Caltrans’ New DCFC Stations: Charging the Way it should be

By Paul Gipe

This is the way fast charging a non-Tesla EV should be. Pull up, plug in, tap a few numbers on an easily readable screen and start charging. Easy peasy. No RFID card, no credit card, no app. Plug in and go.

That’s what we found on one of our recent Covid-19 escapes when we needed to charge at a new Caltrans DCFC station in Kettelman City on our way back to Bakersfield. We pulled up, plugged in, and then simply keyed in our phone number on one of the two charging kiosks at Caltrans’ maintenance yard.

That this is noteworthy says something about the state of intercity travel with a non-Tesla EV in the great green state of California. We’ve been driving electric for more than seven years and this is one of the simplest systems for charging we’ve encountered.

As with most things EV related, Tesla has done it right from the get go with their Supercharger network. Tesla cars communicate with the great Tesla in the sky. Drivers don’t need to fumble for their phones or other paraphernalia. They plug in and go for a cup of coffee.

Caltrans’ Kettleman City station is one of nine the state’s department of transportation opened at the end of January 2021 in the Central Valley. Most stations include two charging kiosks (dispensers), though Caltrans installed four kiosks at the busy rest area on I-5 in the Tejon Pass. (Unfortunately, they are only on the southbound side of the freeway. Northbound travelers must exit and loop over the freeway to access the kiosks.)

The stations at highway rest areas offer some amenities, including toilets and vending machines. Other locations do not. The station at the park-and-ride lot east of Bakersfield on Highway 58 has no shelter, toilets, or anything else but a trash-strewn parking area.

Similarly, Caltrans Kettleman City station offers no amenities, but it does have lighting for use at night. For that alone non-Tesla drivers can be thankful.

Again, the contrast with Tesla is striking. Some of Tesla’s bigger superchargers in California, such as the one in Kettleman City offer covered parking, toilets, and a barista in the customer lounge—or they did before Covid-19 hit.

Caltrans $4.5 million Central Valley project was funded by the state and the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District. It was part of Caltrans 30-30 program begun under the Jerry Brown administration to install DCFC stations at all of California’s highway rest areas and district offices.

For example, Caltrans District 5 has completed several novel fast-charging stations. They’ve installed a single solar-powered kiosk at each Camp Roberts rest areas on Highway 101. The Monterey Bay Air Resources Board chipped in $1.2 million to the project, which includes long-term system maintenance by ChargePoint.

District 5’s ChargePoint kiosks are limited to charging at a maximum of 30 kW when there’s sufficient charge in the solar-powered station’s battery. While not ideal, it’s adequate—unless the battery is drained. Then you’re simply out of luck.

In contrast, the Central Valley stations use 125-amp BTCPower kiosks that are capable of charging non-Tesla EVs at about 43 kW rain or shine.

Though each kiosk or dispenser in the Caltrans program has two cables, only one vehicle can charge at a time using either the CHAdeMO standard for Japanese cars, or the CCS standard for German and American cars.

Tesla vehicles can use the chargers with a special adapter.

Because of restrictions on how federal highway funds can be used, Caltrans can’t bill for the cost of charging. That is, charging is free with no time limits. This could pose a problem in the future. Some drivers have been known to abuse free charging when it’s been available, though it seems unlikely someone would want to hang around a Caltrans rest area just to get a cheap charge.

The outlook for Caltrans’ District 9 DCFC stations is finally looking up. Originally intended to be complete by mid 2019, the long-awaited stations on the East Side of the Sierra Nevada on the Highway 395 corridor are still not operational. However, Caltrans now expects the charging kiosks to be installed in the coming weeks, powered up, and in service by early March 2021.

Let’s hope that Caltrans’ District 6 maintains their DCFC stations as a priority. If they do, the stations’ simplicity and accessibility will add greatly to driving a non-Tesla EV in the San Joaquin Valley.