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Electric vehicle stations around Kansas City, once abandoned by Evergy, are plugging in again

 A Starbucks parking lot in a shopping center hosts an EV charging station. The lot is surrounded by a Jason's Deli and a Main Event store.
A HiON Network EV fast charger at Starbucks, 16521 W. 119th St., Olathe, Kansas. This site is available to the public and delivers a 50-kilowatt charge to all types of electric vehicles.

HiON, a local startup, is taking over Evergy's old fast-charging stations for electric vehicles in the Kansas City area after the power company shut them off more than a year ago.

A Brookside woman recently was shocked to learn that fast chargers for her electric vehicle have gone dead on the Missouri side of the metro.

She raced out to Kansas City International Airport to pick up her boyfriend. Then the two of them, with their “range anxiety” mounting, watched the charge dial on the return trip dip way too low. They slinked back home at low speeds, car heat off, to save juice.

Untold numbers of electric vehicles owners on the Missouri side of the metro have for more than a year had to do without fast chargers set up by Evergy. Most were unaware why. Evergy had pulled the plug on them as the technology became obsolete and state regulators in both Kansas and Missouri told electric utilities to get out of the vehicle charging business.

The disruption is more serious in Missouri, where state officials have put in place some of the lowest subsidies of any state for investors in charging infrastructure.

In Kansas, subsidies are also thin but better, and the chargers west of the state line should be back any day now.

As might be expected in any grand transformation of our basic urban infrastructure, hiccups are to be expected as we navigate the migration from fossil-fuel-powered transport to sustainable electric mobility.

For the roughly 20,000 EV owners in Kansas and Missouri, that hiccup is more pronounced because this region is much slower to embrace EV mania than the West Coast and Northeast.

Five of six fast chargers formerly operated by Evergy on the Kansas side of the metro will be working any day now, as soon as Evergy can install metering and some finishing work, according to Jim Frank.

Frank is the founder of a Shawnee, Kansas, startup, HiON, which will be operating them. The fate of the sixth, at Town Center Plaza in Leawood, will be hammered out in discussions with the property owner.

Nine fast chargers on the Missouri side of the state line might be up and running again starting this summer as new subsidies, currently available in Kansas, kick in, Frank and an Evergy representative said.

For Kansas Citians, the oddity is that their Kansas City Power & Light Co. hometown utility, now known as Evergy, went all in honeycombing the metro with EV chargers years ago.

The company proudly announced its “build it and they shall come” approach to electric transport. The program was much more aggressive than many of its sister utilities in areas where public concern about climate change was more intense than in middle America.

The result? The EV fast-charging equipment deployed early on locally has become obsolete, according to Nick Voris, Evergy’s senior manager of electrification products and services.

“Most public charging stations communicate with a network that allows the stations to accept and process customer payments, remotely monitor station status, etc.,” Voris explained. “These stations communicated via the 3G cellular network, which was shut down nationally.  Given their age, the charging station manufacturer decided to forego development of a hardware upgrade option that would allow the stations to communicate via the 4G cellular network.  Consequently, the service life of these stations — which entered service in 2014 — ended with the 3G network.”

According to one EV charging expert, utilities nationally have shied away from engaging in the charging business. Less than 2% of chargers in America are now owned by utilities, according to Loren McDonald of EVAdoption.

Frank, in a wide-ranging interview with Flatland, said his HiON is a small company with a staff of about a dozen and big ambitions. He has worked for 35 years in electrical contracting and built and supplied technology upgrades to telecom cell towers.

HiON has plans to develop “thousands” of EV chargers, primarily in EV-loving states such as Colorado, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Florida.

“We’ve been talking to Evergy for quite a while,” he said. “At multiple sites, equipment is fading. We agreed to upgrade. We are waiting for Evergy to add meters. We don’t have power turned on.” The stations in Kansas are expected to be turned on soon. But “that’s up to Evergy,” Frank said.

The HiON chargers now being installed will deliver 50 kilowatts of energy for customers who will typically charge for between 10 minutes and one hour while they shop, eat out or see a movie. “My guess is there will be an average of $10 to $12 per charging session,” he said.

Many high-speed chargers are deployed along interstates where they can provide EV drivers with 150 miles to 200 miles of driving range in about 30 minutes for $20 to $25, Frank said.

The delay in reviving the Evergy fast chargers in Missouri is a result of state officials just this month issuing the incentives they will provide to private operators opening fast charge sites, he said.

Evergy said that the Missouri subsidies will become available in April while in Kansas they were launched a year ago.

Compared to other states, Missouri’s offering along with Kansas’ are “on the extreme low end,” Frank said. In some instances, Colorado will provide as much as $140,000 worth of subsidies per site for EV chargers, Frank said.

“It’s problematic,” he said. But it reflects the relatively slow pace of electric vehicle sales in this part of the country. Even so, Frank said that as a native of Kansas City, he wants to make sure there are fast chargers available locally.

Kansas offers subsidies of $20,000 per site, while Missouri offers the lower of either $20,000 or 40% of the total cost, Frank said. He declined to say what his typical cost is but indicated that other states and utilities in other regions offer much richer subsidies than are available locally.

“We are very purposeful where we place a multi-decade asset,” he said. “We put a lot of work into it before we talk to a utility.”

There may be a risk to those developing charging infrastructure as the technology rapidly improves.

“My guess is that it’s going to have incremental improvement,” he said. Frank said companies like HiON will thrive as the interface improves between utilities and the electric grid on one side and electric vehicle owners on the other.

Voris of Evergy said his company will work closely with fast charge developers to make sure that the public gets the charging services it will need.

“They need to understand the utility upgrades that are needed,” Voris said. “We will be consulting and providing information.”

Evergy’s culture and business model are evolving along with the growing electrification of transportation and other corners of our economy. Voris said his unit within the utility, transportation electrification, was formed three years ago and has three people reporting to him.

A few years ago, Evergy worked with Nissan to help first-time EV buyers buy a Leaf. It also helped sponsor EV owner parties to build camaraderie among the city’s early adopters. The ranks of EV owners have grown so rapidly that those kinds of social gatherings are fast becoming a distant memory.

“I don’t see a lot of parties in our future,” Voris said.

Federal subsidies for EV ownership have mitigated the need for utility-run programs, Voris said.

“We want to support our customers who are looking to electrify,” he said. “I’m not going to sell you an electric car. But when it comes (on the grid) we want it to do so in a grid friendly way. We started from the bottom with zero EVs seven years ago. We have over 16,000 now. We expect to have 130,000 by the close of the decade.”

By any yardstick, a revolution in transport is well underway. And a charging station near you should soon reopen.

This story was originally published by Flatland, a fellow member of the KC Media Collective.

Martin Rosenberg is an energy journalist based in Kansas City and hosts the “Grid Talk” podcast on the future of electricity.
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