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D.C.-area gas station shuts off the pumps and goes all-electric

When it comes to EV infrastructure, a crucial question remains: If you build it, will they come?

Depeswar Doley, owner of RS Automotive, in Takoma Park, MD, has converted his gas pumps to electric vehicle charging stations. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

About 48 hours remained before the tiny service station in Takoma Park, Md., known as RS Automotive, was scheduled to start refueling vehicles again after a months-long delay.

Unfortunately, a nagging problem persisted.

For more than 60 years, the pumps in front of this tidy blue-and-white service station that easily blends into the neighborhood’s quaint streetscape have offered customers gasoline.

On Thursday, according to Maryland officials, RS Automotive became the first service station in the nation to completely convert its equipment from offering gasoline — the flammable fuel that powers internal combustion engines and global conflicts alike — to electric power, the sustainable stuff that many see as the heart of America’s decarbonized future.

But one important detail remained: Nobody, including the station’s longtime owner or the Electric Vehicle Institute — a Baltimore-based company spearheading the transition with the help of a state grant program — was entirely sure what to call a gas station that doesn’t offer ... well, gas.

“We settled on ‘EV charging station,’ but we also thought about calling it a ‘refueling center,’ ” Matthew Wade, EVI’s chief executive, explained during a tour of the site, noting that the goal was to avoid confusion among the non-EV-adopting public. “The terminology here is so loose because all of this is so new.”

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So new, it seems, that in some ways, the unanswered questions have a way of feeling wildly outdated, conjuring up distant memories of the early 20th century, when automotive technology was brand new and America’s fledgling driving culture was still being defined.

Among them: What sort of information should the station’s signs communicate to the public? Better yet, does an EV charging station even need signage in the first place? EV owners can find charging stations anywhere in the world using a smartphone, after all. Perhaps most important: What exactly will people do with themselves during the 15- to 30-minute window when their vehicles are charging? Will they linger awkwardly? Grab a bite to eat nearby? Sit in their vehicles and work? Or relax in the station’s new “state-of-the-art EV lounge”?

The charging station is as much social experimentation as it is economic. If successful, Wade said, it could provide a model for replication elsewhere.

“Nobody really knows what will happen,” he said. “We’ve entered new territory, and in some ways, that’s very exciting.”

We’ve been through a gas-powered version of this experiment before. The first drive-in service station opened in Pennsylvania in 1913, according to the Smithsonian. Before then, motorists frequented curbside pumps or purchased gasoline “in cans from places like pharmacies and blacksmith shops and filled up themselves,” the publication notes.

Now, more than a century later, the front lines of a new EV revolution are unfolding not only among hypercompetitive engineers in Detroit and Silicon Valley but also in a quiet, free-spirited community known for its aging hippies in Teva sandals and its “nuclear-free zone” ordinance, a bastion of bike-friendly lanes with one of the state’s highest walkability scores.

Fittingly, Depeswar Doley, a friendly Takoma Park fixture and RS Automotive’s owner since 1997, said he doesn’t know how much money the new charging stations will net his business — and doesn’t particularly seem to care, so long as he can continue paying his staff a living wage while cutting ties with Big Oil.

“The volume of our gasoline sales was very low, especially after 8 p.m.,” Doley said. “I don’t expect to get super rich from this, but it’s good for the environment, and I’m willing to take the risk.”

Fortunately for Doley, the region is not without potential customers. In addition to an electric taxi service in nearby Washington, D.C., Maryland has nearly 21,000 registered EVs on its roads. Until now, Takoma Park’s only two EV charging stations were being dominated by area taxis, Wade said.

Even if taxis take advantage of the new pumps, Wade and Doley are expecting a public adjustment period. Gone are the pumps that American motorists have been using to pump their own gas at filling stations since 1905. They’ve been replaced by handheld “dispensers,” which are attached to four flashy, nine-foot-tall charging stations with bright LED lights, touch-screens and credit card slots.

The machines gave Doley an excuse to replace the site’s gargantuan, 20,000-gallon supply tanks, which were dug up and discarded this summer. Eventually, the plan is to outfit the station, as well as the garage and canopy that shields the charging stations, with solar panels.

The full renovation was funded by EVI as well as the Maryland Energy Administration, which provided a grant of $786,000.

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“Maryland is proud to be a national leader when it comes to clean and renewable energy, climate change and the promotion of electric infrastructure and vehicles,” Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan said in a news release. “This fully converted gas-to-electric charging station is a prime example of our administration’s commitment to the environment and transportation.”

Unlike the rest of the state’s service stations, RS Automotive won’t have the familiar flip signs or LED displays that show varying fuel prices by grade.

An EV driver pulling up to a charging station likely will have been directed there — and made aware of the price — by an app on their smartphone like PlugShare, which maintains a database of EV charging stations around the world.

Also gone is some of the quick convenience drivers have come to expect when they pull up to the pump. Instead of filling up in less than five minutes, the 200-kilowatt charging stations will charge most EVs to 80 percent capacity in about 15 to 30 minutes. At that point, vehicles typically slow the charging rate to protect their batteries. The average cost for an 80 percent charge: about $5.10.

“The final trickle of charging, the last 5 percent, can take an hour,” Wade said. “We suggest you get to 80 percent to maximize the charging session.”

EV companies are already addressing this issue and will have larger battery packs and faster battery management systems, Wade added, but for now, most customers should allot the same amount of time toward a charging session that they would for, say, a thorough carwash.

To help them in this effort, RS Automotive has designed an EV lounge. Part waiting room and part living room, the lounge will offer complimentary coffee, water and restrooms, as well as several couches, chairs and televisions, including one screen displaying charging percentages at each station.

“It’s going to be different,” Wade said. “People are going to stay here a bit longer instead of just standing there holding the pump.”

On a recent afternoon, a steady stream of Takoma Park residents strolled past the newly installed charging stations, some stopping to ask questions or snap photos. Not all of them have embraced the idea of longer wait times.

“It’s a pain in the butt not to have gas here,” said 86-year-old Andy Kelemen, wearing colorful suspenders and sandals, who has been coming to the gas station for more than three decades. “You better have that lounge well done, because I’m not gonna stand here holding something for 20 minutes."

But down the block, the barbers at Roland’s Unisex Barber Shop said they welcomed the idea of idling customers with time on their hands.

“I welcome anything that’s going to add a pulse to the neighborhood,” said 64-year-old barber Melvin Dawes, who said he remembers when the neighborhood was crisscrossed by dirt roads. “It’s going to draw more people around here, and that enhances the rest of the businesses.”

“Twenty minutes is the perfect amount of time for a haircut,” he added.

When Doley was approached about converting to electric power, he said he was already looking for an excuse to sever his ties with oil and gasoline companies.

He was tired of lengthy contracts that included clauses that extended agreements when particular sales figures weren’t met. If his electric experiment fails, he said, his new year-to-year lease means he can always reverse course. In the end, Doley said, embracing electric power wasn’t so much about contracts or profit but the enthusiasm his 17-year-old daughter displayed when he initially floated the idea past her.

“My daughter said, ‘Dad, we gotta do it!' ” he said. “She’s very passionate about Tesla and the environment, and we listened to her because she’s the younger generation.”


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