Growing demand, industry support lead to state investment in electric vehicle chargers

By MARY SELL, Alabama Daily News

Earlier this summer, the State of Alabama awarded 18 grants worth more than $4 million to help private entities add electric vehicle charging stations for public use. However, during the process, the state received 76 applications requesting more than $18 million.

“Eighteen million dollars in requests does show the demand for these charging stations,” Kenneth Boswell, director of the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, told Alabama Daily News.

Those grants, mostly funded through a Volkswagen settlement over the automaker’s violation of the federal Clean Air Act, focused on the I-20, I-59 corridor.

“It captured a small portion of the state,” Boswell said about the grants.

Now, ADECA is working on a statewide EV charging plan that will show where stations are needed, including along evacuation routes.

“It will cover all aspects of where charging stations need to be to cut down on fuel anxiety issues that an electric car owner would have,” Boswell said. 

He said ADECA will soon issue a request for proposals for the plan that will put a pricetag on statewide EV infrastructure. The hope is to have it done in time for lawmakers’ 2022 legislative session. He said it would be a template for possibly future funding.

“All indicators are that it is going to be a much needed program,” Boswell said.

In 2019, Gov. Kay Ivey and lawmakers approved a 10-cent-per-gallon fuel tax increase. The legislation also placed an annual $200 fee on electric vehicles and a $100 annual fee on hybrid vehicles and created the ElectricTransportation Charging Infrastructure Grant Program. In the 2022 General Fund budget, lawmakers allocated $2 million for EV charging station grants.

“That number (of grant applicants) indicates that there is a great need for additional charging, which can only be accomplished with additional funding,” Michael Staley, president of the Alabama Clean Fuels Coalition said. “And as our automakers are spending billions of dollars investing in this technology, we are helping ourselves when we support efforts that lead to more electric vehicle charging stations.”

 

A vested interest

While EVs are marketed as a cleaner alternative to gas and diesel-fueled vehicles, Alabama leaders’ interest in the industry is more than being climate friendly. Electric vehicles are becoming a larger part of the state’s auto industry.

  • Mercedes-Benz in 2017 announced a $1 billion, 600-job expansion that includes all-electric vehicle production and a state-of-the-art battery factory in Bibb County. Mercedes plans to go all electric by 2030.
  • In 2018, New Flyer in Anniston completed a $25 million upgrade to its battery-electric bus facility.
  • DURA Automotive Systems announced an investment of $59 million in August 2020  to open a manufacturing facility in Muscle Shoals designed to produce battery trays for electric vehicles.
  • Hyundai announced earlier this year plans to build electric vehicles at its Montgomery site and a $7.4 billion US investment in new technologies and production upgrades.
  • Honda Motor Co., which has a plant in Lincoln, Ala.,said this year it would phase out gas-powered cars by 2040.
  • In June, the state announced a first-of-its-kind advanced graphite processing plant in Coosa County will bring an overall investment of $124 million to Alabama. The plant, Alabama Graphite Products, will help with the production of an essential material in batteries that power electric vehicles, electronics and other green energy products.
  • In July, a $16.5 million grant was announced to help fund a transportation research facility at the University of Alabama focused on electric vehicles. The building on the campus in Tuscaloosa will house the Alabama Transportation Institute; the Alabama Mobility and Power Initiative, a partnership between Alabama Power Co. and Mercedes-Benz; and a state transportation agency office.

“Automobile makers have invested enormous amounts of capital into building electric vehicles,” said Sen. Gerald Allen, chairman of the Legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee. “And one of the things that we as a state must do is be prepared for meeting the needs of the industry and the new electric vehicle charging stations.”

Alabama is the No. 5 auto producing state in the country, according to the Alabama Department of Commerce. That ranking will likely rise when the Mazda Toyota plant in Limestone County is at full capacity. 

“Alabama has a particular benefit in supporting those job makers as they transition to more EV production,” Staley said. “That support includes a base level of charging infrastructure.”

Allen is vice-chair of the Senate General Fund committee. He said he expects electric providers in the state to play key roles in this infrastructure expansion.

Electric vehicle charging stations have been a priority, along with other climate change-control initiatives, of President Joe Biden. The bi-partisan infrastructure bill currently being considered in the U.S. Senate contains $7.5 billion meant to go toward grants to build electric charging stations. That’s half of what Biden wanted, but could fund as many as 250,000 stations, the Associated Press reported.

Allen said the state will be looking for federal help on EV initiatives.

“We’ll be engaging with discussions in Washington on this important issue,” Allen said.

Growing demand, lessening ‘charger anxiety’

There are more 5,000 electric vehicle currently registered to Alabamians. Just a few years ago there were less than 2,000. The costs have come down and performance has increased, but Staley said “range anxiety” is a barrier to purchase.

Staley said the majority of EV charging happens at home at about one-third of the cost of fueling gas-powered vehicles. Charging at home is fine for people commuting to and from work and running errands, Staley said. But Alabama is not ready for EV road trips.

“I’m not going to drive an EV from Birmingham to Fairhope because I’m going to have charger anxiety,” Staley said.

Staley said the rule of thumb is to have chargers every 50 miles on interstates. 

“We also think it’s important to plan for federal and state highways and (other major roads),” he said.

Alabama is just at the beginning of the EV wave, said J. Bart Fletcher, president of the Petroleum and Convenience Marketers of Alabama. Its members own more than 4,000 gas stations and convenience stores.

“We want to be the fueling location of choice and we understand that ‘fuel’ is subject to change over the course of time,” Fletcher said. “If it’s not gasoline and diesel fuel anymore and it becomes electric, we want to be the fueling location of choice for electric. If it became compressed natural gas we would want to be the fueling location for compressed natural gas.

“… We feel like we’re the best positioned to continue to serve the driving public. Our locations are existing, they’re already convenient to highways and transportation corridors. We think it just makes sense that we continue to be the fueling location of choice.” 

The I-20 requirement limited the number of gas stations applying for the grants and some of them were awarded to entities other than fueling stations.

Fletcher said the association is concerned that some subsidies could encourage utility providers to get into the EV charging market and have an unfair advantage over small business owners.

“We want to make sure there’s a level playing field for anyone who wants to get into this market,” Fletcher said.

The 18 grants awarded in June will provide for 48 fast charger outlets, more than doubling the number of places people can charge their cars in just a few minutes.

The fast chargers supplied in the grant can cost more than $100,000.

There are other types of charges: Level I is what most EVs come with at purchase and allow for charging at home and full charge takes several hours; Level 2 is faster and can be at work places and stores — places where people are parked long enough to get a charge.

There are currently 252 publicly accessible Level 2 chargers around the state.

“More people are driving EVs and as a result, members of the Legislatures are learning a lot not just from constituents and consumers, but from our state’s job creators,” Staley said.

Electric Automotive