EV Charging Rapidly On the Rise in Oklahoma (Text Version)

This is a text version of the podcast episode EV Charging Rapidly On the Rise in Oklahoma from May 24, 2022.

Mollie Putzig: Welcome to On the Go – an on-road transportation podcast with Clean Cities. In this episode, we're talking about the rapid build out of Oklahoma's electric vehicle charging network. To kick us off, let's introduce our hosts. I'm Mollie Putzig.

Joanna Allerhand: And I'm Joanna Allerhand. Today, we will be joined by two guests with expertise in deploying electric vehicle charging infrastructure. They'll be discussing the Charge OK grant program.

Mollie Putzig: This program used VW settlement funds to put $3.1 million towards installing EV chargers resulting in 90 new DC fast and dual port level two stations. Here to tell you more are Eric Pollard from the Association of Central Oklahoma Governments, which houses Central Oklahoma Clean Cities, and Leon Ashford from the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality. Welcome, Eric and Leon. Thanks so much for being here. Let's get started.


Joanna Allerhand: Eric, tell me more about the rapid build out of Oklahoma's EV charging network.

Eric Pollard: So, for Oklahoma, on the charging network, we really – it's sort of a situation where the stars aligned and, in many ways, we got kind of lucky. But with that luck, it goes all the way back to the late 2000s and the leadership at the state legislature looking at alternative fuels and, at that time, being mainly compressed natural gas. In the past, it's just been tax credits that have really been some of the best in the nation in allowing for companies and others to expand alternative fuel vehicles and infrastructure deployments. And so, over the years, those tax credits have been discussed with the legislature, and part of – you know, the strengths of Clean Cities program and working with our stakeholders to advocate for those incentives since then. But fast forward to 2016 – the first federal highway, alternative fuel corridor request – Central Oklahoma Clean Cities and Tulsa Clean Cities working closely working with our state partners to put forth the first corridor nominations, and then, it kind of – the ball just got rolling there from that to the Electrify America and sending requests to them for locations, and then, eventually, the Volkswagen settlement allocation to the state that we're gonna talk a lot about today.

Joanna Allerhand: Great. Thank you. So, I understand that since 2018, Oklahoma has had the largest growth of EV charging ports of any state, and in 2020 alone, ports increased by 122 percent. Can you talk more about the factors that influenced that growth?

Eric Pollard: Absolutely. Yeah. Early on in the discussions about Volkswagen settlement dollars in the state, there was a pretty broad agreement among stakeholders that we really wanted this to be a statewide charging network. And a lot of that came together within the Clean Cities Coalitions in the state and our combined efforts with an EV coalition as well. So, we had great buy-in from many stakeholders, and we had real cooperatives advocating and communicating their priorities for EV adoption on a statewide basis, even in those rural areas – the understanding that rural drivers have almost the most to gain from driving electric, whether it's commuting or otherwise putting more miles on vehicles and things like that.

So, we were pretty unified in that message. For the Association of Central Oklahoma Governments where Central Oklahoma Clean Cities Coalition is housed – we wanted to balance that with deployments within Central Oklahoma. Oklahoma City is one of the largest regions that's still in attainment of air quality standards, and electrification is a big part of that effort. So, we were really pleased with how that went – those discussions about the Volkswagen settlement and the decisions that were made at the state level, and then, really, those stars aligning that I mentioned were the tax credit combined with dollars coming from Volkswagen and really, private sector partnerships and companies that were ready to come to the table and say, "We want to make this investment. We're gonna monetize the tax credit. We're gonna take advantage of this and we're gonna hit the ground running" and literally, driving all around the state trying to come up with lease agreements for space for charging around the state.

And so, 2019 was sort of a watershed moment. The tax credit was shifting from 75 percent for EV charging to 45 percent, and we had one of our stakeholders, Francis Energy, really making that full sprint. Towards the end of 2019, we were able to put a lot of charging out there.

Mollie Putzig: So, with the VW funds from that, it looks like those were a big part of influencing that growth. I'm seeing that it was $3.1 million for EV chargers from 2019 to 2021, and 90 new DC Fast and Dual Port Level Two stations – a lot of that looks like it was accomplished under the Charge OK grant program. So, Leon, could you tell us – how did you develop the Charge OK grant program?

Leon Ashford: The Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality that received the VW trust funds for the state of Oklahoma – we decided that we needed some partners. So, we worked with Oklahoma Department of Transportation, the Oklahoma Secretary of Energy and Environments Office, and the Oklahoma Corporation Commission, which is in charge of electric generation here in Oklahoma. And the four entities designated one person from each, and we worked together to develop an idea of what we wanted in an EV charging station and the applications and everything. We decided to have a 90-day open application where we would accept the applications. We also decided that for an EV charging station to be successful, it would need to be in a location that you would not mind spending a little bit of time at.

We wanted to have locations that had – 24 hours a day – had access, at least, to a bathroom and water – that was the minimum – and hopefully, to food. If a location had easy access to one or more restaurants close by, then that was a big thumbs up, 'cause we knew that you don't want to just go to an EV charging station, hook up your car and sit in it and wait for the charge. You'd rather use it being a little bit more productive.

Mollie Putzig: Yeah. Those are great starting points for looking at where you might want to put chargers. I'm curious – what criteria were used to prioritize charging stations beyond that?

Leon Ashford: Beyond having the amenities we were looking for, the highest – the most chargers and the highest-level chargers – if you're looking at a level three fast charger, the minimum charging rate is 50kw and it goes up from there. And, for example, the Infrastructure Investment in Jobs Act – it has a requirement of 150kw level. At the time that we started doing this – back in 2018 – 50kw seemed like a really strong charger and very hefty, but they keep increasing the size of the chargers – kind of like early on with computers – you know, it's you wait a year or two and you get bigger and better. The faster chargers – if you can reduce the amount of time spent charging, that's gonna be a big plus. One thing I would like to tell any state or anyone who's just now starting on this – one of the things you need to do is don't assume a level of understanding for all the people who apply for a charger project.

And you also need to understand – you need to make it clear that a level – that a charger – a box – a charger is a charger. A lot of people kind of new to this area, whenever they see two connector types, they assume that's two chargers. We've had quite a few people who would put on their application that they were applying to put in four chargers, and we find out that they're actually applying to put in two chargers, but each one of them would have one CHAdeMO and one CCS connector on each side.

Eric Pollard: I think – as Leon's lesson there about you're gonna have a variety of interested parties that want to go after the funding, that want to put in charging, and as we look forward to the IIJA funding – the infrastructure bill funding that's coming – I assume we're gonna see those same things there. So, I think this is an opportunity for the Clean Cities coordinators to get involved with whoever's running the program within the state. Since we undertook this in 2018, there's no focuses. Like, the J40 initiative from the federal government and the Clean Cities coordinators are gonna be critical in working with the state agencies to work with a lot of different groups to put in charging with a lot of different interests. So, that's important moving forward.

Mollie Putzig: Yeah. A lot of exciting growth in this area. So, looking at those chargers, I'm wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about how the stations were involved, who was involved, and what their process was.

Leon Ashford: We had some municipalities, but most of the municipalities and the colleges applied for level two chargers, which makes sense there. We had – I contacted, for the most part, every chain convenience store company here in the state of Oklahoma and tried to make sure that they were aware of the possibility. Some of them were interested and applied, and some were not. As Eric said, we were extremely lucky to have a private company that was interested in installing chargers around in the state of Oklahoma and using the tax credits that we had available here, and they were responsible for installing a lot of chargers and uninstalling a lot of them in locations that probably wouldn't have been interested otherwise. And that helped substantially in increasing the number of chargers here in the state of Oklahoma.

Mollie Putzig: Great. So, I think anyone working in this field knows, there are inevitably gonna be challenges that come up in any project. So, could you tell us a little bit about what were some of the challenges that the Charge OK program faced and how you overcame them?

Leon Ashford: One challenge that we really – we didn't solve it ourselves, but the private company that was here installing chargers – we had a situation where we had someone to apply, and they were gonna put some level two charging and one level three charger in a turnpike situation. A turnpike is where you need the fastest charging possible, and a level two charger won't do that. So, we were fortunate in that the people who applied for those – for placing this in their convenience stores along the turnpikes – were approached by the private company and they were – this company basically took over the contract from them, and instead of putting in level two chargers and one minimum power level three, they put in some higher level – all level three chargers, which was great, because if they had put in the level twos, they probably would never have been used. So, that was one problem that we were able to overcome. Another hint for the states that haven't done this yet but are looking at it – you need to think really hard about if a company applies for 10 different projects, are you gonna separate each one of those projects into a separate contract by itself or try to keep 'em together?

If you keep 'em together, are you gonna line itemize them in your contract so you can keep each one separate? It's very surprising – from the time you accept an application, we've had some site hosts to go bankrupt so, that project could not happen. We've had other project applications where the entity applying, after a month or two of not doing anything, they decide to back out of the contract. The longer you go without them actively working on the installation, the higher probability they may end up not completing the contract. That's very disappointing for us.

Eric Pollard: I would add – you know, one of the things that we saw early on is in trying to build a statewide network, obviously, you have your investor-owned utilities, your real cooperatives, and your municipal power authorities, and so, each of them have unique rate structures and demand charges. And this is an area where maybe their challenges are gonna continue, and just something that the folks that designed the programs – and definitely the Clean Cities coordinators and the stakeholders they're working with to build out the network – there's not a silver bullet right now, but it's an ongoing thing I think we need to have in mind as we move forward here – especially looking at the infrastructure bill. I think Leon can maybe speak to this, but I think it's interesting to see which stations are doing well and which ones maybe aren't seeing as much utilization. I think DEQ has, over time, collected information on that usage, and that's great for us, obviously, 'cause we can connect it with the emissions reductions and kind of get a glimpse of maybe where the EVs are growing. So, actually, as of today – as of this record – we got some news that Oklahoma – our market share for EV of light-duty sales in 2021 was over 2 percent, and that's from 0.2 percent in 2020.

So, you can't say exactly that the charging network is the big cause of that, but it definitely plays into it. So, lots of growth moving forward, but definitely a big jump. The timing of this was really tough, too. A lot of these projects went into place maybe right before the pandemic, and so, to get a – we all knew we maybe only have less than one year of data – of usage data – that we're looking at, so, that adds another level of complexity to gauge our level of success.

Joanna Allerhand: So, a couple other things that I think had come up during this – I was hoping that you could speak to – were an initial issue with some areas where maybe there wasn't great cell coverage, and also, a lack of station payment accessibility. It sounds like you guys overcame those problems?

Leon Ashford: Well, we didn't, but our – the people who applied for the contracts did. They took steps to try to figure out how to get a better cell coverage. Or sometimes, when you're in rural area, you have one cell company that's providing better coverage than the other, and apparently, they worked with that and made sure that the chargers had coverage. And, as far as a payment, we've always – when we were first looking at this, we had several companies to come and provide information to us, and several companies were – we wanted people to be able to go to a charger and not be a member of a network or have to do anything in advance, but to be able to use that charger. And the charger – the companies that made the chargers said, "That's okay. But we don't want credit card readers."

That's a big – everyone knows you can put a skimmer on a credit card reader and have problems. And since some of these may not – they're not inside or anything like that where they're constantly watched, they wanted to avoid any problems with that. Some of the companies do have fobs that they use instead of any kind of a network card or anything like that, and I believe some of them do have some kind of a network – their own network card – that if you get that, you can use any charger within their network and be able to use it. But we needed some way to overcome any kind of problem like that, and I believe all of our chargers do have a phone number posted where if you have any issues, you have a phone number that you can call and have them turn the charger on for you or whatever it is that you need – or be able to make a payment using a credit card, but over the telephone and not with a card reader.

Eric Pollard: And this was an area, too, that I think Clean Cities coalitions around the country can provide that outlet or that opportunity for stakeholders that are actively using a new network to communicate any issues they may be having with the companies that put it in, and just allowing that platform to have those discussions and come up with solutions. So, we had fleets that had added vehicles in many ways because of the charging that was put out there and were able to address issues quickly – both within those forums that the Clean Cities Coalition and the EV coalition had, but also, just one on one as stakeholders.

Mollie Putzig: Okay.

Leon Ashford: I'd like to go back to the working – or the people applying for different projects working with their electric company. We did require, in our application process, that the – whoever applied would go to their electric company and discuss what was needed for them. A lot of people might not quite understand that their electric supply might not be adequate for installing one of these chargers. And depending on the strength of the charger, they may have to – the electric company might have to provide a heavier duty line to where they are, or they might have to install a larger transformer or something to that effect. Now, some of the electric companies might be willing to do that free because they know they're gonna be selling you a lot more electricity, but other companies may not. So, you really have to know what you're looking at with your specific company.

Mollie Putzig: Okay. So, safe to say, it's important to work with your utility early and understand the options that are out there.

Leon Ashford: Yes. 'Cause another thing is – it could, as Eric said, it could affect your utility bill, depending on how it's structured. It could impact it quite a bit or it might not impact it that much. It depends.

Mollie Putzig: I did also want to mention quickly, while we're talking about some of the challenges to overcome, that I know it was the case in Oklahoma – like it is in a lot of places – that there are a lot of Tesla vehicles out there while a lot of the charging stations that we're talking about here are the non-proprietary networks. So, just important to understand the availability of adapters for different vehicle types and charging types.

Eric Pollard: Yeah. And we – you know, part of the reason why these ride and drive events are important and the engagement with the driver groups is we – those things have just come naturally. These adapters are shared within the Tesla owners club, and you see posts on their Facebook groups all the time of, "Hey, I'm taking a trip down here. Can I borrow the adapter?" So, even with the issues of compatibility between Tesla and those chargers, you're still seeing use of the network within the Tesla community.

Leon Ashford: And some of the charging locations even have some adapters that they will loan the Tesla drivers.

Mollie Putzig: So, continuing on, I did want to talk about how you built on the success of the first round of funding to carry that on to a second round.

Leon Ashford: Well, it was actually kind of eye-opening. At one time, I was looking at our network the way it exists and thinking about the different EV corridors or alt fuel corridors that we have and realizing we still had a lot of holes in our network. And I thought, "Well, in reality, the best use of these funds is to use them to get chargers installed in locations that might not otherwise get the charger. It's best to use these funds to say, fund a project in a more rural area where it would be maybe several years before anyone ever thought about putting a charger there unless you fund it, instead of getting an additional – the bigger draw or the more chargers – or more charging that you're gonna have – is usually in the urbanized areas, while a lot of our urbanized areas are covered pretty well right now. So, it's best to use it in places where we have holes in our network.

So, for round two of the Volkswagen funding that we had, we looked at and designated specific locations, and targeted those locations and accepted projects only for those locations. And we ended up with – I think it was 11 DC fast chargers in 6 locations. Actually, we were hoping to get 13 in 7 locations, but we've had another project application to go down the tubes for us.

Mollie Putzig: Well, that's too bad, but it sounds great that you were able to take the second round of funding and Solar Foundation zoom out your lens a little bit and get a bigger picture on what was still needed out there. So, continuing on to that, how do you think the Charge OK program influenced charging station growth in the rest of Oklahoma?

Leon Ashford: I hope that it made it to where people have seen these chargers around and get more comfortable with where they might need it. There is a – are chargers available for them and just trying to let the public know that we're out there. We don't have any specific signs or anything on our charging locations so, you may not be able to tell when you pull up to one that we helped fund it, but we don't – the main thing is to have the charging locations out there and have them in use. I think – well, I know that several of the entities that have applied for charging projects and received some funding from us, they have come back to us to let us know if there's any more money available, they're ready with other projects. I've had to refer most of 'em – or tell them that the next round will be worked by the Oklahoma Department of Transportation and that they needed to keep alert as to if the Oklahoma Department of Transportation comes out with an announcement about funding available, and that they need to keep their pencils sharp and their applications ready to submit.

But I've also told them that there's a minimum requirement of 150kw chargers and there's a minimum of 4 chargers per charging location, which a lot of our charging locations might have had 1 charger or maybe 2. And quite a few of them were only 50kw so, I'm not sure – I believe that it might be a bigger project than what they were expecting in the first place, but hopefully, that information will be available to 'em, and if they work with their electric companies, they can find out exactly what they would need to do to be able to apply it and put in more chargers.

Eric Pollard: Yeah. And on that, Leon, I think a big part of Charge OK was just finding these locations and coming up with these lease agreements – whether it's a grocery store or a convenience store or whatever it was. You now have those agreements in place and so, if charging does need to be upgraded – if it's on the corridor, then maybe they can go after some infrastructure bill dollars. Those agreements are in place and that infrastructure's there. So, I would say, the Charge OK project – we were able to pair a couple of the projects with other federal funding.

In one example, the city of Edmond, which is a community just to the north of Oklahoma City, the city decided to go after funding for level two charging at a number of diverse locations. So, they had a vet tennis center that they put charging at, city parks, and they are seeing quite a bit of usage and are really happy with where their usage is at, even during the pandemic. So, they've decided to make additional investments in level two at, I believe, 6 additional locations. So, that's just one example of where the Charge OK funding has really spurred growth. And I think Leon may have touched on this a little bit, but with our lead applicant for Charge OK in Francis Energy, one of the success stories with the tax credit in place was that they weren't – they took a lower cost share of the Charge OK funding, and that was – with them doing that, we were, I think, able to spread the funding a lot – over a wider base.

Joanna Allerhand: Eric, can you tell us more about what benefits are provided by this new charging infrastructure – both in terms of air quality benefits and contributing to more EV adoption?

Eric Pollard: Yeah. So, Oklahoma – we're an oil and gas state. But Central Oklahoman Clean Cities – we just celebrated our 25th anniversary last year. We come at whatever opportunities there are out there with that Clean Cities mission, with a fuel-neutral approach. And so, with electric vehicles, it's just an extension of what we've always done.

So, for the ACOG perspective, where our coalition is housed, there's sort of two pillars of – what I tell people, when they ask about this – when they say, "Really? EVs in an oil and gas state?" And it's – our Clean Cities' mission has been consistent from the beginning. We're looking at what fuels are out there, what clean transportation options are out there that will save fleets money, save consumers money. I mentioned that approach for rural drivers that we – in rural Oklahoma, you can save more money than someone driving within one of our major cities and so, that's one of the main things that's driving it.

For – the other side of it, obviously, is the emissions benefit. So, for Oklahoma City, one of the largest regions in the country that's still in attainment of air quality standards, transportation electrification is critical. We're a spread-out community. A lot of sprawl. ACOG and the Clean Cities' approach is balanced.

We're looking at those opportunities for transit expansion, public transportation, transportation alternative, bike, ped, energy efficient mobility systems work – EEMS work – congestion mitigation. All those things are on the table, but single occupancy vehicle travel is – it's a reality. It's gonna continue to be the main mode of transportation within Oklahoma. So, for us, the more vehicles we can get over to electric, the better we are in maintaining clean air, staying in attainment of air quality standards. And so, part of what we're doing now is communicating that with the public of "Here are some of the emissions reductions efforts we need to take. And if not, we're facing a pretty drastic situation if we go into non-attainment and have those additional federal regulations come down on the community."

Joanna Allerhand: And how do you think this investment will help broaden EV adoption from the early adopters to more mainstream?

Eric Pollard: Yeah. So, I mentioned the good news that we just got about our adoption numbers and the growth in sales and so, what Leon talked about – and that visibility – we'll continue to build off the strength of the network. Leon mentioned signage. I think there's more we can do on putting signage out there to inform the consumer. So, we're gonna try to build off the strength of the network.

And the infrastructure bill funding is certainly key. But there's also just been a lot of policy discussions that have been spurred and will continue to happen around electric vehicles. If you watch the Super Bowl – what, two or three commercials were electric vehicles. So, we get a lot of arguments like, "Well, EVs aren't paying their fair share of road – of gas tax." It's something that our legislature addressed last year.

We're kind of following what a lot of states are doing in terms of a registration fee, but even though that was settled, we're thinking ahead as a planning agency and sort of getting really involved in those discussions about road user charges and kind of looking at what's the next thing that is maybe a threat or a barrier. And so, as the coalition gathering stakeholders throughout this process – so, whether it's corridor designations or VW funding or Infrastructure Bill funding, that coalition work and looking down the road at what the next things are and what those barriers are to adoption is gonna be key.

Joanna Allerhand: And you mentioned the recently passed Infrastructure Bill. What future efforts are planned in Oklahoma for continuing to expand charging infrastructure and promote EV adoption?

Eric Pollard: Well, I'm confident in the work of Leon and others that, in many ways, because of the leadership that was displayed throughout the development of Charge OK, I think we've kind of got a blueprint. We've got the corridors that we've lined out, the network that we've lined out, and so, it's a matter of getting the band back together, looking at what the gaps are. Hopefully, in looking at the network, it’s are there opportunities for innovation? One of the things that I'm really curious about and working with other Clean Cities coordinators on is working with our Ubers and Lyfts of the world – the TNCs. They've made solid commitments to electrification and so, is there airport charging for TNCs that we need to look at or locations they're dropping off at in addition to those traditional interstate-type travel locations that will definitely be prioritized.

Joanna Allerhand: Great. And is there anything else you want to add before we close or any further advice for others looking to do similar work?

Eric Pollard: You know, I think part of our message is, in some ways, the charging network is a bit of luck, but it also was a lot of work from multiple Clean Cities coordinators over two decades of solidifying policies in place that really encouraged adoption. As opportunities came up, aligning the stakeholder in your region and your state and the areas you covered to take advantage of those opportunities – at the end of the day, it's about leadership. And the folks making those decisions – whether it was on VW or other things – it was really backed by Clean Cities coalition stakeholders that were aligned with similar visions.

Leon Ashford: I'm ready to see a bunch of F150s driving around all over Oklahoma.

Joanna Allerhand: Wouldn't that be great?

Mollie Putzig: Thanks, Eric and Leon, for joining us and sharing your experiences with EV charging infrastructure build out in Oklahoma. Stay tuned for future episodes on ethanol, vehicle to building, and electric school bus resources.

Joanna Allerhand: That's it for this episode of On the Go. As we wrap up, I want to thank the US Department of Energy's Vehicle Technologies Office and our team here at the National Renewable Energy Lab for their support. Also, a big thanks to Britney Conrad and Vern Slocum, our podcast editors. We couldn't do it without you.

Mollie Putzig: If you want to learn more about Clean Cities and its partnerships to develop affordable, efficient, and clean transportation options to accelerate the development and wide-spread use of a variety of innovative transportation technologies, visit CleanCities.energy.gov.