Kevin Stitt's embrace of the electric vehicle industry has been rapid and unprecedented for the governor of a state so historically reliant on the production of fuel that's powered internal combustion engines for a century.
Last year, Stitt announced the arrival of electric vehicle startup Canoo, which has plans to manufacture EVs in northeastern Oklahoma. It's believed he's now courting Panasonic as the Japanese company looks for a site to build EV batteries. His hometown of Tulsa made an heroic effort to lure Tesla and its Cybertruck factory two years ago, but ultimately lost out to Austin.
Incentive packages offered to Canoo and Panasonic, should the latter company come to Oklahoma, could top $1 billion. These packages have been controversial among political leaders and the general public alike, receiving criticism for how much money is being offered and the secrecy behind the projects.
Stitt holds a steadfast belief the benefits far outweigh the investment costs, and that the state's already thriving wind power and renewable energy portfolio further entices companies looking to establish manufacturing plants in Oklahoma, many of which value clean energy for their operations.
By pushing incentives for the EV industry in Oklahoma, while leveraging renewable energy resources within the state, Stitt is helping contribute to products that are leading Americans away from gasoline, which is made from the very substance that has defined the state's economic identity since the early 20th century.
That gives Stitt no reason for pause.
"It's really just a business play," Stitt said.
A 'green grid' can be used
as a recruiting tool
Oklahoma has always been an oil and gas state. Even through the ups and downs, the fossil fuel-based energy industry was the pillar of Oklahoma's identity, if not always a pillar of economic success.
Beginning in 1897, when the first commercially viable oil well was drilled in Bartlesville, the state has been a national leader in oil production and is home to some of the most lucrative plays in history including the SCOOP and STACK fields. Companies like Conoco, Phillips, Devon, Chesapeake and Continental all have called Oklahoma home, and the revenues generated by such businesses funded a significant share of the state's budget throughout Oklahoma history.
In recent years, however, top officials in the state have accepted and often lauded diversity when it comes to the kind of energy produced here. Most recently, Stitt has frequently described how he wants an "all-of-the-above" energy production strategy while diversifying Oklahoma's revenue sources.
Oklahoma is already a national leader in wind energy, with one of the largest wind farms and the 4th most storage capacity of any state for wind power.
So for a state that still features a functional oil derrick on the capitol building's front yard, Oklahoma's investments into alternative energy sources (and uses) are growing as the state attempts to catch up to — and in some cases surpass — others who began pursuing these alternatives decades ago.
Those investments could spur business development.
The kind of companies being lured to Oklahoma want a "green grid," said Dirk Spiers, owner of Spiers New Technologies, an EV battery refurbisher based in Oklahoma City.
"These companies, they want to be zero CO2," said Spiers. "If you really want to attract those companies of the future, including the automotive industry, you have to be able to offer them 100% renewable energy."
Oklahoma wind power could play critical role in EV usage
Access to green energy definitely plays into company decisions, Stitt said during an interview with The Oklahoman.
"That definitely plays into these companies coming here," he said. "They love the fact that we have, number one, a reliable grid. Number two, it's cheap; in other words, we have one of the lowest electricity costs to the manufacturers in the country. And number three, they can buy a great mix and buy as much renewables as they want."
As Americans' lives become more reliant on electrification, the price and source of power has become more important to both business and the average consumer.
Stitt has praised investments into wind energy, including the Traverse wind project, which is the largest individual wind farm project built at one time in North America. The years-long project was activated just this year and in late March, it helped Oklahoma's regional power distribution grid meet over 90% of its demand for electricity using renewable resources — an amount claimed to be a national record.
This wind power could play a critical role with regard to consumer willingness to make use of electric vehicles as a primary mode of transportation. A 2019 study commissioned by the U.S. Department of Energy noted that that wide scale adoption of light-duty EVs could require modification to the country's electric power generation and distribution systems.
"Based on historical growth rates, sufficient energy generation and generation capacity is expected to be available to support a growing EV fleet as it evolves over time, even with high EV market growth," the report says.
Electric vehicle usage low
in Oklahoma, for now
Oklahoma drivers have been slow to adopt EVs. Just one out of every 1,000 cars on the road are electric vehicles, according to data from the U.S. Department of Energy. California, on the other hand, has about 14 EVs per 1,000 registered vehicles.
Spiers said that when he opened his EV battery refurbishment and remanufacturing facility in Oklahoma City almost eight years ago, "everyone, and perhaps rightly so, thought we were absolutely nuts."
Despite the slow uptake, Oklahoma has paid for enough high-speed charging stations that it's now No. 1 per capita for places to recharge an EV.
Lawmakers have also come around to the reality that EVs are only going to become more popular. Shortly after Canoo's announcement that it planned to build its vehicles here, lawmakers passed legislation to recoup gasoline tax revenue lost to EV growth.
The gasoline tax is a significant contributor to maintaining roads and bridges, and by 2045, the Oklahoma Department of Transportation estimates revenue will be slashed nearly in half as gas-powered cars become more fuel efficient and more drivers use electric vehicles. Starting in 2024, EV drivers will pay three cents per kilowatt hour at high-speed charging stations.
Stitt said he is focused on bringing more of the EV industry to Oklahoma. Nearly two years ago, Oklahoma's Department of Commerce announced the creation of an accelerator program to lure automotive manufacturing. The supply chain for the auto industry was moving further west, and Stitt saw an opening for Oklahoma.
"We were going after that, and then we started really understanding where the puck was headed. We started understanding where research and development dollars were headed, and they were all headed to electric vehicle manufacturing, EV technology," he said. "And so with that type of displacement in this market, you know, billions and billions of dollars worth of factories were going to be up for grabs – and these opportunities don't come around very often."
Fossil fuels aren't fading in Oklahoma, but diversification
Even though Oklahoma's government has pushed further than ever before into the world of EVs and alternative energy, it's not exactly walking away from fossil fuels.
"We're super proud of our oil and gas industry. And if you're gonna have an honest conversation about energy transition, it absolutely includes fossil fuels for the next 50 years," Stitt said.
He noted the use of Oklahoma's coal-fired power plants that helped pull the state through a deep freeze that triggered widespread blackouts in Texas last year.
"I am fine having a conversation about this. I can meet with anybody from Washington D.C. to sitting on an oil rig in Oklahoma," Stitt said. "I don't think they have to compete against each other; when we let the free market decide, it's amazing the innovation that can happen in America, and obviously it starts here in Oklahoma."
Stitt accepts that Oklahoma lagged behind other states when it came to recognizing the realities of a future economy powered by renewable energy, but he says the state now seeks to expand in those industries.
"We're not going to shy away from reducing carbon emissions, using clean-burning natural gas," Stitt said. "And let's have an all-of-the-above approach to energy in Oklahoma and the U.S."
Spiers, whose company also has a factory in The Netherlands, said that Oklahoma seems to be catching up to the rest of the world.
"Oklahoma in many ways was fairly backwards in their thinking, and traditional, and trying to protect the status quo. So in that respect, it is surprising," he said. "On the other hand, it's the future. So what else are you gonna do?"
The governor is also a proponent of producing hydrogen as an energy source. He recently signed a partnership with Arkansas and Louisiana to seek federal funding to develop hydrogen production in the region.
University of Central Oklahoma economist Travis Roach said development of the hydrogen industry would increase demand for the state's natural gas producers by adding another market where their methane can be sold.
Ultimately, the hydrogen would be another fuel source to ship around the world for various uses, including in vehicles.
The greenest form of hydrogen production uses renewable energy, like wind, solar or hydroelectrical, to split water into atoms of hydrogen and oxygen. So-called "blue hydrogen" is created using natural gas, an abundant resource in Oklahoma.
Instead of being released into the atmosphere, the carbon byproduct of burning natural gas to make hydrogen would be captured and stored in a process known as sequestration.
"I think one good argument for hydrogen is that it can make use of a lot of our existing infrastructure in terms of pipelines and rights of way," said Roach. "That's been one of the biggest hurdles to jump over for electrifying as much of our lives as possible, because transmission from our windiest and sunniest areas just out of date, old, or just not built up enough to match modern demand profiles."
Staff writer Dale Denwalt covers Oklahoma's economy and business news for The Oklahoman. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @denwalt. Support Dale's work and that of other Oklahoman journalists by purchasing a digital subscription today at subscribe.oklahoman.com.