EV charging at freeway speeds? USU’s ASPIRE puts it on the road map

National Engineering Center, poised to lead Utah’s EV conversion, is already known worldwide for its work on in-road charging.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

Don’t want to plug and play? Maybe you can get a load from the road.

In the movement toward battery-powered vehicles, the limiting factor has been and continues to be keeping the batteries charged.

It’s a power-to-weight problem. The farther a vehicle has to travel without a charge, the larger and heavier the battery must be. And the heavier the battery, the more power it takes to propel the vehicle and its heavy battery.

For the trucking industry, it’s also a time-is-money problem. Time spent charging a big electric truck at a charging station is money lost in paying drivers and slower deliveries.

The solution to both? Charge often and without stopping by embedding the chargers in roads.

Induction charging, as it is known, is one of the key technologies under development at Utah State University’s Center for Advancing Sustainability through Powered Infrastructure for Roadway Electrification (ASPIRE). Under a bill the Utah Legislature is considering, ASPIRE would lead the planning for Utah’s charging network for cars, trucks, trains and even electric aircraft.

“We’re at a tipping point for electrification of transportation,” Carlos Braceras, executive director of the Utah Department of Transportation, told a legislative committee considering the bill.

Braceras believes that plug-in charging will always play a large role, but it’s “yesterday’s news.” The rising solution – particularly for the trucking industry and for high-traffic areas – will be wireless charging.

Test track in Cache Valley

ASPIRE has operated a test track with embedded charging near the USU campus for years, and it is also working with the Utah Inland Port Authority to identify a section of roadway in northwest Salt Lake City where a section of in-road chargers could be installed.

There are 55 partners from industry, government and academia working with ASPIRE, said Regan Zane, a USU electrical engineering professor who is director of ASPIRE. That includes utilities, truck manufacturers and fleet operators.

(Matt Jensen | Utah State University) This bus can be charged from underground coils at the ASPIRE test track in Logan. When it's charged, it can operate on regular city streets.

Just like wireless cell phone chargers, recharging a battery does not require a wired connection. The charger generates a magnetic field that induces the flow of electricity in any nearby wire. That flowing electricity recharges the battery.

Wireless charging of vehicles is already used in warehouses, where equipment like forklifts can be parked on chargers when they’re not in use.

But what about a semi going 70 mph down a highway? For that you’ll need “dynamic” induction charging. The chargers, which are essentially wire coils, are buried in the road near the surface. The truck, which must be built or modified to accept wireless charging, simply has to pass over the buried coils to pick up their power.

To keep from wasting energy, the truck and charging system would be in constant communication so that only the coils directly below the truck would be energized as it moves down the road.

Not every road needs it

No one is thinking every mile of every road would get buried chargers. It likely would be the heaviest traveled roads, particularly those used by heavy trucks, which take the most energy. The nation’s Interstate highway system, for instance, is a small fraction of the total miles of road, but it carries about a third of the nation’s traffic.

Zane said a freeway with five miles of charging followed by 10 to 15 miles of no charging – repeated across the country – could be enough to keep truck traffic moving without stopping.

Such a buildout would take a lot of time and money, of course, and it would also take an overhaul of the nation’s electric grid. There is broad acknowledgement that electrification of transportation is a catalyst for updating the grid to accommodate not just electric cars but also electric trains, aircraft and the growing number of buildings heated and cooled with heat pumps.

(Matt Jensen | Utah State University) Solar panels at ASPIRE's test track in Logan provide the electricity to charge vehicles.

In 2020, ASPIRE received a $25 million, five-year grant from the National Science Foundation and was named as the NSF’s Engineering Research Center for electrifying transportation. If ASPIRE performs as expected, the grant will be extended for another $25 million and five years.

“NSF funds are a catalyst, the glue that binds us,” Zane said. “Most funding sources are targeted and short term. This funding gives us the long term ability to set a broad vision.”

USU is the lead institution on the grant, with Purdue University, the University of Colorado, the University of Texas at El Paso and the University of Auckland in New Zealand as participants. Zane said ASPIRE has working relationships with nine universities and is adding more.

The funds are combined with other grants from government and industry to give the center about $13 million per year in operating funds. The legislation, HB125, would give the center another $2.1 million per year, which Zane said would be used to create a small team within ASPIRE that is dedicated to Utah.

A holistic approach

The mission is bigger than just the technology. ASPIRE researchers are also studying the economic and social aspects of adopting the technology. They are looking at workforce development programs to produce a labor force to manage electrification. They have also done work around environmental justice, recognizing that the places where transportation pollution is the most concentrated – like ports – are often near low-income neighborhoods and disproportionately affect communities of color. Bringing electrification to those areas would provide health and economic benefits.

Ben Hart, executive director of the Utah Inland Port Authority, said his office is working with ASPIRE to identify a roadway in the port zone to add in-road charging as a test. Hart expects it would be a couple years before work would begin on such a test, which also requires investment from trucking or warehouse companies willing to purchase vehicles that can charge from the ground.

UDOT, the Utah Transit Authority, the Wasatch Front Regional Council and Rocky Mountain Power all support the bill. The measure would set up a steering committee of representatives of UDOT, UTA and others who would implement the plans. It also creates a larger advisory board of utility, transportation and other experts.

The Senate Transportation, Public Utilities, Energy, and Technology Committee approved Senate Bill 125 (Transportation Infrastructure Amendments) unanimously this week. In debate on the bill, Rep. Kathleen Riebe, D-Cottonwood Heights, emphasized the importance of working with local industry because it knows Utah’s situation. “If we don’t work with our local industry, we’re going to be cutting once and measuring twice.”

One person, Whit Cook of the Utah Eagle Forum, spoke against the bill. He said it is a national security risk to rely on electricity for transportation because the infrastructure is vulnerable to enemy attack. “I want to caution this committee that moving toward the electric does not come without consequences.”

The Legislature last year passed a bill to create a “grid resilience committee” that is charged with making recommendations on grid security.

Tim Fitzpatrick is The Salt Lake Tribune’s renewable energy reporter, a position funded by a grant from Rocky Mountain Power. The Tribune retains all control over editorial decisions independent of Rocky Mountain Power.