There was a buzz about Yellowstone Valley Electric Cooperative having an electric car in its motor pool. Even in the utility world “EVs” are still pretty rare in Montana.
The cooperative car is also kind of sexy. It is a Ford Mustang Mach-E, the fastest versions of the vehicle can go from 0 to 60 mph in 3.7 seconds, the most economical versions can travel up to 300 miles on a single charge in favorable conditions.
“What we have, our state association is always like ‘Let’s take it to Great Falls, let’s take it to Great Falls next time we have a meeting,'” said Brandon Wittman, CEO of Yellowstone Valley Electric. “And I’m like, ‘I can’t do it,’ and they want to know what I’m talking about.”
What Wittman is talking about is the 219-mile stretch between Billings and Great Falls on Montana Highway 3, which has no charging stations for electric vehicles, the same for U.S. Highway 87 though Lewistown. Either way, a sudden charge at a regular outlet would stop the fast EV for a few hours. A one-hour charge on a regular outlet, known as a Level 1 charge, is good for about three miles, according to Ford. A Level 2 charge is about four times faster than a regular plug, though it would still take up to five hours for a charge sufficient for a 124-mile trip, according to Charge Hub. A fast, Level 3 charge cuts that 124-mile charge to 30 minutes or less.
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Simply put, there are hundreds of miles across Montana where EV accommodations are rarer than cell phone service. The challenge of finding an easy charger isn’t just a backdoor dilemma. There are 211 miles of interstate between Great Falls and Milk River, Alberta toll free, for example. There is not a charger to be found on the 463 miles of US Highway 2 between Browning and Williston, ND.
The map above shows the current state of EV charging stations in Montana. Click on the menu button in the upper left corner to see what the icons represent and exactly where they are located on the map.
The state of Montana has requested $43 million from the federal government to fill some of the gaps. The bipartisan Infrastructure Act of 2021 called on states to facilitate long-distance travel in electric vehicles. The thinking is that electric vehicles produce less carbon dioxide than combustion engines and that electricity generation will become cleaner over the next 27 years. Congress stirred the pot again in August by including a $7,500 tax credit for electric vehicle buyers, $4,000 for used electric vehicles, in the Inflation Reduction Act.
EPA Administrator Michael Regan, in a recent press call, touted the tax credit as a game-changer, something available to consumers for reducing carbon emissions. The inflation bill spends $369 billion through tax credits and subsidies for clean energy and lower prescription drug costs for seniors using Medicare. The law also reduces the federal deficit by $300 billion through higher taxes on large corporations and wealthy individuals, according to Moody’s Analytics. This is a controversial law passed without Republican support.
“We’re going to see some impacts right away,” Regan said. “Tax credits for new electric vehicles, after the president signed the dotted line, that tax credit was made available for new vehicles across the country. It will be similar to what happened when the president signed the bipartisan infrastructure bill. You know, within a few weeks or a month, the EPA hit the ground running with immediate results from that legislation. We know how to do it, we are prepared to do it.”
The state expects a transition that will take place over several years. Montana’s plan is to fill some charging station gaps as its first step, ensuring there is a quick charge on key interstate locations at least every 100 miles, meaning construction in the first year with Interstates 15 and 94 get some attention. The state submitted its proposal to the federal Department of Transportation for approval in late July.
Dan Lloyd, chief of the energy office for the Department of Environmental Quality, said the state will keep its ear on track for news of private investors in charging stations. Companies like Tesla, which installed its own network of fast chargers on US Interstate 90 a few years ago, would change the charging landscape if it made its chargers available for cars it doesn’t make. Tesla recently made its charging stations in Europe universal.
Electrify America, which is building universal charging stations across the country, is another company eyeing Montana for investment, Lloyd said.
Less than 2000 EV in the state
In its EV infrastructure deployment plan, the state identifies 1,893 fully electric vehicles registered in Montana at the start of the year, with another 1,002 hybrid electric vehicles. The Atlas EV Hub website shows that electric vehicles made by American automakers make up the second largest percentage of electric vehicles registered in Montana. The single largest carmaker represented is Tesla, although its share is less than half. The state expects the number of electric vehicles registered in Montana to reach 31,350 by 2030 and nearly 88,000 10 years after that.
The big EV counties in Montana are Flathead, Missoula and Gallatin, each with rapid growth and inward migration, according to the state.
The assumption, Lloyd said, is that most of these Montana electric vehicles are traveling distances of a few miles from home, which is what most Montanans do no matter what they drive.
“I would say over 80% of charging is done at home. Very few people drive more than the range of a typical EV in a day. But beyond that, the infrastructure in Montana is still in its infancy,” Lloyd said. “So corridors are being created where people can drive longer distances in electric vehicles. That’s mostly centered around our interstates right now . But increasingly, there are charging options outside of our main corridors. For example, the city of Red Lodge has a Level 2 charger that they’ve had running for a few years now. It’s getting better as more infrastructure is put on the ground and while battery technologies improve the increasing range.”
DEQ is involved in planning the charging station through the 2016 settlement of a lawsuit against Volkswagen for violations of the Clean Air Act. VW’s emissions controls on diesel cars gave false readings, indicating the cars were fuel efficient and clean running. That settlement, of which Montana’s share was $12.6 million, resulted in electric vehicle charging stations installed across Montana, including Billings. About 15% of the money went to charging stations in the state. The lessons learned from VW’s work apply to the broader charging station plan currently being played out.
The Department of Transportation estimates that the majority of electric vehicles on Montana highways will be from out of state, primarily from Washington. However, approximately 100,000 out-of-state electric vehicles are expected to travel on Montana roads in the next five years. Electricity consumption from electric vehicles is expected to be 61 gigawatt hours in standard conditions by 2030, or 88 gigawatt hours in cold weather. This energy consumption is a modest amount considering that Montana electricity sales in 2019 were 14,585 gigawatt hours. Lloyd said most of the charging will be done by Montanans at home.
The biggest challenge may be adequate infrastructure to handle fast charging stations in some countries. Yellowstone Valley Electric’s Wittmann said state and federal officials talking to co-ops wanted fast-charging stations, more than one per location. Demand at a location with four vehicles charging at the same time may be too much for some locations, chosen more by distance between chargers than infrastructure.
“Four such stations would be very energy intensive, think about 30 kilowatts for 90 minutes straight, it’s like turning on an irrigation pump,” Wittman said. This type of request usually comes at an additional cost to the customer. “Some company, maybe a transmission company, if they’re going to plug in half a dozen of them overnight in one location, that’s a significant improvement to the electrical service for that building.”
Electric Cooperatives and Montana reported on the condition of 10 locations along major travel routes where infrastructure for charging stations was limited. Six of those locations were on the Montana Hi-Line where there aren’t enough stations to cross the state from east to west. In cities like Guildford, Hinsdale and Essex, a 600-kilowatt charging station would overload substations at the peak of the system.
The effect of the new federal tax credit for electric vehicles remains to be seen, though Lloyd expects the impacts to be minimal at first. Cars that qualify for the tax credit have batteries with at least 50% of their materials sourced in North America. The Congressional Budget Office estimates that the tax credit will be used for 11,000 electric vehicle purchases in 2023, but will increase to 60,000 the following year. Consider that US vehicle sales in 2021 were approximately 15 million, according to the National Automobile Dealers Association. The tax credit expires in 2032.