This story was updated Wednesday morning to include comments made by the Gov. John Hickenlooper.
GUNNISON, Colo. – Crested Butte and Gunnison together may have 22 electric vehicles, not counting plug-in hybrids or EVs driven into the mountain valley from elsewhere.
Charging stations? That’s easy. Five can be found between in the two towns and another one is located 55 miles away at Lake City, in Hinsdale County.
None of the charging stations get a ton of use, but that’s not the point. The purpose of the free fueling stations is to get people comfortable with the idea of electric cars.
Colorado’s state government has been assisting in many local efforts to smooth and accelerate the transition to electrified transportation. The state unveiled a plan in 2016 to create electrified interstate highways in common with Utah and Nevada. Last year, other Western states agreed to join in.
Flanked by BMW, Tesla and Kia electric cars outside the Alliance Center in Denver on Wednesday, Gov. John Hickenlooper announced the release of a Colorado Electric Vehicle Plan that he said will help reduce transportation emissions and range anxiety across the Rocky Mountain West.
“We’re not talking about wild buffalo,” Hickenlooper told a crowd of people gathered in the parking lot. “It’s that anxiety and worry that people have that they’ll get out there and not be able to charge. We’re fixing that.”
Now, the state is expanding its effort to secondary highways, both federal and state.
In doing this Colorado will draw on its share of the settlement from German automaker Volkswagen, which in 2016 admitted programming its cars to cheat on emissions tests. Hickenlooper’s staff has apportioned $10.8 million from the state’s $68 million share to boost installation of charging infrastructure for EVs. One-third is to be used for in-town locations but two-thirds is to go to highways. U.S.Highway 50 through Gunnison could be a potential recipient.
Colorado has 53 EV fast-charging stations, according to the electric vehicle plan. Hickenlooper wants to use grant money to quadruple that amount.
“If you want to accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles, you want to create a statewide network that allows the owner of an EV to go anywhere in the state,” explains Christian Williss, director of the Transportation Fuels & Technology department at the Colorado Energy Office. Williss says his department is creating an invitation for proposals to be made by late March.
The state hopes to find partners, including rural electrical co-operatives, development corporations, and local and regional governments. The state sees need for charging stations every 30 to 50 miles, more or less, and with fast-charging stations, unlike the cheaper and slower Level II charging stations such as in Gunnison and Crested Butte. Denver recently commissioned a study that estimated costs of two fast-charging stations and one Level II station, including installation, at $190,000 to $200,000.
While technology is rapidly changing, most cars can get an 80 percent charge at a fast-charging station in 20 to 30 minutes. But it depends upon the size of the battery. In early December, the Colorado Public Utilities Commission heard testimony about such things as where public money is best spent in charging stations and other elements of public policy.
Gunnison might not seem like a likely candidate for being at the front end of electric vehicles. It’s four hours from Denver, and while the wealthy shuttle in and out, it’s not an Aspen or Vail. What it does have is a loaner EV called Spark-e that was purchased in 2016 by the Gunnison County Electric Association. It can be borrowed for up to a week to help people decide whether they want to buy an EV of their own.
“People are enjoying driving Spark-e so much that it hasn’t been back to the office since June,” reported the association’s December newsletter.
This activity has put Mike McBride, the general manager of the electrical co-op, on the speaking circuit at state-wide conferences. McBride believes Gunnison is at the front edge of efforts to anticipate vehicle electrification in rural areas. But people in both cities and rural areas, he says, use fundamentally the same criterion when purchasing a car: “Most people base their purchase decisions on a few trips, not their daily use. If you live in Denver but enjoy going to the mountains, you’re going to base your purchase decisions on whether you can still go to the mountains. If you are living in a rural community, you are going to base your purchase on those few occasions when you got to the city.”
From Crested Butte to Denver is 4.5 hours in good weather. Importantly, there are no charging stations along Highway 50 between Gunnison and Salida, 65 miles away. This may matter less as newer models arrive with longer range and lower prices. Changes are rapidly occurring in both dimensions.
Rutt Bridges, a Denver-based author now working on his second book about the future of transportation, points out that Chevy Bolts have a range of 238 miles, while Tesla’s Model 3 has an EPA-listed range of 220 miles. The Bolt costs $37,500 but has been discounted by as much as $5,000, while the Tesla lists for $35,000. Colorado has an additional $5,000 in tax incentives for those with incomes high enough to take advantage of them.
Battery costs have rapidly declined, from $700 a kilowatt-hour seven years ago to $139 now. Tesla and General Motors predict prices tumbling below $100 by 2020, Bridges has reported. Bridges also believes fueling costs make a strong case for conversion to electric vehicles. Cost of electricity is one-third that of gasoline and has been far more stable, he says. He also cites the greater efficiency of electric motors (90 percent vs. the 20 percent of an internal combustion engine). Because of these gains and advantages, Bridges projects that sales of EVs will significantly expand beyond the current 1 percent of U.S. vehicle sales. Will Toor, transportation program manager for the Southwest Energy Efficiency Project, points out that Colorado has the 6th largest market share of EVs in the country.
Electrical utilities, with flat and sometimes declining sales in recent years, also have a strong reason to want to see more EVs. This is more straight-forward with investor-owned utilities like Xcel Energy than with electrical co-ops like Gunnison Electric. In co-ops, members are also customers. “We tend to do our best to meet and balance the needs and wishes of our members,” McBride says.
Environmental goals are high on the list of many co-op members. As aging coal plants have closed, transportation has moved ahead of power supply as the single largest cause for greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. EVs achieve pollution reduction if electricity comes from less carbon-intensive sources. The power from Tri-State Generation & Transmission, the wholesale provider for Gunnison, remains heavy in coal and, to a lesser extent, natural gas. But it has coal plants going down, too.
As utilities convert to renewable energy, EV charging can be paired with cheap renewables, provided owners are content to let their cars get fueled when the wind is blowing or the sun is shining. Time-of-use rates can encourage this pairing. Gunnison County Electric has no rates designed with EV charging in mind, but “that may evolve over time” along with other rates, says McBride.