Bruce Murphy
Murphy’s Law

State Is Far Behind on Electric Vehicles

And charging stations. Will federal funding provide enough of a boost?

By - Jan 4th, 2023 01:50 pm
Electric car charging station. (CC0 Public Domain)

Electric car charging station. (CC0 Public Domain)

Wisconsin is getting beat by most states in the growth of electric vehicles and charging stations. “We’re ten years behind some states in Wisconsin,” says Francisco Sayu, director of emerging technology for the nonprofit Renew Wisconsin, in an interview with Urban Milwaukee.

The big leader by far in electric vehicles (EVs)  is California, which had nearly 39% of all EV registrations in the nation as of 2021, according to data from the Alternation Fuels Data Center. Wisconsin had less than 1% of the nation’s electric vehicles, exactly 0.64%, which left it behind 26 other states.

And it is not just blue states that were ahead of Wisconsin. Ranking second and third were Florida (6.58% of all EVs in the nation) and Texas (5.56%). At the very bottom were Wyoming (0.4%) and North Dakota (0.3%).

According to a report by the state Department of Transportation, Wisconsin has just over 9,000 electric vehicles (EVs), which is just 0.1% of all the state’s vehicles.

That’s projected to increase to 4% of all state vehicles by 2027 and 31% by 2050, but that will require a big increase in charging stations in the state.

“We’re 27th in charging stations, Sayu says: “We’re not leading. But we’re not the worst.” Nor are we leading in the Midwest, he adds. “Illinois and Michigan and Ohio are doing much better than us.”

Wisconsin is estimated to have about 400 charging stations, but only four of them are optimal, meaning fast-charging stations with four or more ports (handling four cars at a time) capable of delivering 150 kilowatts, Sayu notes. Fast charging stations can charge an EV from empty to 80% charged in 20-60 minutes, while Level 2 chargers take four to 10 hours and snails-pace Level 1 chargers can take up to 50 hours.

Why is the state’s slow progress on EVs important? For starters, electric vehicles generate less emissions, reducing pollution in the state. But EVs also mean more jobs and economic development for a state like Wisconsin, which produces almost no fossil fuels. “We pay $12 billion to $14 billion a year for petroleum products we import,” Sayu notes. “That’s money that goes out of state and we never see again. It’s a matter of economics and energy security.”

The good news is Wisconsin is about to make major strides, courtesy of the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law championed by President Joe Biden. The law includes $5 billion in funding to build support for electric vehicles, and Wisconsin will get nearly $79 million of that over a period of five years to pay 80% of the costs of new charging stations. The other 20% must come from private matching dollars by businesses that would operate them much like gas stations.

The state plan is to fund 60 fast-charging stations, each with at least four ports, located on some of the state’s major highways, including I-94, I-90, I-39 up to Marathon County, I-41 and I-43 up to Brown County, which have been designated as “alternative fuel corridors.”

Under this plan, around 1,900 miles in the state would be covered by the network of charging stations, meaning 85% of all state highway miles in Wisconsin would be “within 25 miles of a fast charger,” as Kaleb Vander Wiele, WisDOT’s transportation electrification project manager, has estimated.

That’s a “tremendous increase” in charging stations, Sayu notes, and will give “confidence to the private sector” that this is a viable business, leading to more stations being built solely with private money.

One impediment to such growth is the state’s Republican-led Legislature, which has been unfriendly to renewable energy. Legislators passed a law requiring a $75 surcharge on auto registrations for gas-electric hybrid cars and a $100 fee for electric vehicles, arguing their owners pay less of a gas tax, which helps fund the maintenance and repair of state highways. Meanwhile legislators have resisted charging higher fees for big trucks, which cause most of the damage to roads.

The Legislature has also resisted a straightforward bill to make it easier to run a charging station. Current state law says that only public utilities can charge for providing electricity, which means charging stations must set their fees on a per-minute basis. This means lower fees for newer EVs, which charge faster, and higher fees for slower-charging, used EVs, which are likely to be owned by drivers of less means, creating an inequity, as Renew Wisconsin has noted.

Still, neither impediment is a major one, and Sayu expects great progress on EVs in Wisconsin as a result of the federal funding. “We still won’t be a leader,” he cautions. “We’re probably going to stay in the middle of the pack nationally.”

But even that position could mean much less pollution in Wisconsin and billions of dollars not being exported to fossil fuel states.

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