Is the Home of Big Auto Going Electric?

With its incoming network of charging stations and incentive programs for consumers, Michigan may have the most forward-looking EV infrastructure plan in the Midwest.

Credit: Ronald Sequeria

Imagine this: A driver cruising along a Michigan highway in an electric vehicle between Detroit and Traverse City. She hears a ding sound from the dashboard, signaling that the car’s charge is low, and looks for a place to plug in. It’s not long before she finds one. The EV station is in a strip mall, where three of the five chargers—curved, sleeker versions of square, squat gas pumps—are open. She connects the power cord to her car and walks to a store where she can grab a bite or shop for 15 to 30 minutes until her battery is 80 percent full. Then she drives on, after spending just a few dollars for the recharge.

Starting as early as this summer, this scenario could become a reality in the Wolverine State, as Michigan builds out its electric vehicle–charging infrastructure. State agencies are working with stakeholders that include elected officials, utility companies, EV drivers, government agencies, and environmental nonprofits like NRDC to develop a network of at least 35 charging stations that would help reduce tailpipe emissions as well as drive the auto industry forward.

Mark Nabong, a Chicago-based attorney for NRDC who works on transportation and energy policy, has his eyes on the days when gas vehicles are a thing of the past. Indeed, by some estimates, 6 percent of vehicles registered in Michigan will be electric by 2030. That would amount to about 592,000 cars. And as vehicle fleets begin switching to EVs, drivers will need the charging stations to support them. Nabong asks, “Do we want that infrastructure to be well-planned and well-executed? Or do we want it to be VHS and Beta?”

Even as Michigan’s automakers continue to pump out gas-guzzling SUVs, the state has been formulating a plan to better support electric cars for years, and its efforts to collect information and brainstorm with auto executives appear to be paying off. The Michigan Energy Office released a report in December detailing where the state’s residents might most benefit from the installation of EV charging stations, recommendations that are helping to inform a blueprint for building that network.

Gasoline-powered cars and trucks account for 25 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and the ones currently on the road aren’t getting any cleaner. But as power plants generate more electricity from renewable sources like wind and solar instead of fossil fuels, the emissions from vehicles that run on that electricity will only get lower.

Helping to support the shift, two of Michigan’s major utilities, Consumers Energy and DTE Energy, run incentive programs encouraging people to buy, lease, or install chargers in their homes. These initiatives, in addition to other efforts, are paving the way for one of the most forward-looking EV infrastructure plans in the Midwest.

What’s more, Michigan is primed to become the EV production hub of the country. The state has long been the center of car manufacturing, and many auto plants still operate in places like Detroit (a.k.a. Motor City) and Flint. And the people who work in those facilities, many of whom are skilled laborers, could ease America’s transition from gasoline to electric.

Somewhat ironically, a $64 million settlement from Volkswagen’s emissions scandal could help spur this progress. Michigan received a slice of the $2.8 billion the company had to pay out to the United States for installing software in vehicles that cheated emissions tests. With the funding, the state developed a program to incentivize consumers to switch to zero-emission vehicles, which is how Mehrnaz Ghamami, a transportation engineer at Michigan State University, got involved.

Ghamami’s passion for EVs sparked when she was a PhD student at Northwestern University nearly a decade ago and began reading articles about a new wave of cars. She watched with intrigue as, little by little, EV technology improved. Their batteries got smaller, their charges lasted longer, and their designs became more appealing. By 2008, Tesla cars hit the roads and soon after Chevy Volts came onto the market. “I started to think, ‘This is really happening!’” says Ghamami.

After graduating, the engineer went to Michigan State University and began studying how to best encourage electric car ownership: Would it be improving infrastructure or boosting subsidies? Though subsidies certainly help push EV purchases, they aren’t enough by themselves to convince buyers to make the change. Infrastructure was key. So when Robert Jackson, head of the Michigan Energy Office, told Ghamami about a state grant offered through the VW settlement funds to create a model for the optimum placement of EV charging stations, she got to work. After Ghamami won the grant, she and Jackson met with utilities, EV drivers, and transportation engineers to get input on what they would need.

Based on that information, along with data from Michigan’s Department of Transportation and estimates of how many people would be driving EVs in the next decade, Ghamami and Jackson sketched out where to install charging stations between Michigan’s cities. (The second phase of the project is planned for the fall, with a focus on where to locate chargers within urban environments.) The Michigan Energy Office hopes to bring the complete EV station model into fruition within the next three years or so.

The model would be more sophisticated than any other of its kind in the country, says Ghamami, and incorporates a driver’s wait for an available charger, travel time, along with how much it will cost to install the infrastructure. (The state, utilities, and the businesses that own the land on which the chargers will be placed plan to split the sum three ways.) And better yet, the modeling framework could be applied nationwide, Ghamami says, potentially persuading an even larger number of people and businesses to invest in EVs.

“Something that at first, when I started, sounded like science fiction is now becoming reality,” she says. And who doesn’t get a charge out of that? Ghamami will. Right now she’s planning to buy an EV of her very own.

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