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Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Wake Tech gears up for more electric vehicles on the road

Last week I was in North Raleigh, in what looked like the service area of a big car dealership, but was actually a big community college lab, the Capital Automotive Group laboratory

It has been nearly a year since Wake Tech dedicated the new $42 million Hendrick Center for Automotive Excellence. The center is located at the college’s Scott Northern Wake Campus, right off Interstate 540, a/k/a the Outer Loop.  Its opening allowed Wake Tech to triple the number of students in its automotive systems technology program and to add a new degree program in collision repair.

The Hendrick Center for Automotive Excellence at Wake Tech received a federal grant of almost $940,000 to help jump start its electric vehicle training program.

The occasion last week was the presentation of one of those oversized checks on an easel that politicians like to bring home. The politician was Rep. Deborah Ross, who represents a big chunk of Wake County in Congress, and the check represented a $939,041 federal grant to help jump start the Hendrick Center’s electric vehicle training program, helping to pay for specialized equipment.  It was part of $26.9 million for 15 Wake County projects in a $1.7 trillion spending bill signed by President Joe Biden in December.

We are in the middle of what may be a transformation of our economy as we move – gradually, fast, no one knows – from gas-powered cars and trucks to electric vehicles. The check-passing ceremony was part of that. Electric cars have gone from being something exotic to something you need to train technicians to service. The electric economy is evolving in places like the northern campus and throughout North Carolina. If the shift to electrics goes fast, a lot of work needs to be done fast. 

Louis Martin-Vega has a good vantage point to see what needs to be done.  A member of  the Wake Tech board of trustees, he has been dean of engineering at N.C. State since 2006.

At the ceremony, Martin-Vega noted that many in attendance had probably watched the recent Super Bowl. “I want to think that many of you have noticed that electric vehicles got a lot of air time in those commercials,” he said. He said that automakers are talking about “supporting what they called an electric future.”

“Let’s be honest about it. That future’s already here, and that’s what this place is all about.”

Wake Tech automotive program gears up for more electric vehicles on the road.

The federal government’s target is for half of all vehicles sold in 2030 to be battery electric, plug-in hybrids or fuel-cell electrics. The goal set by Gov. Roy Cooper is to have 1.25 million zero-emission vehicles in North Carolina by 2030. The old goal was 80,000 by 2025.  At the end of December, according to state registration figures, there were some 54,000 zero-emission vehicles, including 38,400 electrics, and around 15,600 plug-in hybrids.  Something big and noticeable is going to need to happen on car lots around the state for us to hit the target in seven years.

But inventories are coming up as car manufacturers scramble to roll out EVs as more millennials hit peak earning and family-formation years, with Gen Z’s coming right behind. A lot of young folks may be driving their last gasoline car right now. That possibility has everyone’s attention in car factories, dealerships, oil-change shops, convenience store chains and state highway departments fueled by gas taxes. 

North Carolina has emerged as a center of electric-vehicle technology.  Toyota is building a $3.8 billion battery plant near Greensboro.  VinFast is planning to build an electric car plant in Chatham County.  Siemens is building charging stations for electric buses and other large vehicles in Wendell, in Eastern Wake County.  And Kempower, a Finland-based company, will build a fast-charger manufacturing facility in Durham.

Martin-Vega noted that North Carolina is also a source of lithium, “a metal that has been referred to as the new white gold” because of its use in EV batteries. “And that’s one of the reasons that Albemarle Corp. is building a new research and technology park in Charlotte,” he said.  “So North Carolina’s on the leading edge of this. As it should be.”

“There’s a tremendous demand for highly trained technicians to service this industry, the electric vehicle industry.  And that’s really why we’re here today.”

Looking at the battery

After the ceremony and the speeches, I talked with Mark Smith, one of the Hendrick Center instructors, an electrical engineer who spent 35 years with IBM.

He was showing me around the  electric cars. It gave me some insight into what it must have been like 100 years ago, when folks walked into the new automobile showrooms opening in North Carolina. Registrations in the state jumped from 109,000 in 1919 to more than 473,000 by 1928. It was during the ’20s that North Carolina floated $115 million in highway bonds, imposed a gas tax and started taking over thousands of miles of county roads to support this new technology.

We were looking at a case that held batteries. 

“Look inside,” he said. “Here we’ve got a plexiglass grid. You see the little wires? The battery’s really on the other side of that plate. They sit like this and there are cylindrical batteries all throughout this with spaces for air to pass through. They’re a bunch of individual batteries.”

Some of the Tesla battery packs, which he called “really high-quality batteries,” have lasted since the original, for 15 years. But his own car, a newer electric, “has a battery pack that’s equivalent to the original Tesla, 15 years later.”  The global EV battery market could top a half-trillion dollars by 2040. There is a lot of R&D going on in the competition to boost performance and lower costs.

“There’s going to be some jump in lowering of cost and raising of capacity with the next generation of batteries in a few years,” said Smith.

Hard to predict

It is hard to predict the uptake of electrics. There needs to be more inventory, better and cheaper batteries, and more charging stations. But some homebuilders are already including more robust charging stations in new construction, reasoning that folks will want faster charges than the wall-socket will provide.

From there, it is also possible that folks will see rooftop solar as a way to lower their home charging bills. So to a certain extent, the homebuilding, remodeling and solar industries are now part of the electric vehicle industry. Electricians will be part of this industry, because they’ll install chargers in a lot of garages.  Utilities will need to improve the infrastructure in subdivisions, if every garage is charging cars. 

Our economy has been based on internal-combustion engines for over a century. If, over the next 10-15 years, it changes to an electric-vehicle economy, there will be a lot of business opportunities and a lot of businesses disrupted.

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