Why Stewart’s didn’t build upstate’s biggest car charging network

Albany Business Review / They had a plan to dramatically expand electric car charging infrastructure in upstate New York. Here's why it didn't happen.

Photo by Donna Abbott-Vlahos / Albany Business Review

Bill Dake and Jim Besha Sr. had a plan to dramatically expand electric car charging infrastructure in upstate New York.

The chairmen of Stewart’s Shops Corp. and Albany Engineering Corp., respectively, were going to rely entirely on private investment and renewable energy.

But that was four years ago, and after losing an appeal with state regulators in 2016, Besha and Dake have all but abandoned their plan.

“If there’s a reason everybody won’t have an electric car, it’s probably we have too much uncertainty,” Dake said.

The Stewart’s plan would have virtually eliminated the uncertainty drivers feel, known as “range anxiety,” from potentially running down the car battery without a nearby charger.

It would have put 100 fast-charging ports — the kind that can give an 80% charge in a half hour for some vehicles — at dozens of Stewart’s stores between Albany and the Canadian border.

“Everyone wanted the project,” said Besha, whose company builds, owns and operates hydroelectric plants in upstate New York.

Everyone except the New York Public Service Commission and the electric utility companies.

‘Missing the forest for the trees’

The partnership between Stewart’s and Albany Engineering Corp. hinged on a statute that would have allowed Stewart’s to buy power from a Mechanicville hydro plant. It’s an arrangement called “net metering,” and it’s more commonly used when homeowners put solar panels on their roof to generate their own power.

The motivation for Stewart’s and Albany Engineering to use this statute was financial: Stewart’s could buy hydropower at a much cheaper rate than buying power from National Grid. It would also allow Stewart’s to avoid the demand charges that fast-charging ports can incur for gulping power rapidly from the grid.

The state’s Public Service Commission rejected the proposal on grounds that the Mechanicville hydro plant didn’t meet the requirements for remote net metering. It was too big, and generated slightly too much power to qualify for the program, which is meant for small-scale energy producers.

The PSC said in response to questions from the Albany Business Review that “department staff found that is a reasonable idea,” but did not justify the arrangement being sought. “Stewart’s could find another partner,” the PSC said.

National Grid and a coalition of other upstate power companies wrote to the PSC, opposing the request.

“I don’t think the utilities are necessarily against it, I think they’re trying to be extra careful, because they don’t have the modern means to make it easy,” said Luigi Vanfretti, a professor of electrical engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Vanfretti said the utilities are still trying to figure out the best way to manage renewable energy sources beyond the typical rooftop solar panels. Technology has gotten ahead of the tools and infrastructure that utility companies use to measure and distribute power, he said.

Besha said the utilities didn’t like the idea of Stewart’s buying power at a cheaper rate from the hydro plant. But he argues the charging network would have boosted interest in electric cars and increased demand for power overall when drivers plugged in at home or at work.

“You’re kind of missing the forest for the trees here,” Besha said.

‘Why isn’t this happening?’

Without the arrangement, Stewart’s and Albany Engineering felt they couldn’t justify the multimillion-dollar investment: a high fixed cost with uncertain payoff until more drivers adopt electric cars.

“The numbers don’t work,” Dake said.

Besha put it this way: This plan would have allowed the companies to keep the project a private investment without state grants or formal subsidies.

“There’s no other way of doing it. The way of proposing it was the only way it would have worked,” Besha said.

The PSC pointed out that Stewart’s could use a number of state incentives, which make millions available for companies to build electric charging infrastructure.

Stewart’s does already have one fast-charging station, a Tesla charger at the Clinton Corners store in Dutchess County.

Every few months, Besha hears from someone asking about the now-dormant Stewart’s plan.

“They say, ‘This is the best thing we’ve ever heard, why isn’t this happening?'” Besha said.

Dake says without the ability to partner with Albany Engineering Corp., Stewart’s is holding off.

“There is too much technological transition going on to not have some rational financial arrangement with a cushion,” Dake said. “In other words, it’s pretty complicated.”