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VDOT announces sites for electric vehicle charging stations

An electric vehicle charges at a public station in Henrico County, July 2020. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)
An electric vehicle charges at a public station in Henrico County, July 2020. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

Gas stations, hotels and a South Hill Kentucky Fried Chicken are on track to receive federal funding to build out electric vehicle charging stations throughout Virginia’s interstate highway system.

This story was reported and written by our media partner the Virginia Mercury

The Virginia Department of Transportation announced at a March 19 Commonwealth Transportation Board  workshop meeting the list of 18 different sites to receive about $11 million from the National Electric Vehicle and Infrastructure program under the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Virginia is set to receive about $106 million total over the next five years as part of the  NEVI program to install electric vehicle chargers along the highway corridors. This first tranche of funding, $11 million, focuses on electric car chargers for interstates, while the next rounds will add charging stations along state highways and for heavy trucks, like tractor trailer freight carriers.

“What we’re trying to do is build in other areas where the market isn’t yet,” said Chris Berg, director of the Office of Transportation Sustainability at VDOT, when presenting the selections. “There, the money really does have an impact because the business case may not be there today, but in two years it may be. We’re trying to start the work now and leverage federal funding to move the market, to support the market.”

The deployment of chargers is seen as a crucial step to advance the transition to electric vehicles in order to reduce tailpipe emissions, which are currently the  largest source of carbon dioxide pollutants and planet warming gasses in the state and country. 

While Virginia follows California’s Clean Car Act standards, including regulations that took effect this year that will gradually restrict the sale of new gas-powered vehicles and ban them completely in 2035, the current lack of charging infrastructure in Virginia and around the country contributed to the federal government scaling back similar plans to amp up hybrid vehicle use nationwide. 

“These adjusted EV targets – still a stretch goal – should give the market and supply chains a chance to catch up,” said John Bozzella, president and CEO, Alliance for Automotive Innovation in a statement announcing the federal government’s new rules on  March 20. “It buys some time for more public charging to come online, and the industrial incentives and policies of the Inflation Reduction Act to do their thing.”

The sites

The approved locations where an EV charger will be built target locations include one around the Fredericksburg area along Interstate 95, six around the greater Richmond area, two in the Southside region, one in Hampton Roads, four along Interstate 81 in Harrisonburg and four in the Southwest region of the state.

For this round of funding, VDOT received applications from 25 different charging station developers for a total of 128 potential sites.

According to federal standards, charger sites the state considers must be at least 50 miles away from the next one, and not more than one mile from an interstate exit in a federally designated alternative fuel corridor – or areas where fuel sources other than gasoline are available. 

The chargers must meet federal standards by providing at least 150 kilowatts per port, a speed that’ll deem them  “fast charging,” and provide at least four ports. Developers must also provide at least a 20% funding match toward the cost of the chargers that can’t exceed more than $1 million.

VDOT chose the locations after considering the pricing of each project, whether they had the ability to be improved in the future and if there are nearby amenities such as dining, grocery and shopping locations, as well as convenience stores and lodging options. Fourteen of the locations are within a half-mile of federally designated disadvantaged communities, inline with President Joe Biden’s Justice40 initiative. 

“A lot of these charging station operators, they have a lot of market research that they bring to bear in terms of what are the optimal locations, and it’s more than just the site host itself. It’s the location, it’s the grid capacity, it’s EV registrations in the surrounding area” said VDOT’s Berg.

Charge Ahead Partnership, a coalition of businesses and groups working to expand the nation’s charging infrastructure, said in a statement they applauded VDOT’s awardings, but also asked the agency to reconsider sending funds to motels that have less, “amenities that drivers expect.”

“Drivers want 24-hour access to well-lit, safe and accessible amenities when they stop to charge up,” Charge Ahead Partnership Executive Director Jay Smith said. “Clean restrooms, plenty of food and beverage options and attendants that can help with charging are a must.”

The funds won’t support adding EV chargers along Interstate 64 between Richmond and Charlottesville, in the northern Shenandoah Valley around I-66 and I-81 or in the Northern Virginia area. Those areas may already be benefiting from a network of hundreds already in place throughout the state as a result of a state program and private stations.

“There are a significant number, over 1,000 stations, that are not shown on this map, that just may not meet the specific criteria,” Berg said. 

In reviewing the selected locations for new chargers, members of VDOT’s Commonwealth Transportation Board didn’t raise objections, but did question a lack of availability of chargers in more rural areas like the Route 29 corridor that runs through the center of the state into the Southside region, where drivers may experience “range anxiety” over how far away chargers are.

Berg reiterated that the initial grants fund will support projects that meet strict federal guidelines to make EV charging available every 50 miles near highways. “Our goal is to really just meet strict federal guidelines so we can then kind of take a more Virginia specific approach and a more targeted approach.”

Final notices to allow developers to proceed with construction are expected to go out this July.

Del. Rip Sullivan, D-Fairfax, during this year’s session re-introduced a bill for a third time that would have created incentives to build out electric vehicle infrastructure in  rural areas, but the proposal failed to get any funding in the legislature’s state budget.

Electric vehicle use and demand

The use of electric vehicles has increased over the years, and is expected to continue, according to projections from the utilities that will provide the electricity to them.

The federal Inflation Reduction Act includes tax incentives for electric vehicles purchases, but because there are strict requirements that the critical minerals used in their batteries be sourced from the United States, there’s been a challenge to the public’s ability to take advantage of the incentives. Virginia has its own EV purchasing incentive program, but the General Assembly has left it unfunded since it was created in 2020.

In 2022, almost 48,000 electric vehicles in total were registered in the state, up from about 31,000 the year before. With those efforts, about 10% of new car registrations in the state in 2023 are expected to be electric vehicles or plug-in hybrid vehicles, which still run on some gas, according to a report from the Southern Environmental Law Center released in January.

According to projections from Dominion Energy, which serves northern and central regions of the state, EV use is expected to increase to just under  220,000 by 2027. In Appalachian Power Company territory in Southwest Virginia, EV use is expected to grow to as much as  40,000 by 2030.

To meet the demand of the utility’s projections, the State Corporation Commission, which regulates Virginia’s utilities,  found it would cost about $700 million to build out the necessary infrastructure, with about $400 million needing to go toward public chargers.

Upgrades to the electric grid won’t be needed for these latest highway chargers because applicants consulted with the utilities to make sure their chargers would be developed in optimal locations, according to Dominion and Appalachian Power.  

Craig Carper, a spokesperson for Dominion Energy, said “VDOT has a great strategy for NEVI. They encouraged developers to engage with utilities early, so we were able to check the details of the sites in our territory.  The distribution grid can serve these sites. The installations won’t be large enough to require new transmission.”

Appalachian Power spokesperson Teresa Hall said adding the chargers to their system is an extension of the utility’s philosophy.

“We want to be a partner,” said Hall. “We want to do everything we can to help businesses.”

Tailpipe regulations

The selection of the NEVI sites come as part of a “which came first, the chicken or the egg” debate around Virginia’s tailpipe emissions regulations t: will people purchasing more electric vehicles  lead to more chargers needing to be built, or will building more chargers lead to people purchasing more EVs?

Opponents to the Clean Car Act standards have said a lack of electric vehicle infrastructure is a reason to revert back to following the federal tailpipe emissions, the only other option for states to follow. But the deployment of these NEVI chargers can overcome that concern, leading to more EV use in the state, said supporters, including clean-energy nonprofit Generation180.

The group’s  polling found that 19% of survey respondents said the availability of charging stations was the greatest barrier to considering getting an electric vehicle, while 36% said access to public charging stations would make them “much more likely” to purchase one.

“Our research shows that Virginians want EVs and support pro-EV policies, and this step by VDOT paves the way for expanded EV adoption throughout the commonwealth,” said Stuart Gardner with Generation180.

While Virginia follows California’s tailpipe emissions for passenger vehicles, the state still follows the federal regulations for heavy trucks. Finalized last Friday, the heavy truck federal rules now include requirements to transition fleets to electric vehicles, and received some lauding from environmental groups despite being  scaled back from more stringent proposals.

“These EPA standards will help protect our families from dangerous pollution while steering us toward a safer climate,” said  Guillermo Ortiz, a clean vehicles advocate at the National Resources Defense Council, in a statement. Still, Ortiz wrote, “This rule could have done more. Our nation needs a vision to eliminate pollution from the freight transportation system. Every wheeze, every gasp for breath in communities impacted by the movement of freight serves as a reminder of the urgency to act.”

The NEVI funds could be used for heavy truck chargers in future years and a separate federal program geared toward building them out. But the Virginia trucking industry has concerns about that possibility, specifically over how fast fleets would need to transition to electric power, the estimated $1 trillion price tag for building heavy truck chargers, as well as the distance truckers would need to drive to access the chargers and whether there will be parking space for them to do so. 

The industry has taken steps to reduce emissions, said Dale Bennett, president & CEO of the Virginia Trucking Association, evidenced by the fact that it takes about 60 of today’s “ clean diesel” trucks  to produce the emissions of one truck built in 1988.

“That is just one of a long list of issues that need to be addressed as we move down this road,” said Bennett.