Credit: Karlis Dambrans / Creative Commons

Jeff Shaw of Durham, North Carolina was just who Volkswagen was looking for seven years ago. Shaw’s trusty Subaru had finally died, and he wanted his next car to be “ecologically responsible.” He considered a hybrid, but splurged for a TDI Volkswagen Golf, sold on claims that the company’s turbo-charged direct injection diesel was more sustainable.

“I loved the car,” Shaw said. “It was fun to drive, peppy and powerful, and yet it didn’t pollute. It was almost too good to be true!”

Of course, it was. Thanks to emissions cheating software, the Golf and numerous other TDI models had been spewing 40 times the legal limit of smog-forming pollution.

Jeff Shaw of Durham, North Carolina sold his TDI VW Golf back to Volkswagen and bought a Nissan Leaf instead.

As part of Volkswagen’s $15 billion settlement with government agencies and consumers for breaking the law and deceiving customers, Shaw sold his Golf back to the company, and put the cash toward a Nissan Leaf.

As an electric car owner, Shaw is now a target of Volkswagen’s outreach once more: he lives in the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill “Triangle,” one of 11 metro areas where the company just announced it will install public charging stations before the end of the decade.

Josh Stebbins, an attorney for the Sierra Club (where Shaw also works), called the investment “an important step in helping to remedy the harm to North Carolinians from the unlawful pollution caused by Volkswagen.”

“Not only are electric vehicles far cleaner than traditional cars, helping to reduce smog, soot and greenhouses gases, they keep money in the state instead of sending it out of state to purchase oil,” Stebbins said.

But the good news for plug-in vehicles in the Triangle comes as state legislators try to wrest control of another pot of money Volkswagen owes North Carolina – a move that could short-circuit a much larger investment in heavy-duty electric vehicles across the state.

‘It feeds on itself, and it grows’

To settle lawsuits from governments and consumers, last summer Volkswagen agreed to a remedy that goes beyond compensating wronged customers or producing cleaner conventionally-fueled vehicles.

The carmaker will spend over $10 billion buying back faulty vehicles, including nearly 18,000 in in North Carolina. Through an independent trustee, the company will disburse $2.7 billion to states to convert transit buses, school buses, and other heavy-duty diesel fleets to cleaner technologies. And through a wholly-owned subsidiary, Electrify America, Volkswagen will invest $2 billion in zero-emission vehicles and infrastructure – $1.2 billion outside of California.

According to plans for its first round of spending announced in April, over the next 30 months Electrify America will conduct outreach on EVs and create “local, community-based networks” of charging stations in the metropolitan areas of Raleigh, Boston, Chicago, Denver, Houston, Miami, New York City, Philadelphia, Portland, Seattle and Washington D.C.

Rick Sapienza of the North Carolina Clean Technology Center, who proposed to Volkswagen that its first cycle of investments include parts of the Southeast, says the Triangle area is ripe for electric vehicles.

“Volkswagen is going by the numbers,” said Sapienza, noting factors such as population, education, income levels, and projected electric vehicle sales. “They tout San Jose, California as a mature market for plug-in vehicles. Demographically we’re not that much different.”

Volkswagen didn’t reply to inquiries for this story, and has released few localized details about its plans. But Sapienza says the company’s outlay won’t be limited to the capital city alone and will likely include Durham and Chapel Hill.

If the company’s $40 million expenditure for 300 or more charging stations is distributed evenly among the 11 metro areas, the Triangle could see more than two dozen new charging locations in the coming months.

The importance of public charging stations is self-evident: consumers need them for their plug-in vehicles just as they need gas stations for their conventional, gas-powered vehicles. But “filling up” an electric car takes far longer than fueling a gas-powered one – so the location and speed of charging stations matter.

“Folks are twenty times more likely to consider purchasing a plug-in electric vehicle if they have access to charging at work,” Sapienza said. “There are other statistics that show 92 percent of charging [needs] can be met with Level 1 and Level 2 charging at home and at the workplace.”

At offices, condominiums and apartments in the 11 targeted communities, Volkswagen plans to install Level 2 stations, where six to eight hours of charge can power 200 miles or more. At retail centers, the company will build “DC fast-chargers,” where nine miles of range are gained per minute.

Along highways, Volkswagen wants even faster chargers – producing 19 miles of range per minute. The company plans stations “on average about 66 miles apart, with no more than 120 miles between each station,” on dozens of interstates, including I-95, I-85, and I-40 in North Carolina.

The more charging stations available, the less risk for consumers who want to dip their toe into a new technology, say experts.

“They try the technology, they see that it works, it saves them money,” said Sapienza. “To get people to try is the trick, and then it feeds on itself and it grows.”

‘A good balance’?

But while advocates celebrate the news about electric vehicles in the Triangle, some are concerned about the fate of a separate batch of funds: $92 million apportioned to North Carolina for cleaning up heavy-duty diesel vehicle fleets.

Gov. Roy Cooper, a first-term Democrat, must designate one of his agencies to develop a plan for spending the money, within constraints. The settlement criteria advantage electrifying heavy-duty fleets, and allow up to 15 percent of funds to buy charging infrastructure. Vehicles can also be converted to run on natural gas, propane and “clean diesel.”

Plug-in vehicle advocates acknowledge that settlement funds aren’t likely to be used entirely for the conversion of fleets to electric. Off-road electric construction equipment, for example, is limited.

“We need to find a good balance,” said Anne Blair of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy. “Our primary goals for the settlement funds are maximizing that 15 percent for charging infrastructure, pursuing electrification of transit fleets, and balancing that with [cleaning up] the highest-polluting vehicles in the state.”

That’s why Blair worries about a provision in the state Senate budget that would require prioritization of “new diesel or alternate fueled engines and parts that are manufactured in the State.” North Carolina is home to numerous natural gas and propane vehicle manufacturers, but none who specialize in electric vehicles.

“It could potentially inhibit electrifying fleets,” Blair said.

Robin Smith, former assistant secretary with the Department of Environmental Quality, believes the settlement’s terms make a complete lack of electrification unlikely. Still, she said, “the worst thing about it is that it may reduce flexibility and provide fuel for a fight about what the plan is going to be.”

The fight may already be underway. The North Carolina House budget, which gained approval this week, softens the Senate provision, saying settlement fund planners should merely “consider” prioritizing North Carolina engine and part manufacturers. But both chambers’ budgets require the Cooper administration to get legislative approval for mitigation plans.

The state’s spending plan must be adopted by July 1. And while hot-button issues such as taxes and teacher pay are likely to take center stage in budget negotiations between the GOP-led legislature and the state’s top Democrat, advocates say it’s time for Cooper to get out in front on the Volkswagen issue.

“We would like to see the governor take a stance as soon as possible,” Blair said.

Based in Raleigh, North Carolina, Elizabeth has covered the state’s clean energy transition for the Energy News Network since 2016. She has also produced features for Environmental Health News and SEJournal, the news magazine of the Society of Environmental Journalists. A former communications director for the nonprofit Environment America, Elizabeth brings over two decades of environmental and energy policy experience to her reporting.