Driving across Wisconsin isn’t impossible for Nate and Susanne Sosin. It just takes a little extra planning.
When the couple drove their electric Volkswagen ID4 from their home outside Chicago to the Twin Cities earlier this month, they made three half-hour stops to charge the battery, which worked out nicely for their 2-year-old son, Bert, and golden retriever, Hanna.
“It was relaxed,” Nate said. “We weren’t in a hurry and didn’t feel like we were ever going to run out of battery.”
But while charging stations are plentiful in metro areas like Milwaukee and Madison, they can be hard to find in rural areas, especially in the northern part of the state, which presents a challenge as more people opt for electric vehicles.
Now, Wisconsin transportation officials are confronting that challenge with more than $78 million from the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
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When paired with a cleaner electricity grid, EVs are seen as the best shot at reducing greenhouse gas emissions from the transportation sector, now the nation’s single-largest source of heat-trapping gases.
Department of Transportation Secretary Craig Thompson said the plan will allow EV owners like the Sosins to travel throughout the state with confidence.
“This is really a great opportunity for Wisconsin to be ready,” Thompson said. “We can benefit on the environmental side and on the economic side. It can be a win all the way around.”
EV registrations grew from just 319 in 2013 to more than 9,000 last year. While that number represents just 0.1% of all vehicles, the share is growing, and DOT expects there will be more than 334,000 EVs on the road by the end of this decade.
A recent Bloomberg analysis suggests the nation is nearing a tipping point that could lead to even faster adoption of the technology, and many major manufacturers, including General Motors, plan to phase out internal combustion engines entirely.
Thompson said states that aren’t prepared for that transition will be “at a tremendous economic disadvantage.”
“Electrification is coming,” Thompson said. “It’s imperative as a state that we get ready for that.”
The plan — a prerequisite for receiving nearly $78.7 million in federal support — outlines what will be needed to support that growth.
Among the goals: ensuring all of the state’s interstate system and designated alternative fuel corridors meet federal guidelines, which call for fast-charging stations that can handle four vehicles at once situated every 50 miles and sited within a mile of an exit.
The plan aims to have 85% of the state highway system meet those same standards.
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Excluding chargers available only to Tesla drivers, Wisconsin has 306 public charging stations, about half of which are within a mile of a designated alternative fuel corridor. But only four of those stations meet the federal criteria.
The state does not plan to own or operate chargers or put them on DOT property but instead will seek private-sector partners to compete for the federal funding to build charging stations.
One challenge to the plan: Under state law, only regulated utilities are allowed to sell energy (measured in kilowatt-hours) directly to consumers. That means third-party charging stations have to bill by the minute, which can result in uneven pricing since newer vehicles can absorb a charge in half the time as older ones.
While the law doesn’t prevent deployment under the federal program, the report says the regulatory uncertainty could deter some private partners.
Republican lawmakers last year introduced legislation to address some of those problems, but the bills died amid disputes over the role for local governments and the source of electricity.
Thompson called on lawmakers to address that in the next legislative session.
“I think that is really the issue,” he said. “I believe it’s going to be clear to everyone involved that that’s an imperative to get that done.”
The Sosins made a second trip across the state Friday, this time spending about 45 minutes at Madison’s East Side Walmart to ensure enough charge to make it to their destination in Eau Claire.
They picked up some vitamins that they’d forgotten to pack, and Nate spent the rest of the time making work calls.
Sosin said if Wisconsin wants to succeed, it should work to locate charging stations near restaurants.
“If you want to get the most out of it, you want to be there for 30 to 45 minutes. That’s a really good time to have a meal,” Sosin said. “Walmart is not necessarily somewhere we’re going to be eating.”
Art of the Everyday: A recap of June in photos from Wisconsin State Journal photographers