Talking EV charging & infrastructure at DTNA's Electric Island

Talking EV charging & infrastructure at DTNA’s Electric Island

About a year ago, Daimler Trucks North America opened what it refers to as a “heavy-duty electric truck charging site, called ‘Electric Island'” in Portland, Ore. The goal of Electric Island is to help accelerate the development, testing and deployment of zero-emissions commercial vehicles. A year later, that hasn’t changed, but the team has learned an awful lot about what it takes to successfully run electric vehicles, as well as the necessary EV environment surrounding them.

Located across the street from DTNA headquarters, Electric Island opened with eight vehicle charging stations, the majority of which are now available for public use for the charging of electric cars, buses, box vans and semi-trucks. These charging stations aren’t simply DTNA’s own Detroit-branded chargers, mind you; the company consciously made the decision to feature chargers from a variety of companies in this space. The site is built to immediately provide charging for EVs of all shapes and sizes, and has allowed DTNA to study energy management, charger use and performance, and, in the case of DTNA, its own vehicles’ charging performance. It’s a true proving ground for both the variety of charging stations and the physical space laid out to supply them.

On this episode of The Amped EV Podcast, we wanted to see this island for ourselves. So, we tracked down Nate Hill, DTNA director of zero-emission vehicle infrastructure & econsulting, who we’ve dubbed our “first on-location correspondent,” to give us a little tour and tell us a bit more about what the company has learned with a year of electric island living under its belt.

Here’s a transcript from the show:

David Sickels: Hello and welcome to the Amped EV Podcast. My name is David Sickels. I am the editor of The Buzz.

Jason Morgan: And I am Jason Morgan, content director for Fleet Equipment. And David, we’re going to jump right into it today because this is cool.

David Sickels: This is going to be cool.

Jason Morgan: Yes. Yes. We are going to connect with Nate Hill. Nate Hill is the Director of Zero Emission Vehicle Infrastructure and E-consulting at Daimler Truck North America. He is out at their electric island, so they put it in this electric charging location for medium and heavy-duty trucks. And we have him on location. We are going to go direct to him.

David Sickels: This is the first time we’ve ever done anything like this.

Jason Morgan: First time.

David Sickels: This is going to be great. I’m really excited.

Jason Morgan: It’s very cool. Here we go. Hey, Nate. Thanks for taking the time. This is super cool. You are out at the electric island in Portland. Show us around. Can you take us around? What are we seeing here and give us some of the equipment rundowns on the island over there.

Nate Hill: Yeah. Jason, great to be here with you. And I will take you on a tour of our electric island here in Portland, Oregon. Right in front of our north American headquarters for Daimler Truck North America. The electric island was an idea we came up with a few years ago and we approached our local utility to do a collaboration. And, our goal was to set up a public charging site that was suitable for commercial vehicles and really in the U.S., as far as we know, as far as I know, the very first site of its kind, where you can bring commercial vehicles in a public setting and charge here. Let me just do a quick tour here. If you look over here, down that road, we have a feeder line underground, and we pull power from that, about five megawatts worth of power, into a junction box here.

That power comes underground over to these transformers over behind this side, and then runs over from the transformers where the power’s converted from high voltage AC down into a usable 480 volts and runs into our power garden, which is the area behind the fence over there. I won’t take you into the power garden, but back there I’ll describe some of the things you would see there, which is a couple of switch gears, the big breaker boxes, where you could flip the power on and off for the whole site. And, then some power inversion units back there where you’re converting from AC electrical power to DC power. And, then that power comes out here to the dispensers. Let me show you where the vehicles come in.

Jason Morgan: Yeah. The magic happens.

Nate Hill: We put a lot of effort. That’s where the magic happens for sure. And we put a lot of effort into making sure that the vehicles can flow through this site easily. You can imagine if you’re driving a big Class 8 vehicle; you can hear some of them be in the background here. These big Class 8 vehicles with a 53-foot trailer, [they’re] not easy to charge at existing public charging sites now. In fact, I had an opportunity with a colleague to drive one of our Class 8 vehicles from Portland down to California when we were delivering one of our test vehicles to a customer down there. And, we used existing public charging all the way down. That was a difficult situation. Driving the vehicle was wonderful, but trying to pull into parking lots and downtown areas to get a top off on the vehicle that was less than ideal, and really one of the reasons we were so inspired to build a site like this.

We have room for four different vehicles to pull through, commercial vehicles to pull through at the same time, four lanes. And you could put a fifth in there, as well. And these are full pull-through lanes. We didn’t want to have a situation where you’re ever needing to back up a Class 8 or even Class 6 commercial vehicle. Wanted to have that easy ingress, easy exit from the site. We have quite a few different chargers set up here. And, if you scanned by and look at those chargers here, you’ll notice that they’re all different models. And, there’s a few reasons for that. The site was set up for a few reasons. One of those was to test many different charging models with our vehicles and make sure that we work out all the bugs and interoperability issues with those vehicles so that our customers had confidence that the vehicles would work with a variety of different chargers.

Also, doing some benchmarking and wanted to demonstrate to our customers the variety of chargers that they have available to them. Currently, we have eight different charger models represented here and different brands that you would recognize. I won’t go over all those brands, but different ones that you’d recognize as leaders in the industry. And we have room to put in seven more, and we have a few more coming in the next months from different manufacturers of charging equipment. And, we’ll be installing those and doing the same sort of tests that we’ve done on these chargers here.

Jason Morgan: Nate, two quick questions for clarification. In terms of the brand of charger, I know Detroit offers its chargers with its e-consulting. Are you saying that you have a lineup of different charger brands there and that they’re all able to charge the trucks?

Nate Hill: Yeah, that’s correct. We do have our Detroit E-Fill branded charger. This is a collaboration of electronics that we offer to our customers and many of our customers choose those chargers. And it’s very well designed and compatible with our vehicles, but there’s infrastructure out there already that some of our customers have, and they have different chargers. And, so we need to make sure that our vehicles work, not just with our own chargers, but with the other charger brands out there as well.

David Sickels: Very interesting. When I’m pulling into this island, do I need to have a DTNA-branded vehicle? Can any fleet vehicle park here and charge? Does it have to be a fleet vehicle? Could it be a consumer-branded vehicle?

Nate Hill: Yeah, that’s a great question. We designed this site to be open to the public and available to anyone who wants to charge here, as long as they’re using either the CCS1 or the CHAdeMO charging protocols. And, so that includes commercial vehicles. That includes not just the Daimler-branded commercial vehicles, but any of the models out there that use one of those two charging standards. And it’s open to the public. If you have a passenger car, you could pull in here and charge. And, in fact, most of the charging sessions we see today are passenger vehicles coming in with their smaller vehicles and they enjoy the wide lanes, easy access, and never having to back up just the same. Yeah, certainly open to the public for all uses.

Jason Morgan: What kind of charge times are we talking about with the different charges? You got the EM2 back there, the Freightliner EM2. How long is the truck sitting there typically? What’s the use case for the island?

Nate Hill: Yeah, we use the island for different things. Sometimes a truck will come in here and just top off, get a little additional range, so that it can continue doing its testing. Other times, it’ll stay overnight and hook up to one of the 50 kilowatt chargers, charge overnight, and then deploy in the morning. Sometimes we use it just for testing, so they’re here for five minutes, two hours, depending on how long it takes to do a particular test. The charger sizes vary here, anywhere from a 20 kilowatt charger, DC fast charger, all the way up to 350 kilowatts right now. And, then in the future, we’ve protected in the architecture of the site for this, we will have megawatt charging available at this site as well.

Jason Morgan: Well, and I did want to touch on that too, because you said that there is room to put a fifth lane in and you have seven more chargers that you can put in. Was that in the original plan? Did you plan for that scalability? That’s an issue that a lot of fleet customers are trying to deal with right now. How do you plan for that kind of growth?

Nate Hill: Yeah, we did a few things at this site knowing that we wanted that flexibility and some scalability. The first thing we did when we brought power into the site, I mentioned we brought in up to five megawatts from the feeder lines here. If you look at the transformers though, those transformers are undersized for that five megawatts right now, but the vault underneath and the box underneath where the connections are made to support the transformers, those were oversized, so that in the future, when we do need that full capacity, we can have the utility, Portland General Electric [can] come and drop a new transformer on with minimal effort. There’s some effort there, no doubt, to retrofit the site, but we try to minimize the amount of construction that would be needed to retrofit or upgrade the site. Few other things we did was we put in trenches.

Instead of just your more common trench, where you’re digging, putting in conduit and covering it with dirt; we have trenches precast in cement with a cap on it. We can lift up that cap, run new conduit, run new cables, and get more capacity at the site that way. Also, underneath the chargers, each of the chargers was installed, not bolted directly to the cement, but on a steel plate that’s removable. And we could take off the charger. We could take out those plates and cut in a new bolt pattern for a new model of charger. And, that simplifies the whole process from that perspective, as well. We never want to cut or dig up cement or asphalt if we don’t have to. We put in these features early on to protect for that. If it comes to expanding the number of lanes, that’s a little bit more difficult. We are constrained by land here. The location of this site was chosen to be close to our headquarters and that’s going to be an ongoing constraint that always has to be dealt with is the availability of land.

Jason Morgan: Right. Right. For sure. Well, and zooming out, taking a little bit of a larger look here, DTNA recently announced a $650 million investment and partnership with Next Era Energy Resources and BlackRock Renewable Power to establish a nationwide charging network for medium- and heavy-duty trucks. It sounds like you’ve learned a lot of lessons here at this electric island being able to pull the trucks all the way through, scalability. Do you see this being a blueprint for those nationwide locations or what other lessons have you pulled that you can take to that project?

Nate Hill: Yeah, it’s a great question. And certainly one of the reasons we wanted to do this site as early as possible is so that we can gain the information and knowledge, the experience of putting a site like this in, and we have learned some things from the ingress and egress of the vehicles at the site, from the way you lay out the site, the sort of features that you put into the site to make sure that you can retrofit and upgrade in the future at minimum cost. All those things will be taken forward in this proposed joint venture with BlackRock and with Next Era Energy when we go and build these sites out in a bigger way across the nation. And, we’ll continue to learn. And folks mentioned that this might be a blueprint. I think we’ve learned enough now after doing this site, that the future sites will certainly carry some of these features forward, but not all of them. As an example, quite often, we really wish we had a canopy and we don’t have a canopy out here.

And, that’s something that we anticipated we might need, and now we know for sure. Yeah. We definitely want to have a canopy. Those types of things we’ll learn. Also, just in the way that we interact with the folks who are pulling into the site, how can we communicate with them, not just after they’ve pulled into a lane and started to interact with the chargers, but ahead of time? How can we not just instruct them ahead of time to pull into a certain lane if they want a certain charge and maybe a reservation system as well. Lots of lessons learned to this point. We will continue to learn and [we’re] also learning a lot about interoperability standards and there’s a lot of standards out there and they’re pretty well defined, but there’s a lot of flexibility in the interpretation of those standards, which can create problems and a less than ideal charging experience at times. We’re working through those and all of those lessons will be carried forward into this joint venture, as well.

David Sickels: Nate, you mentioned the canopy. Is that mainly to help against the weather, things like that, or is that also with ideas in mind, like incorporating solar?

Nate Hill: Yeah. Solar certainly can be incorporated that way. And, we have different ideas about how best to incorporate solar in our sites going forward, but the canopy serves multiple purposes, protection from weather, for sure, just comfort for those who are using the site. And, then also all these chargers have screens on them, or most of them have screens on them, and sun glare is a real issue. Maybe not as much in Portland because we get a lot of nice cloud cover that helps us with that. But, in other sites that can be a real issue at times. And, it also just protects the chargers themselves from weathering, and it can extend the life of the chargers by protecting them from some of the weather events.

David Sickels: How do you see future nationwide charging network sites impacting the application of battery electric trucks that are maybe tied to regional or return-to-home application?

Nate Hill: As we look this year to deploy our first vehicles, production vehicles, out in the wild, there’s not a lot of public charging sites. And, so our customers are primarily relying on infrastructure installed in their own depots, private infrastructure to support those needs. And, in the future, I think you’ll start seeing that shift as more public charging is available. As the charging speeds increase significantly, then customers will be able to, and will rely more heavily on public charging. That won’t always mean that they won’t have private charging as well. As an example, you can think of many applications where they would charge all night on a slow charger, maybe a 20 or a 40 kilowatt charger during the night.

And then during the day, mid-shift, stop off at a public charging site where they can at least extend their range, if not extend, replenish their batteries completely to go about their route. And, so, we see a hybrid of those situations, a mixture, and in some cases when we do get the speeds up high enough and get into the megawatt charging level of charging speeds, there’ll be applications where you only rely on public charging and trying to get that charge time well under an hour, so that it’s not disruptive to your shift or to your route.

Jason Morgan: Right. Right. For sure. For sure. Nate, this has been incredible. Thank you so much for bringing us to your electric island. I think you get the award for the first on-location correspondent here on Amped. We really appreciate it. This has been a blast. We’ve learned a ton. Thank you so much for taking the time.

Nate Hill: Thank you. I enjoyed it as well. Thank you, David and Jason, very much.

Jason Morgan: Oh, man. So cool.

David Sickels: That was awesome.

Jason Morgan: There were trucks there. They were charging. A couple of things, really cool how they had a bunch of different chargers there, right? Not just Detroit. They had a slew of them.

David Sickels: I just assumed it would be all Detroit-branded chargers.

Jason Morgan: Right.

David Sickels: But it’s really interesting to hear, they are trying to advance this industry. They’re collecting this data, sharing it with their charging partners, trying to work out the kinks, trying to make sure that these fleets are comfortable with all these different brands of chargers. I think that’s really, really smart of them.

Jason Morgan: Dude. I am amped.

David Sickels: I am also amped.

Jason Morgan: I am so amped.

David Sickels: I am more amped than I’ve been in a long time. This is great.

Jason Morgan: Yeah. It’s so cool to see it. All those little things, being able to pull the truck through, because you always see, even not too long ago, we had an episode where a car was charging and it’s sitting at the bank. I took the picture. Yeah. That would not be possible for a truck. You got to rethink-

David Sickels: Yeah.

Jason Morgan: … Your commercial charging experience.

David Sickels: The pull through. Really thinking about the infrastructure beyond just, I’ve got to install this charging station.

Jason Morgan: Right.

David Sickels: You’re thinking about it from a driver’s point of view, from your fleet’s point of view, as far as how quickly can I get these trucks in and out? Another really smart move by DTNA.

Jason Morgan: Right, right. Very cool. Very cool. Well, that was awesome.

David Sickels: That was great.

Jason Morgan: We are both amped.

David Sickels: I’m amped. Legitimately.

Jason Morgan: Yeah. No, that was exciting. Thanks for watching everyone. We will see you next time.

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