By Kris McDowell
Plaid Pantry, the Oregon company many know as a neighborhood convenience store, has been exploring electric vehicle (EV) charging for a few years and this past November installed their first EV charging station. Jonathan Polonsky, President & CEO, said that during the first months of operation their goal is to monitor overall reception and customer adoption rate. Within six months, he expects to have a better idea of how they should proceed, including how quickly they will add other charging stations. At a minimum, Polonsky expects they will install one more, possibly at one of their nine locations that offers conventional (gas) fueling. Depending on a variety of factors, they could add one to two per year or possibly even five to six per year.
The company has been around for over 60 years with 106 locations serving the Northwest. Polonsky joined Plaid Pantry 12 years ago and for the last five years has served as CEO. Although he doesn’t own an electric vehicle himself, he has seen the way things are going (toward electric) and was interested in the diversification EV charging could add to the company.
Plaid Pantry purchased the high speed (level 3) charging equipment and is basing the business model on that of their gas fueling stations. They determine cost per kilowatt hour to charge, which in December was $.40. That price was the average going rate at the end of 2023 for high speed chargers like theirs. Just as gas stations tend to have similar prices in a particular area, Polonsky set the price for their EV charging station to be similar to that of other high speed charging stations.
Plaid Pantry’s first EV charging station was installed at their NE Columbia and 60th Ave. location and Polonsky said that in a four to five mile radius of the location, there are just a handful of high speed chargers. The proximity to the Portland airport, which translates to a higher density of electric and ride share (Uber, Lyft, etc.) vehicles, as well as having a slightly larger parking lot than many of their other locations, contributed to the location being selected as the first site.
The first months of operation are not only a time for Plaid Pantry to gauge reaction and use, but also a time for Google and charging apps to validate, and therefore show, it as an EV charging station to users. According to the US Department of Energy, “charging apps can be invaluable for getting the most out of any EV.” The information each app provides varies, with the most important details including whether the charging station is operable, if someone else is currently using it and if it is a level 2 or level 3 charger. Plaid Pantry’s decision to install a level 3 charger makes it more desirable to those with high performance cars, which use power more quickly. Level 3 chargers charge faster than level 2 chargers and can fully charge an EV in an hour.
The power needed to charge an EV is considerable, especially for a level 3 charger. To avoid demand charges from the power company, Plaid Pantry’s system uses a battery between the power source and the charger. Demand charges are similar to surge charges ride sharing companies may institute at times of high demand, a cost that neither Plaid Pantry nor the customer wants to pay. When a car is charging, part of the power comes from the power source and part of it from the battery. The battery is refueled by a trickle charge throughout the day so that it is ready to contribute power when a car is plugged in.
Polonsky contracted Seattle-based Electric Era Technologies, a leader in revolutionizing the world’s EV fast charging infrastructure, for the software, “power node” (battery) and charger, which they source from a third party. A couple of other similar companies were considered, with one not being “a good fit” according to Polonsky and the other not as local as Electric Era, an important consideration for him.
The cost of the EV charging station, which Polonsky estimated at $160,000, was offset in part by a federal tax credit of 30 percent the first year. Although Oregon offers some incentives as well, Plaid Pantry didn’t qualify as those incentives are primarily aimed at residential chargers (level 2 and below). Polonsky said Oregon will be offering more commercial-geared incentives through the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure (NEVI) program in the future. However, the criteria, which includes a requirement of eight parking spaces, to apply for the funding will likely be too high to be feasible for Plaid Pantry.
For now, Plaid Pantry will monitor the number of charging sessions per day, estimated to average about $12 each, and the amount of inside sales that accompany the charging sessions, what Polonsky called the “x-factor.” He said, “If we average eight charging sessions a day, I will feel good about the decision to put the charger in. If we see 12+ sessions, I will move to put another 10-15 units at the stores with the available space.”
Photo by Electric Era.