Credit: Chad Kainz / Creative Commons

As a lawsuit continues over who gets the final say on how Volkswagen settlement is spent, North Carolina stakeholders agree on spending the maximum on electric vehicle charging stations.

Stakeholders debating how to spend North Carolina’s Volkswagen settlement money want to max out the amount it can spend on electric vehicle charging stations — a rare instance of agreement among often-warring political factions.

Much else remains fluid in the state’s plan for its share of the multi-billion-dollar legal payment from the automaker, which for six years sold diesel vehicles across the country that spewed up to 40 times the legal limit of smog-forming pollution.

But the commitment to boost charging infrastructure is solid, reflecting virtual unanimity from a variety of stakeholders and the public on the matter, a top official with the Democratic administration of Gov. Roy Cooper said.

“’Do the maximum on electric-vehicle charging,’” said Mike Abraczinskas, head of the Division of the Air Quality, presenting to a panel of state lawmakers recently.“We heard that loud and clear.”

Supporters of spending the maximum 15 percent on electric-vehicle infrastructure include Duke Energy, rural electric cooperatives, and an array of clean energy advocates. And while the GOP-led legislature and Cooper are still feuding in court over who gets final authority over the spending, key Republican lawmakers said they support spending the full amount allowed on charging stations, at least for now.

“Personally, I would like to see the state spend the total allowable on charging stations,” Sen. Paul Newton, R-Cabarrus, said at a clean energy conference last month, after declaring his love for electric vehicles. A co-chair of the joint legislative committee on energy policy, Newton said more recently “pretty much everyone I talked to” agreed.

Money could drive EV adoption

Americans shopping for cars today can choose from nearly two-dozen models of plug-in vehicles. But the average electric vehicle in North Carolina travels less than 100 miles after a full charge, discouraging consumers with the means and the desire for a less-polluting car.

The solution involves building a network of charging stations with a variety of speeds, from slow ones that will “fill up” an electric vehicle battery overnight to fast ones that produce a full charge in less than an hour. In North Carolina, the ratio of cars to charging outlets is 7-to-1, shy of the 5-to-1 benchmark electric vehicle experts say is ideal.

The VW settlement money can help tip the scales. North Carolina will receive $92 million, based on the number of illegal vehicles registered in the state from 2008 to 2015. The allotment must be spent mostly on cleaning up trucks, buses, construction equipment, and other heavy-duty diesel vehicles. Up to $14 million can be invested in infrastructure for zero-emission passenger vehicles.

Installing charging stations is where many stakeholders’ self-interests intersect. It represents a new source of electricity sales for Duke Energy and other utilities. It creates new business for companies that build and maintain charging stations. It helps reduce emissions by motivating more drivers to switch to electric vehicles. And it produces local infrastructure that politicians can point to in their districts.

And while clean experts and politicians may argue about whether an electric school bus is worth four times the cost of one that runs on propane — even if it provides only twice the air quality benefits — most agree more charging stations are necessary and good. That may explain why hundreds of individuals and a broad coalition of electricity providers, environmental groups, and businesses called for maximizing spending on charging infrastructure late last year.

“Funding the deployment of more charging station infrastructure will do the most to drive [electric vehicle] adoption rates and improve air quality,” wrote Jon Jacob, a marketing manager with the rural co-operative Blue Ridge Energy in Lenoir.

In a draft document released in mid-March, the state proposes to split the spending into three equal phases that end in 2024. Because “the public sector needs in the eligible mitigation categories far outweigh the available funding,” according to the plan, officials propose devoting the first phase only to publicly-owned fleets and infrastructure.

The quicker the charge, the more expensive the station. If the funds were spent evenly between medium and high-speed chargers, the state could add over 2,500 stations — five times as many as it has today.

Mindful that on-road heavy-duty diesel vehicles account for nearly a quarter of smog-forming pollution in the state, Cooper’s administration wants to devote 55 percent of the funds to replacing transit and school buses in the first phase. The remaining 25 percent would go toward cleaner garbage trucks, tractors, and other heavy-duty diesel-powered equipment.

“Don’t forget the rural counties” was another key message heard in public comments, Abraczinskas told lawmakers last week. The administration recommends spending 32 percent of all funds in rural counties, based proportionally on where the offending vehicles were registered around the state. (Minnesota came up with a similar solution for ensuring rural areas received their fair share of settlement money.)

‘A plan to have a plan’

Beyond those parameters, officials have proposed few details.

“There’s no real plan yet,” said Rep. John Szoka, R-Cumberland, who co-chairs the energy committee with Newton. “There’s a plan to have a plan.”

Even the set-aside for “zero-emission supply equipment,” which includes fueling stations for electric vehicles and hydrogen cars, lacks definition. Officials said details still to be worked out include the speed and location of the charging stations and whether phase-one spending could include charging outlets in private locations such as shopping malls.

Finalizing those particulars will require more input from stakeholders and the public, said Brian Phillips, a chief planner at the Division of Air Quality. Because Electrify America (a wholly-owned VW subsidiary created as a condition of the settlement), and other companies already plan to install charging stations, he said avoiding duplication was paramount.

“What’s the need out there?” Phillips said. “We’re trying to fill in the holes.”

The state is accepting written comments on the plan through May 3, and it holds the last of five information sessions on its strategy this week. The hope is that the document can be finalized this summer so that spending can begin in the fall.

In a 15-line provision tucked into the state’s $23-billion budget, lawmakers adopted a provision last summer ensuring they would have final say over the settlement funds, a move Cooper is challenging in courtFor now, air quality officials are assuming their plan must pass muster with the state legislature.

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.