Communities along Montana’s interstate highways and U.S. highways 2 and 93 are slated to receive an injection of federal electric vehicle charging station cash pending the Federal Highway Administration’s approval of a plan submitted by the state late last week.
The funding is part of the $1.2 trillion infrastructure package Congress passed last November. If the Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Deployment Plan co-authored by the state Department of Environmental Quality and the Montana Department of Transportation is green-lighted, the state is set to receive $43 million to expand the supply of direct-current fast-charging stations in Montana. The investment is part of President Joe Biden’s effort to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
The state’s plan prioritizes large existing gaps along the state’s interstate system and U.S. highways 93 and 2 first. Next up for funding will be locations where at least two road corridors connect and opportunities to bring Alternative Fuel Corridors, which the Federal Highway Administration describes as “the spine of the new national EV charging network,” into compliance with the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure (NEVI) program. To meet program requirements, each charging station must be located within 50 miles of another charging station, no more than a mile from established travel corridors, and within walking distance of amenities. The next tier of investment will be directed toward economically disadvantaged communities and gateway communities to national parks and other outdoor destinations.
Fulfilling those directives will take several years, with the federal government dispersing some portion of the total $43 million allocation to DEQ annually over a five-year period. In the first year of the allocation, the state plans to add 10 new charging stations to ensure that an EV charger is available every 100 miles of interstates 90, 15 and 94. This fall, DEQ will initiate a competitive bidding process for its first round of contracts to achieve that objective. Entities eligible to apply include but are not limited to EV charger service providers, potential site hosts, electricity utilities, businesses, local governments and nonprofits.
Electricity suppliers were heavily represented in meetings about the plan, accounting for nearly 20% of the 157 stakeholders who attended webinars, listening sessions or conventions where DEQ or MDT staffers discussed the initiative. How an expanded inventory of EV charging stations is expected to interact with electricity demand can help explain the interest of power companies and electricity co-ops.
DEQ has identified 10 communities along the prioritized corridors where electricity capacity issues are anticipated in the form of limited supply or overloaded substations. Six of those communities are located along US-2, the national highway that runs along northern Montana’s sparsely populated Hi-Line. Columbus, Superior, Darby and Dutton are also on that list.
The plan emphasizes rural connectivity and focuses on “rural communities where private investments are less likely to occur.” Respondents to a public survey were asked if it’s important to have charging infrastructure in communities that might not see many EVs today. About 70% of respondents said yes.
The plan identifies rough locations for 131 existing charging stations along interstates 90, 15 and 94, and U.S. highways 93 and 2. About a third of those existing stations were at least partially funded with money from Montana’s share of a 2017 settlement with the Environmental Protection Agency stemming from Volkswagen’s illegal circumvention of emissions monitoring technology.
Montana’s EV adoption rate has lagged significantly behind national trends, but it has been growing. As of January, 2,895 light-duty EVs were registered in the state. Most of those, 1,893, were battery-powered, with the remainder being plug-in hybrid models. The number of EV registrations has more than doubled since DEQ began collecting data on them in 2019. DEQ estimates there will be 30,000 EVs registered in the state by 2030, accounting for 9% of vehicle registrations in Montana. Flathead, Missoula and Gallatin counties lead the state for EV adoption.
Nonresidents account for considerably more EV traffic than Montana drivers, which is partially explained by the state’s popularity as a tourism destination. Between May and August, the number of vehicle trips in Montana doubles compared to the winter months, and more than 70% of visitors enter the state by passenger vehicle or truck. By 2030, DEQ anticipates 100,000 EV drivers from other states will be traveling state roadways.
The market piece of the equation — who will pay for the electricity the charging stations require to replenish EV batteries — is not fleshed out in the plan, but it is referenced in a section about how sporadic demand is expected to pencil out in low-traffic rural areas.
“Under a low-use scenario in which one 150 kilowatt station is used one time per week, the average utility bill impact for a single charging session would be $358,” according to the report. “Typically, the site host or station owner would be responsible for paying this cost.”
The report also touches on electricity rate structures, which are calculated in such a way that customers who require an inconsistent supply of electricity or use electricity during times of peak demand pay more than those with steady, off-peak electricity needs.
“Demand charges as they are currently configured in utility rate structures will be a significant barrier to building out an EV fast-charging network in Montana that meets NEVI program requirements,” the report notes.
Another potential snag pertains to a law Montana legislators passed in 2019 that prevents the owners or operators of EV charging stations from basing fueling costs on the current cost of electricity. That means EV drivers cannot be assessed a charging fee based on the kilowatt-hour of use.
Other potential pricing structures could be based on the amount of time a vehicle is plugged into a charging station, though that “can create equity issues because older vehicles and batteries take more time to charge than newer model EVs,” the plan says.
The state anticipates announcing the program’s first round of funding sometime this winter or spring. At that time it will also conduct outreach to economically disadvantaged communities in preparation for its first annual EV Deployment Plan review and update.