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    Electric vehicles are coming. Is Alabama ready? EV registrations in 2022 are already up 100% over last year.


    September 26, 2022 - Dennis Pillion - dpillion@al.com

     

      For the better part of the past decade, Alabama has been turning itself into a place where electric cars are made.

      Now the state just needs to become a place where electric vehicles are driven.

      The number of electric cars in Alabama is expected to balloon in the coming years, meaning new challenges, including installing charging stations, maintaining the power grid, and convincing consumers that their transportation needs can be met without gasoline.

      “We need to lean in on this new technology for the sake of our economy tomorrow'” Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey told attendees at Thursday’s Drive Electric Alabama EV Summit in Birmingham, a gathering of about 500 people representing automotive manufacturers and suppliers, power companies, state and local government officials and private businesses that have been formed to help shepherd the transition to an electric vehicle future.

      “It is happening and it is here,” said Kenneth Boswell, director of the Alabama Department of Economic and Community Affairs, which is directing many of the state’s efforts to boost electric infrastructure.

      The numbers bear that out.

      Caitlin Hilliard — manager of marketing programs for Alabama Power, who handles electric vehicle initiatives for the state’s largest utility — told the audience that new electric vehicle registrations in Alabama jumped 60% from 2020 to 2021 and that registrations in 2022 are already up 100% over last year. Currently there are more than 9,000 EVs registered in Alabama, and that number will likely shoot up dramatically in the coming years.

      “By 2030, we could have up to 550,000 electric vehicles in the state of Alabama,” Hilliard said. “So, obviously, there’s a lot of opportunity there.

      “That’s going to be a big transition for all of us and our customers. And so we have to work together.”

      But with that brings challenges. Roads will have to be paid for. The power grid will have to be maintained. People will have to feel comfortable shopping for electric cars and confident that an EV can fit in their budget and meet their transportation needs.

      Here, as identified at the conference, are some of the largest potential speed bumps to fully electrifying Alabama’s transportation sector.

      EDUCATION

      Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? The car or the charger?

      Will people buy electric cars without knowing they can reliably charge them? Will stores and gas stations, businesses and multi-family apartment complexes prioritize installing electric vehicle charging stations when there are not that many electric cars on the road?

      Cathy Anderson Stender — owner of Woody Anderson Ford dealership in Huntsville — said one of the most important steps is helping customers overcome range anxiety and become comfortable with owning an electric car.

      “They’re not all electrical engineers,” she said. “So making it simple for them, so that they know that they can purchase one from us, we can arrange for it to be installed, we can help test it.”

      Part of that will resolve naturally, as prices keep falling for electric vehicles, and the battery range keeps increasing. Most EVs produced now can go 250 miles or more on a single charge and the prices are coming down and are projected to reach parity with gasoline-powered vehicles in the near future.

      Bernard Swiecki, research director with the Center for Automotive Research, said that while consumers might pay more up front for an EV now, the savings on operations and maintenance are significant.

      “Once you have it at home that electric vehicle will be cheaper to own, he said.

      “Even if the cost of buying is a little bit higher, those things make the cost of total ownership a little bit more reasonable for the long term for consumers.”

      Consumers also might not have as much choice 10 years from now. General Motors has already announced that it plans to stop selling new gasoline-powered vehicles by 2035, and other automakers, including Mercedes-Benz, Ford, Toyota and Hyundai are investing billions in an electrified future.

      WHO PAYS FOR ROADS?

      One issue to be worked out is how Alabama is to fund its infrastructure in a world with low or no gas tax revenue.

      “It’s a major issue,” said Rep. Danny Garrett, R-Trussville, who is chair of the Alabama House Ways and Means Committee. “Roads in Alabama are 100% financed by gasoline taxes.”

      Garrett said some of that gas tax money is used to get federal funds, sometimes even at a 20-80 split with the federal government picking up most of the costs of highway projects, but even that 20% has to come from somewhere.

      The state currently has a $200 annual fee for electric vehicle drivers, paid when they register their vehicles, but Garrett said even if the state saw a full-on switch to electric vehicles, that would only raise about $100 million, about 10%, Garrett said, of the state’s gas tax revenue.

      “We’ve got to replace really a billion dollars of gasoline taxes with something,” he said. “We don’t know what that’s going to be, but there’ll be a lot of discussion about that. It’s a very important issue.”

      WHAT ABOUT THE GRID?

      As thousands more Alabamians begin refueling their vehicles at home, state utilities say they’re well positioned to handle the additional electrical load.

      Justin Harrison, manager of power delivery central engineering and network underground for Alabama Power, said Alabama utilities aren’t at risk of blackouts.

      “We do have just as good, if not better, of a grid that you’ll find anywhere else in the United States,” Harrison said.

      He said Alabama Power’s network features fiber optic communications, advanced metering combined with data analytics and a “self-healing” fault reduction system that helps optimize the grid and be prepared for the next wave of electric vehicles.

      “I want you to rest easy that we’re on this, and I want you to feel confident, that our grid can keep up,” Harrison said.

      Joe Gehrides — director of community relations for Huntsville Utilities, which gets its power from Alabama’s other major provider, the Tennessee Valley Authority — agreed that Alabama was not at risk of EV-induced blackouts.

      “I would tell the residents of Alabama not to worry about that,” he said. “I think, and especially after the previous comments, and how far along our grid technology is in the state of Alabama, we just have to be careful about the way we deploy the technology.”

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