a full charge. Level 2 charging demands the installation of a charging station, but cuts the length of a full charge to about eight hours. DCFC stations are the next generation of electric vehicle charging. They cost cost between $30,000 and $40,000, plus additional expenses for infrastructure upgrades and installation. They also demand larger amounts of energy, but can yield an 80 percent charge in 20 to 30 minutes.

Most businesses install Level 2 stations. Johnson says that more and more of Cherryland’s local commercial customers are thinking of going this route, including Great Wolf Lodge and Iron Fish Distillery. Level 2 charging works in cases where drivers know they are going to be able to park and leave their cars for extended periods of time – hence its early adoption at hotels and parking garages.

“If you asked me to make a prediction, I’d say that, rather than seeing our local businesses invest in [DCFC], I think we’re more likely to see [it] happening like a gas station,” Johnson said. “So, there would be a location somewhere that has several … stations, as opposed to expecting our local businesses to build that on their own. The question is, what are the steps that would get us to the point where there is a business case for someone to build that … station, if its only purpose is to be a DC Fast Charging station?”

At the Grand Traverse Resort, there are currently five Level 2 charging stations installed: three Tesla stations and two ChargePoint stations, which are compatible with most other electric car models. According to Jillian Manning, head of public relations for the Resort, the stations see a light amount of use from guests. Since March, the Resort’s ChargePoint account has tracked 127 charge sessions.

Sales are slow globally. In 2017, global sales for electric cars hit 1.1 million. Total worldwide car sales, meanwhile, were at 79 million. Electric cars accounted for just 1.39 percent of the total market.

While higher gas prices could trigger the widespread adoption of hybrid or electric vehicles, Cherryland Electric is hopeful that drivers will consider another benefit of cutting out fossil fuels: environmental sustainability.

“There is no path to a carbon-free transportation future that doesn’t include electric vehicles,” Johnson said. “Today, if you are a Cherryland member and you get rid of your gas car and buy an electric vehicle and start plugging it in, I can cut your carbon footprint in half. So, if you want to talk about how we can have the biggest environmental impact in a generation, it is electrifying our transportation sector.”