Alabama Transportation Institute research prepares state for EV revolution

TUSCALOOSA, Alabama – Electric vehicles may be a rare sight on the roads across Alabama today, but researchers at The University of Alabama know that rising EV adoption rates will soon spark challenges for the state’s transportation planners and policymakers.

In a new report, researchers at UA’s Alabama Transportation Institute (ATI) envision how the future is taking shape for electric vehicles in Alabama and explore options on how to keep a growing fleet of EVs charged and moving on the state’s roadways.

Steven Polunsky, director of the ATI’s Transportation Policy Research Center, admits that devising scenarios for EV adoption in Alabama is a challenge. Battery technology is improving rapidly, increasing range. Manufacturers, including Mercedes-Benz in Alabama, are investing heavily to accelerate the introduction of EV models.

“The Rubik’s Cube is going to shift as we go forward,” Polunsky said. “Our job is to stay current with all the available information and do some futuring ourselves so that policymakers aren’t making decisions in 2020 based on last year’s data when we know that technological advancements are going to move us further down this path.”

This rapidly changing landscape also concerns State Rep. Bill Poole, a Tuscaloosa lawmaker engaged in discussions focusing on how Alabama can develop effective infrastructure strategies for the coming EV revolution.

“There are a lot of questions and no really clear answers to any of them,” Poole said. “So then, how do we prepare our state for an uncertain future even though we know that future is coming? Clearly, there are not simple answers to that question.”

Rep. Poole said the ATI has provided valuable data, particularly on approaches adopted by other states, to advance early policy discussions focusing on the future of electric vehicles in the state.

Alabama Transportation Institute
Research by The University of Alabama’s Alabama Transportation Institute is helping prepare state leaders for the coming wave of electric vehicles.

IDENTIFYING GAPS AND NEEDS

Acting as a resource for officials seeking to create a 21st century transportation system in Alabama is in the DNA of the ATI.

Beginning in 2018, the ATI organized working groups with the Alabama Legislature to assess the conditions of the state’s roadways.  The result was an unbiased report that demonstrated the funding mechanism for repairs was inadequate. Last year, the Legislature overwhelmingly approved “Rebuild Alabama,” which raised the state’s fuel tax for the first time since 1992, enabling repair projects.

The ATI’s work related to future EV planning has been limited to information gathering, but the Institute’s research has been thorough. The researchers’ deep dive on the topic is outlined the new report, titled “An Assessment of Alabama’s Electric Vehicle Charging Infrastructure: Identifying Gaps and Needs.”

“We’re in a position to survey what other states are doing, identify best practices and see if there are innovations or initiatives that could be brought to the attention of the Legislature and policymakers as possibilities to consider,” Polunsky said.

One thing is clear: The U.S. EV market is expanding rapidly, with sales surging 86 percent in 2018, according to the ATI report. By 2025, there could be 3 million electric vehicles on U.S. roads, nearly triple the number in 2019.

Estimated EV registrations in Alabama today total around 2,300, about 0.05 percent of the state’s total non-truck vehicles. But if EV registrations grow to represent 2 percent of Alabama’s total registrations in 2040, that would mean more than 144,000 electric vehicles on the road, according to an ATI estimate.

At that level Alabama’s EV charging infrastructure – now consisting of around 270 charging outlets at 115 locations – would need to grow extensively to reduce what’s termed “range anxiety,” or the fear of running out of charge.

One potential first step for the state could be earning a designation under the Federal Highway Administration’s Alternative Fuel Corridors program, which is meant to fill in charging gaps outside major cities. Forty-six states today have highway routes that are designated either Corridor Ready or Corridor Pending, covering 135,000 miles of the national highway network.

To earn a designation, Alabama would need to establish DC Fast Charge (Level 3) infrastructure at 50-mile intervals along an interstate stretch, Polunsky said.

“That would literally put Alabama on the map and establish the state as being interested in enabling the entry of EVs into the marketplace,” he added.

Alabama Transportation Institute
The Rebuild Alabama law, adopted this year, includes an innovative grant program aimed at stimulating the installation of new EV charging stations across the state.

STUDYING BEST PRACTICES

A key part of the ATI’s research has been examining what other states are doing to encourage EV adoption and accelerate an expansion of their charging infrastructures.

“One of the things we’ve really looked at is how other states are approaching incentives,” said Justin Fisher, a legal research associate at the ATI. “What we have found is the approaches are all over the map.”

Today, eight states and the District of Columbia offer statewide incentives for the purchase of electric vehicles or charging infrastructure.

Colorado, for example, offers an income tax credit of up $5,000 to those who purchase an EV. Louisiana, meanwhile, offers a tax credit equal to 10 percent of the cost of a plug-in hybrid vehicle, up to $2,500, according to the ATI.

Alabama does have a head start on expanding its EV charging infrastructure.

That’s because “Rebuild Alabama” contains a provision that provides funding for a grant program to stimulate the installation of new EV charging stations. The Electric Transportation Infrastructure Grant Program is one of only two such initiatives in the nation.

“That makes Alabama a model,” Polunsky said. “Alabama can be proud of the steps taken so far.”

In the future, Rep. Poole said he expects the ATI to continue providing critical data that will help policymakers navigate the complexities of the issue.

“There are a variety of public policy questions, both state and national, that will come into play as these technologies evolve,” he said. “How quickly will they evolve and how do we address those?

“There are a lot of unknowns, and I think that Alabama doesn’t need to be caught behind. We need to be anticipating this, narrowing down the unknowns, and preparing our state to be competitive in this new world,” he added