Published February 12, 2019
A few years ago, Ryan McPherson was one of only a handful of “guinea pigs” on campus who experimented with owning an electric vehicle.
Through a grant from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA), along with funding from UB Facilities, the university installed EV charging stations on the North and South campuses about five years ago.
“Our objective was to see, is there a demand out there,” McPherson, UB’s chief sustainability officer, said during a forum UB Sustainability and Parking and Transportation Services held last week for electric vehicle drivers on campus as the university looks to expand its EV infrastructure.
At first, the charging stations were used on occasion. “And then we just saw a complete explosion. It kind of was an if-you-build-it-they-will-come strategy,” McPherson said.
“The good news is, that strategy worked incredibly well,” he added. “The bad news is, that strategy worked incredibly well. So now we have much more of a demand than we have supply for, so we’re sitting with you today to try to think about what are the next steps we can take to build greater infrastructure and capacity.”
The university is looking to expand and upgrade its electric vehicle infrastructure at a time when EVs are gaining in popularity due to lower price points and greater awareness, as well as improvements that have increased the battery range to as much as 250 miles on a single charge.
Electric vehicles are also one way, among several others, the university can reduce its carbon emissions, McPherson said, pointing out that 87 percent of UB employees commute to campus in single-occupancy vehicles, compared to 44 percent of students. While 35 percent of students use public transportation to get to campus, only 6 percent of faculty and staff do.
Transportation at UB accounts for 21 percent of UB’s carbon emissions, according to university figures. The university has a separate strategy for electrification of UB’s buses, shuttles and facilities fleet.
“We’ve got to change this dynamic,” McPherson said during the forum, which was held in the Student Union Landmark Room and attended by about 20 EV drivers.
When the charging stations were first installed, there were maybe a handful of electric vehicle drivers on campus. Now, however, there are 256 EVs and 140 hybrid vehicles registered via UB’s parking tags for students and employees, according to Chris Austin, director of Parking and Transportation Services.
Those numbers will continue to rise, which is why McPherson and Austin wanted to hear from current and potential EV drivers about the needs the university should consider going forward. And it’s definitely not a “my way or the highway” approach.
“We certainly know that things are not perfect right now and we want to think about how we get better,” McPherson said.
“It’s infrastructure,” said Jason Lasker, associate director of Science and Engineering Node Services at UB. “There are way many more cars here than a year and a half ago.”
“When you put in new stations, do not put them in prime parking spots so that (internal combustion engine) vehicles will not be tempted to park there,” said Maureen Milligan, who works in the Hunter James Kelly Research Institute in the New York State Center of Excellence in Bioinformatics and Life Sciences. “There’s no reason to have them right up front and center, except for handicap accessible ones.”
UB is weighing a variety of options, including adding charging banks on each of its campuses, McPherson said.
That was welcome news to Gunther Kohn, an EV driver and chief information officer in the School of Dental Medicine. “There’s not enough charging stations and they’re all too slow,” Kohn said. “Fast chargers would be really awesome because then you could cut the time down.”
That’s another option the university is considering. High-speed chargers could be installed at the Center for Tomorrow on the North Campus. They would allow EV drivers to pull up and charge their vehicle for a half-hour or 45 minutes — reaching an approximately 80 percent battery charge — while they check email and have a cup of coffee. Then, they park their vehicle on campus for the day.
Another alternative is setting up a bank of slower Level 1 chargers, which would trickle charge a vehicle over an eight-hour work day and wouldn’t require moving it in the middle of the day once charged.
John Atkinson, assistant professor in the Department of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering in the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, has run into that very issue numerous times. “I can’t afford to lose an hour a day searching for a parking spot,” he said.
Atkinson asked what the university plans to do about parking overall, since that ties in to EV use on campus. Austin said the university is looking at the former construction staging area — near the roundabout by Ellicott Complex — as a potential location for additional parking. Before that, however, UB wants to make better use of open parking spaces along the peripheral areas of the North Campus.
Other possibilities include creating a separate parking tag for EV drivers to use while charging, which is what other universities have done, McPherson said.
Forum attendees had mixed views on whether to charge for charging. Right now, it’s free on campus. “I sincerely believe that the university should no longer be subsidizing electricity for a bunch of people that own electric vehicles,” said Atkinson, who suggested a transactional approach.
Others, however, said there’s an incentive to being able to charge an EV on campus, which could encourage more people to consider purchasing an electric vehicle.
In December, UB created an EV working group that includes representatives from Sustainability, University Facilities, Capital Planning, Parking and Transportation Services and the Office of the Controller. The committee will make recommendations to UB leadership.
I'm OK with the chargers being located in less-desirable spots, but the Center for Tomorrow is essentially off campus, and not a good choice. I would be OK with paying for the charge if that made getting more chargers economically feasible.
Faster charging would be great, but any new chargers is a positive.