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Bill to help build electric vehicle infrastructure in rural areas moves along

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Bill to help build electric vehicle infrastructure in rural areas moves along

Mar 04, 2024 | 5:50 am ET
By Charlie Paullin
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Bill to help build electric vehicle infrastructure in rural areas moves along
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The Biden administration's goal to have half of all U.S. vehicles be electric by 2030, will require increased production of minerals such as lithium, nickel and cobalt used in batteries. (Sarah Vogelsong/Virginia Mercury)

A bill that would create a state fund to help pay for building public electric vehicle charging stations in rural areas is trucking along after a near death in a Senate finance subcommittee Thursday afternoon.

House Bill 107, from Del. Rip Sullivan, D-Fairfax, who has introduced similar measures the past two sessions, initially got carried over to next year, the same fate for a version that Sen. Dave Marsden, D-Fairfax, had introduced earlier this session.

But since Sullivan wasn’t present for the carryover action, the Senate Finance Natural Resources Subcommittee reheard the motion after he entered the room. 

Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Charlottesville, then had the bill reconsidered and put a re-enactment clause on it, meaning the bill will have to go back to the House this session for approval of the changes, which likely won’t happen.

The costs

The bill would give private charging station developers money for up to 70% of the non-utility costs to build EV charging stations for public use in distressed communities. 

According to Sparkcharge, an EV charging station developer, the costs to build them can range from up to $1,000 for the slower Level 1 chargers, upwards of $10,000 for faster Level 2 chargers and upwards of $20,000 for even faster Level 3 chargers, with costs increasing if ports or energy storage capabilities are added.

Some $2 million in funding for the bill was included in the original House budget, but not in the Senate version, which is what the House spending plan reconciled this week. 

Earlier this session, when discussing Mardsen’s version in the Senate Finance Committee – which Sullivan described as broader than his – Deeds said his concern was that establishing the fund would require more than $50,000.

“I’m just not sure we have that funding this year,” Deeds said. 

Greg Habeeb, a former delegate and now lobbyist on behalf of Carbon Solutions Group, which has been backing the bill this session, said “I hope they fund it.” But now, near the end of the session, “there’s a lot of things that motivate decisions.” He also shared Deeds’ concern.

“I think everybody agrees with the policy, the issue is will there be funding,” said Habeeb, adding he’s not sure where the governor stands on the matter but that the administration has been “open minded,” on several energy policy matters.

Youngkin spokesman Christian Martinez said in an emailed statement, “The Governor will review any legislation that comes to his desk.”

How the bill would benefit rural communities, align with Clean Car standards

The bill defines a distressed community as a city with less than 1,470 people per square mile or a county with less than 160 people per square mile, or one with a poverty and unemployment rate that is above the state average, which was 10.6% and 3%, respectively.

For example, Warren County would qualify under the population requirement, having a population of about 190 people per square mile. Several other rural localities would also be eligible for the EV charging updates.

“This bill just provides the small nudge it will take to get the necessary infrastructure into forgotten parts of Virginia when it comes to EV infrastructure,” said Habeeb in testimony during the Senate Ag committee. “Wherever you are on EVs, wherever you are on Clean Cars, it doesn’t matter. This is about investing in rural Virginia and making sure we don’t get left behind.”

The proposal from Sullivan, he said, is intended to fill a gap in the transition to electric vehicles, which major automakers have pledged to convert their fleets to. Virginia’s Clean Car Act standards will begin banning the sale of gas powered vehicles in 2035.  But critics of the standards have called out the lack of rural electric vehicle infrastructure as one of the transition’s major challenges.

Republican legislators have also said the lack of EV infrastructure limits the ability of rural residents and farmers to use electric vehicles because of the distances they have to drive for work. According to the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond, nearly 20% of rural residents in Virginia have a commute greater than 30 minutes.

Sen. Richard Stuart, R-Westmoreland, who represents five counties in the Northern Neck that are mostly rural, said while speaking in favor of his bill to repeal the Clean Car Act standards, which Democrats defeated earlier this session, that he was aware of only two chargers in his district.

“We don’t have the infrastructure,” Stuart said. “We haven’t begun to put in the infrastructure.”

Supporters argued that the Clean Car Act standards, which have more stringent emission regulations than the federal proposals, are complementary to the Virginia Clean Economy Act, which aims to reduce vehicle emissions to combat climate change that fuels more extreme weather events.

About 36% to 38% of the state’s emissions come from the transportation sector, which the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality said in its recently drafted Climate Pollution Reduction Grant plan has consistently been the highest emitting sector in the state. The first measure to reduce pollution emissions in that proposed plan identifies a goal of electrifying vehicles, which would “require an expanded network of fast and reliable EV charging stations to support charging demand.”

Sullivan has also said expanding charging infrastructure could increase tourism opportunities in Virginia, particularly for outdoor areas like New River Valley State Trail Park or Old Rag in Shenandoah National Park.

“It’s good for our economy, it creates jobs and it treats all Virginians the same so that we don’t have this disparity over where electric vehicle infrastructure is placed in Virginia,” Sullivan said.

Other EV infrastructure efforts

The federal government has committed $100 million to Virginia in the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Formula program, but that money can only be used to build chargers sited within one mile of highway corridors, including Interstates 95, 64, 66, 85 81 and 77. One reason funding for Sullivan’s bill in previous years was delayed was the incorrect thinking that this federal funding would be extended to rural areas.

“Turns out,” Habeeb said, the feds put everything around the highways.

DEQ received $93 million from car manufacturer Volkswagen by way of a settlement over pollution issues from the company, with $14 million going toward building out charging stations. With that funding, DEQ has deployed 142 chargers with 284 charging ports across 45 host sites around the state as of July 2022, putting 93% of Virginians within a 30-mile distance of a charger.

Stations built from that settlement are included in a recent report from the Southern Environmental Law Center that shows that the state as a whole had about 1,418 public charging stations, with a vast majority of them in the urban regions of Northern Virginia, Richmond and Hampton Roads area. Though that number of stations increased about 75% from the number of stations in the state in 2020, virtually none are in Southwest Virginia, with a handful sprinkled throughout the rest of the state.

“You can see why you need this bill if you look at that map,” said Trip Pollard, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Bill to help build electric vehicle infrastructure in rural areas moves along
A map of electric vehicle charging stations in Virginia. (Courtesy of Southern Environmental Law Center)

Next steps

The House will likely reject House Bill 107’s amendment because that will send the bill to conference, a relatively regular practice in the legislature where a select group of lawmakers meets in private to work out differences between any bills. Otherwise, if the bill remains as is, the re-enactment clause effectively kills it because it means the bill will have to come back for approval next year before it becomes a law.

“I’ll have to think about what I want to do: put it in conference or not, because we’ll want to take off the enactment clause over in the House,” said Sullivan in an interview. “In the famous words of that character in [the movie] Monty Python, ‘I’m not dead yet.’”