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The federally funded Michigan-to-Montana Alternative Fuel Corridor has coordinated electric vehicle charging and compressed natural gas fueling stations along the corridor.

The thought of a road trip on Interstate 94 a few years ago in anything other than a gasoline-fueled car would have left most drivers with an understandable case of range anxiety. Charging stations and alternative fuel locations were sparse outside of major metro areas and often not easy to locate.

Today, the route is less risky for drivers of electric and other alternative fuel vehicles, thanks in part to work by more than a dozen organizations to shrink the gaps for Midwest drivers regardless of their fuel type.

The Michigan to Montana (M2M) Alternative Fuel Corridor covers I-94 from Port Huron, Michigan, to Billings, Montana. It is the first multi-alternative fuel corridor in the Midwest, passing through major cities including Detroit, Chicago, Milwaukee, and the Twin Cities, as well as numerous small cities and rural communities. 

The project was funded by a three-year, $5 million U.S. Department of Energy grant in 2017 and aimed to speed clean fuel deployment and act as a market accelerator. The objective was to provide charging or fueling options within every 50 miles for electric vehicle drivers and every 150 miles for compressed natural gas and propane vehicle drivers. Stations should be no more than five miles from I-94.  

“We have 100 years of gas station infrastructure on roads and less than 10 years of public EV charging stations. We have a way to go in terms of [clean fuel] infrastructure,” said Samantha Bingham, clean transportation program director with the Chicago Department of Transportation. 

The M2M team performed an analysis early on and identified several gaps in alternative fueling availability near I-94. The I-94 corridor overall lacked widespread alternative fueling continuity, especially outside of densely populated areas. 

Des Plaines, Illinois-based nonprofit research lab Gas Technology Institute serves as the primary grant recipient and project manager. The grant required that project partners provide a 50-50 funding match, bringing the total program funds to about $10 million. 

The wide range of partners from several states was critical to the project, said Ted Barnes, director of the transportation group at the Gas Technology Institute. “Transportation doesn’t stop at state lines. You need that flow of traffic,” he said. “The scale of this is very difficult, and you need a large, coordinated effort to make corridors work. There is no doubt that the federal funding helped that.”

M2M creates fueling options for battery-electric, compressed natural gas (CNG), and propane vehicles. That aligns with goals for the national Clean Cities network, which the Department of Energy established in 1993 to foster community-level public and private efforts to advance affordable, fuel-saving technologies and practices. Six Clean Cities chapters are sub-grantees on M2M. 

The Clean Cities groups serve as a liaison between the federal resources and on-the-ground regional companies that wish to participate. For example, Wisconsin Clean Cities did outreach to potential applicants when M2M issued a request for proposals for private partners to help install CNG stations and offered guidance on locations of best fit.

What works for one coalition in Wisconsin or Minnesota might not make the most sense for the group in Illinois or Indiana, said Lorrie Lisek, executive director of Wisconsin Clean Cities. The six coalitions share strategies and lessons learned with other M2M partners to put in place solutions that work concurrently for the region and the multi-state corridor as a whole.

Primary M2M goals include installing 12 fast-charging stations for electric vehicles, four compressed natural gas fueling stations, and one propane station, as well as adding 40 long-haul CNG trucks to transportation fleets. 

On the electric vehicle front, Minneapolis-based project partner ZEF Energy designed and installed six EV fast-charging stations. There is one each in Tomah and Hudson, Wisconsin, and one each in four Minnesota cities: Alexandria, Fergus Falls, Moorhead, and St. Cloud. Two more — one each in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, and Dickinson, North Dakota — are expected by year’s end, and ZEF aims to install one each in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin; Medora, North Dakota; and an additional to-be-determined location early next year. 

The stations can simultaneously charge up to three vehicles with one fast charger and two Level 2 chargers. Vehicles typically travel 200 miles for every hour of fast charging and 25 miles for every hour of Level 2 charging. 

On the CNG side, M2M’s long-haul truck deployment stands at 35 on the way to its target of 40. M2M also worked with Mokena, Illinois-based building materials and logistics provider Ozinga to build CNG fueling stations in Gary, Indiana, and New Buffalo, Michigan.

The new stations extend Ozinga’s fueling reach beyond its existing public CNG stations, bringing its total to seven. It has been gradually converting its fleet to the alternative fuel for about seven years. 

“Ozinga ready mix [concrete] is a big user of CNG for our fleets. It helps us to be greener,” said Jason van den Brink, Ozinga operations officer. “It’s great to have the M2M partnership to help connect the dots. It’s a great opportunity for us to further our use of CNG.”

The natural gas itself is sourced from a landfill. “It is carbon neutral or carbon negative,” van den Brink said. “CNG is great because it is cleaner at the tailpipe, but it’s even better when you source it with renewable natural gas.” 

Before M2M is completed next year, a propane fueling station will be constructed in a yet-to-be-determined city in Wisconsin. The M2M team continues to identify other locations in need of alternative fueling infrastructure, especially in North Dakota, said Barnes, of the Gas Technology Institute. 

M2M’s achievements are clearly visible when looking at the dots on a map indicating new alternative fueling infrastructure where gaps previously existed, in addition to adding up the gas and emissions saved, said Lauri Keagle, communications director at Wisconsin Clean Cities. 

The knowledge and best practices gained will inform future projects across the country, and they already are influencing work on other major Midwestern roadways, such as I-55 in Illinois, Barnes said. “We’re not operating in a silo … Where we can leverage or where we can support other people’s efforts — both ways — there is information being shared,” he said. 

The project targeted underserved areas, including rural communities, for fueling installations. The focus on equity is “not just about one socioeconomic group or ethnic group. It’s about how you make sure these things come into play for everyone — urban and rural,” Keagle said. 

In addition to encouraging alternative-fuel vehicle use, the program also has economic development benefits for these communities. For example, the electric vehicle charger in Hudson is in a hotel parking lot, which could prompt users to stay at that hotel or visit surrounding businesses while their vehicles charge.

Education and raising awareness are core parts of the mission, Bingham said, explaining that “there needs to be a case made for the benefits of driving electric. … Instead of just making an announcement of funding availability, we need to take a step back and make sure we’re doing EV awareness as step one, because most likely these communities have not been targeted by EV manufacturers for adoption.”

M2M partners made inroads this year despite the pandemic. Besides the charging and fueling station installations, they funded emergency responder training in Chicago on how to handle emergency incidents involving alternative-fuel vehicles. “There are thousands of EVs on the road… First responders need to know how to identify those vehicles and properly respond to an accident or fire involving them,” Bingham said. Plus, Department of Energy-funded Clean Cities interns advanced the program’s education objectives by creating social media accounts and content for M2M, and a project website should go live soon. And the Gas Technology Institute recently closed a request for proposals for the propane fueling station partner. 

So far, the Department of Energy has not extended funding for M2M beyond next year, but project participants anticipate that progress on the mission will continue either way. “There is a ton of momentum, so when we wrap up with the federal government next year we will be in a good place,” Bingham said. “There’s a lot of good stuff coming down the road.”

Katie Pyzyk

Katie is a freelance journalist based in Chicago. With a special focus on science and the environment, she covers a variety of topics, including waste and recycling, energy, transportation, sustainability, technology, and innovation. Her work has appeared in publications including CityLab, National Geographic, Scrap magazine, Smart Cities Dive, Transport Topics magazine, Utility Dive, and Waste Dive.