State Looks to Drive Electric-Vehicle Adoption with Plan for Charging Stations
The regional electric vehicle plan for the West, known as the “REV West Plan,” spans 5,000 miles of 11 interstate highways
The electric vehicle (EV) market in Colorado appears poised for a turbo-charge. Last October, Gov. John Hickenlooper and the governors of six other Western states signed a memorandum of understanding to establish a network of EV fast-charging stations. The regional electric vehicle plan for the West, known as the “REV West Plan,” spans 5,000 miles of 11 interstate highways, including I-70, I-25 and I-76.
Among other things, the plan aims to tackle one of the biggest detriments to EV purchases: range anxiety. A recent addition to the Oxford English Dictionary, the term refers to the stress EV drivers can face when planning longer trips because of a lack of charging stations. The best EVs can cruise for 85 to 335 miles per charge, with pricey Teslas at the top end.
Colorado is receiving $68.7 million from the Volkswagen settlement from the emissions scandal, 15 percent of which will help fund the plan. Additional private and public funds are expected to help bring the plan to fruition.
According to the Colorado Energy Office (CEO), the state ranks eighth in the U.S. for EV market share and seventh for per capita EV ownership. It already boasts more EV registrations than the other six signatory states combined, with nearly 12,000 as of last fall. Under a high-growth scenario, the CEO estimates that number could hit 940,000 by 2030.
THE CASE FOR EVS
Critics of plug-in EVs point out that they aren’t carbon neutral because the grid that charges them is powered largely by coal. Nonetheless, the environmental case for EVs is strong.
“Only on the most coal-heavy grids today is it clearly more carbon-intensive to drive an EV than an [internal combustion engine vehicle],” says energy analyst Chris Nelder, who leads the EV-Grid Integration initiative at Rocky Mountain Institute, a clean energy think tank. “And by that I mean like really, really coal-heavy grids. In most of the U.S., there’s clearly a benefit, in terms of emissions, to go into EVs.”
The U.S. Advanced Battery Consortium reports that despite the shortcomings of grid infrastructure, “today’s plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) can ‘fuel’ for the equivalent of about $1/gallon,” while also greatly reducing CO2 emissions on a per-mile basis.
Some are concerned about how the grid will bear the additional demands the rapidly growing EV market will place on it. The grid itself is being decarbonated as cheap natural gas and renewables are substituted for coal. A 2015 RMI report makes the case that EVs may help solve one of the biggest technical challenges with wind and solar energy: intermittency.
The availability of sunlight and wind vary widely each day, requiring engineers to frequently adjust energy production from other sources to meet demand. EVs may improve the case for investment in renewables and even store energy for household use. That’s because they tend to charge during times of low electricity demand and, with household integration, their batteries can meet the electricity demands of an average U.S. home.
The economic case for EVs is also becoming clearer. Costs are falling as sharply as battery range is improving. The total cost of EV ownership (before rebates) will be on par with conventional (ICE) vehicles by around 2025.
One of the stated objectives in the Colorado Electric Vehicle Plan, published by the Colorado Energy Office, is “taking steps to future-proof EV fast-charging technology.” The unusual term tacitly acknowledges the challenge of investing in a rapidly evolving industry, with new technologies, ancillary services and business models popping up like prairie dogs. It’s hard to know which ones will endure and which seemingly great ideas will fail — a point of criticism among the plan’s detractors.
The REV West plan has also been criticized on grounds of equity, cost and potential market distortions.
“This love affair that government has with electric vehicles serves a minuscule amount of people that tend to be at the higher end of the socioeconomic spectrum when in reality, the need, especially in Colorado, is to just fix the damn road,” says Amy Cooke, executive vice president of the Denver-based Independence Institute, a libertarian-leaning think tank.
“If the market wants electric vehicles — which it very well might — then the market should be the one dictating the parameters and the level of investment.”
Cooke points out that companies with the wherewithal to develop rural EV infrastructure have been reluctant to risk shareholder dollars doing so.
To the plan’s architects, that’s the point. Proponents fear that without public funding, rural EV infrastructure in the U.S. could be delayed for many years or lack coherence from state to state, making long-distance travel untenable. Tesla has created a competitive advantage by installing more than 1,200 chargers for its cars across the nation and around the world, but not everyone can afford a Tesla.
“The equipment is expensive, the operational costs are high, particularly because of the demand charges that utilities charge for electricity,” says Christian Williss, director of transportation fuels & technology at the Colorado Energy Office, which bears much of the responsibility for the plan’s implementation. “And because in the early days we’re likely to see low utilization, it does create a challenging business case. So we see the role of the public sector in seeding this market.”