Reimagining Route 66: Co-ops Collaborate with EV Charging to Reinvigorate Rural America

Episode ID S2E02
February 23, 2022

The future of automobiles is clearly electric, and rural cooperatives across the U.S. are plugging in to ensure their communities are equipped with a robust EV charging infrastructure. In this episode, CoBank’s Teri Viswanath and Tamra Reynolds visit with Nate Boettcher, CEO of Pierce Pepin Cooperative Services in Wisconsin. Boettcher also serves as president of CHARGE EV, a coalition of nearly 70 co-ops that’s joined forces to build a thriving rural ecosystem for electric vehicle adoption. He explains why building regionally connected corridors will be critical for rural communities in the era of EVs. Plus, Brian Cavey, CoBank's senior vice president of government affairs, discusses the impact of two pieces of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that are critical to rural America—EV charging infrastructure and broadband access. 

Transcript

Teri Viswanath: Reimagining Route 66. [honk] Co-ops collaborate with EV charging to reinvigorate rural America. Welcome to Power Plays, a CoBank Knowledge Exchange podcast series. An audio program where we connect you with top energy and environmental innovators and policymakers who share their insights, experience, and market observations. Hello, I'm Teri Viswanath, the lead economist for power energy, and water at CoBank. I'm joined today by co-host and CoBank managing director, Tamra Reynolds. Hi Tamra.

Tamra Reynolds: Hey Teri. In our nod toward the upcoming NRECA annual power exchange and tech advantage conferences in Nashville, we wanted to lean into a topic that's going to receive special attention at the conference, and that is, the rural adoption of electric vehicles. Teri, I shared with you a great case study featured on our cobank.com website that discusses how Tennessee is emerging as a major hub for electric vehicle manufacturing. For its recent announcement to build Blue Oval City in the state simply cements that position.

I know that our electric co-ops in the volunteer state are also orchestrating their own major buildout, providing education and outreach in their communities to create a thriving ecosystem for electric vehicle adoption. Maybe more than this, as you'll hear on this podcast, the time it takes for a fast charge might provide a great excuse to linger a little bit longer in our rural communities, inspiring our co-ops to rethink community planning.

Teri: I'm really proud of the work that Middle Tennessee Electric and others are doing in this space. If you think about it, in the early days of motoring, also at the start of modern American tourism, the first transportation revolution also encountered problems with refueling, very similar to what we're experiencing today with EV recharging.

Before thousands of gas stations dotted our public highways, motorists purchased gasoline from hardware stores, general stores, and even pharmacies. You see, these businesses had a preexisting relationship with the refineries through the sale of kerosene, which was used for lighting. There really feels like there's a parallel today with our electric cooperatives in their work with households and businesses in accommodating the nation's second transportation revolution.

Tamra: Before we gather in Nashville, we wanted to reflect on how the transition to electric vehicles takes more than just a dealership sale. It takes quite a bit of cooperation and collaboration along the whole supply chain. Drivers are into electric cars. Dealerships, convenience stores, home builders, electricians, and yes, even apple orchards and wineries need to prepare. The future of transportation is electric and federal policies and cooperation amongst cooperatives can make EV charging more accessible.

We start this podcast conversation on federal policy support with Brian Cavey, CoBank's senior vice president of government affairs. Here's that conversation.

Teri: Brian, welcome to our Power Plays Podcast program. It's great to have you on the program.

Brian Cavey: Thanks, Teri and Tamra. It's great to join you today.

Tamra: We're thrilled to be able to talk with you. Last year's passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act supported a number of electric co-op priorities including rural broadband deployment, electric vehicle charging infrastructure, and clean energy and grid modernization. Today, we really wanted to focus attention on those first two: broadband service and EV charging infrastructure. Can you give us an overview for this investment?

Brian: The long-awaited Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act delivered some good news and candidly about a trillion dollars to folks around the country. Now some of that was simply reauthorization of existing programs, but there's also significant new investment, including the two areas that you mentioned. The bill provides $7.5 billion for an EV charging network and somewhere in the neighborhood of $65 billion for broadband access and affordability programs. That's real money for both of those.

Notably, the president established a task force with six federal department secretaries and a couple more cabinet-level posts and chaired it with former New Orleans mayor, Mitch Landrieu. It's a diverse and high-powered panel, and the task force should be helpful as they're trying to navigate when jurisdictional lines prevent obstacles to getting these programs up and running.

Since the bill was enacted about two months ago, there's been important progress, but that said, I think it's important to recognize them. This is a marathon, not a sprint, as they try to invest those funds in a responsible and productive manner.

Tamra: For our co-op listeners, how can they influence their ability to access funding for their communities when it comes to rural broadband?

Brian: I think the benefit of this bill is the money that's there is going to address that problem. The question is, how far will $65 billion go? I think folks at electric co-ops can reach out to their national trade association at NRECA, also their state associations as well are actively engaged in this. Hopefully, the federal investment that's going to be made through this bill will be delivered in a way that enhances and improves rather than duplicates the work that's underway in some of the states.

Teri: I think you make a great point too, Brian, it's how far can we stretch this dollar? We've got 30 million Americans that are living somewhere without adequate broadband access, that is roughly 25% of the rural population. The other element of this is not just access, it's affordability. Another really important element of the federal broadband investment is going to address affordability, right?

Brian: Yes. One of the set-asides in the broadband spending was over $14 billion set aside for the affordable connectivity program. It built on or is a long-term replacement of the emergency broadband benefit that was started to help Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic. During the pandemic, there was a $50 a month per household program to help folks access the broadband that was essential for them to deliver education to their kids at home, to be able to work from home, to be able to receive telemedicine services when they couldn't get in and get treatment.

It was really an important program that was passed in the early days of the COVID relief packages. This program is long-term, and it's a little lower rate. It's a $30 per household per month, but still, helps out in making it affordable.

Teri: I want to switch gears. The other important topic we wanted to talk about is that federal spending that is going to be focused on electric vehicle recharging infrastructure.

Brian: One of the highlights of the bill for folks that are supportive of EVs is that there is $7.5 billion dollars in the bill to help bring EV charging infrastructure to places that haven't been able to access it until now. That should help make it easier for drivers in rural or marginalized communities to make the switch to electric vehicles. While that program is funded at half with the original program, our original proposal was, the administration still has a goal of powering up half a million new charging stations, and rural locations are specifically called out as a priority.

I think if the new electric pickups are to be rolled out successfully and make their way to rural locations as well, we're going to have that charging infrastructure. This is an important provision that was included in that bill and should have meaningful impact on how we get that technology deployed.

Tamra: Brian, we really appreciate your insights. Thanks for being a part of our program.

Brian: Tamra, Teri, thanks for the chance to join today. I appreciate it.

Teri: Are you interested in hearing how electric co-ops are supporting EV adoption in their communities? The conversations that are currently happening with community leaders, home-builders, dealerships and electricians? Well, stay tuned to the 2nd half of this podcast, where Tamra and I catch up with Nate Boettcher. We will be right back.

Michael Anthos: With today's ever changing energy landscape co-ops are evaluating ways to manage cash while continuing to meet their members' evolving needs for affordable clean electricity. This is why more and more co-ops are taking advantage of leasing for their equipment needs from electric vehicles and EV chargers to solar and batteries, CoBank farm credit leasing can meet your financing needs while allowing you to make the most of your cash on hand. Contact your CoBank relationship manager for more information and a free quote today.

Teri: And, welcome back. I think Brian provided great context on the federal policies that will support increased funding for both rural broadband as well as electric vehicle charging. For the second half of our program, we catch up with Nate Boettcher, CEO of Pierce Pepin Cooperative Services in Wisconsin, who also serves as president of CHARGE EV a national electric vehicle charging brand powered by electric cooperatives. We're going to mention this, Nate is also the host of a community podcast program called Live Better. Nate, welcome to our program.

Nate Boettcher: Yes, thanks for having me. Looking forward to our chat today.

Tamra: Teri, I think this is the first time that we're actually interviewing another podcast host on our program. Let's begin our discussion briefly with a quick overview of CHARGE. Can you give us a little more background about the organization?

Nate: I joined Pierce Pepin Cooperative Services back in October of 2019. At the time our board was looking for an electric vehicle strategy. We're a pretty small, co-op located in the upper Midwest in Ellsworth, Wisconsin. As we got into thinking about our strategy relative to electric vehicles, we realized that we really didn't have a single person in our office that could focus all of their attention and all of their energy on electric vehicles.

As luck would have it, we went down to a managers’ meeting down at Dairyland Power Cooperative who's our G&T. They had been talking about what the group should do relative to electric vehicle charging. Out of that came a working group. What we found during that in that working group is that really all of the cooperatives that were part of Dairyland were thinking about electric vehicles. A good portion of them were thinking about it, and all kind of struggling on how to get their program going. It really gave us a great opportunity to come together and to think about how we might collectively create something like CHARGE that could be utilized, and could expand it across all of the Upper Midwest, and frankly what's really turned into a nationwide program.

We started out with really 31 distribution co-ops that were part of the initial group. Over the last year, we've actually now expanded to just around 70 co-ops that have been a part of CHARGE. What's even more impressive is that we've had interest all over the country.

Tamra: Nate, you mentioned that there were a number of reasons that you guys collectively that working group. One, it’s really take advantage of by creating CHARGE. Can you talk a little bit about what those are, and what you guys found were valuable for collaborating in this way?

Nate: At the time, everyone was really focused on range anxiety. Co-ops are in rural areas and are people going to adopt electric vehicles without public charging and feel comfortable that they can leave their homes with an electric vehicle, and go to wherever they may want to go? About 80% of the charging that people do is going to actually be done inside of their home.

That gave us an opportunity to start to think about, "Well, if most of the charging is going to be done inside their home, and then when people leave to charge, they're probably actually going to leave their co-op service area before they need an additional charge." We really needed to think about a brand, a brand that would unify electric co-ops because if I have a member that's leaving, and they're going to leave our service area, and they're going to go to another part of Wisconsin, or Minnesota, or Iowa, we wanted them to be able to make that connection to another electric co-op.

The other thing that really became top of mind was the expanded need for education. We knew that we were going to have to do a lot of education just with our members, and with those individuals that were going to be driving electric vehicles, but we started to realize that there was a broader audience. A lot of the dealerships, still even to this day are very uncomfortable with electric vehicles. They're really uncomfortable with charging at home, and what that's going to mean.

The other thing is home builders, and electricians, we wanted to try to do our best to get out in front of builders and electricians so that they were thinking ahead about wiring and pre-wiring homes for electric vehicle chargers. Then the last thing that I would just point out is, we really saw public charging as a billboard or an advertisement for tourism and economic development. Just trying to educate those entities having public charging at their facilities would encourage people to come from outside of our area to patronize that business or that tourist destination.

Teri: Something you mentioned and I thought it was a bit surprising, happened to be, really takes a full ecosystem push to be able to have this technology change.

Nate: Yes, absolutely. People are not thinking about a home that has to be connected with an electric vehicle charger. In fact, we have a cooperative, Eau Claire Energy Cooperative, that's part of CHARGE, that is working on a planned subdivision where every home in that subdivision will have an electric vehicle charger installed in the home. Regardless of whether the people that end up buying those homes have an electric vehicle, their home will come equipped with a charger.

That's the effort that I think it's going to take to really get adoption at a higher level, and just little things like sitting down with that home builder, or with those electricians, and having that conversation will go a very long way in starting the EV movement across rural America.

Teri: Instead of having to retrofit, have the conversation upfront.

Nate: The model even for a convenience store or gas station is going to have to change. It's going to take a little bit longer, more than likely to power your vehicle to an appropriate level. What are the sorts of things that those convenience stores are going to have to start thinking about doing to keep people's attention? As a good example, they're probably going to have to invest in some pretty good Wi-Fi, so that people can charge their vehicle, check their email, maybe download a movie, or whatever it might be. It's going to be a whole rethinking of the model, if you will, that they're probably not thinking about today, but that CHARGE is helping those business owners to think about, and to prepare for the future.

Tamra: Legislation was passed to spend up to $7.5 billion in federal infrastructure funds to build out nationwide EV charging networks. I think initially the plan was to put 500,000 charging stations across the country, which far eclipses the number of gas stations we have. What are you guys doing at CHARGE, what steps are you guys taking to take advantage of funding that may be available?

Nate: Your question's a really good question. I think one of the big issues that we tend to forget about, and I think your numbers spell this out, you go back to if people are going to be doing 80% of the charging at home, are we going to need the same amount of public places to be able to charge electric vehicles. When you can drive home every night and basically "fill your tank," that changes the mentality for a lot of people. That whole mindset is really going to change, I think quite dramatically.

I think one of the advantages that we have with CHARGE as a group, and now covering a number of different states is, we can bring more of a collective presence to those grant opportunities. When we can bring 70 different co-ops to the table and say, "Hey, there's an opportunity here to build out a network to take the infrastructure funds and to actually put it in places that are going to need that assistance." There's a lot of power behind that, and we think that CHARGE-- it's one of the reasons that we set up the group to begin with was to give us a more collective voice, if you will, related to electric vehicle charging.

Tamra: Yes, Nate, you talked about Wi-Fi hotspots at charging stations. What are some other things that people can be thinking about when they're thinking about placing a community EV charger, or what does it look like when you start to think about how that is supported by things like rural broadband?

Nate: I really think that as electric cooperatives, who, in many cases, serve very rural areas, it gives us a chance to rethink the infrastructure, and where we may want to more strategically put electric vehicle chargers. I mentioned a little bit earlier about a tourism opportunity. We have about four or five different wineries in our service area, and our proximity to the Twin Cities provides opportunities for people from the metro area to come out to the country, on a fall weekend, go apple picking, and stop by our wineries, and patronize those businesses.

You mentioned also just the idea behind broadband, and connectivity and the role that that's going to play as well. I think one thing to keep in mind that we need to think a lot about is the intelligence of the charging infrastructure that we're putting out into the field. When I talk about that, even today in a residential setting it's really easy to go and get what I would call a dumb charger. Basically, one that just plugs the vehicle in and provides the electricity.

As you start to think more and more about intelligent charging, where you can control when that charger is actually charging the vehicle, and it can participate in a load management program. We're going to want to know when people are connected to that infrastructure, and we're going to want to know what the impact of that is to our grid, and so that we continue to keep our grid resilient and reliable.

That's something that we've been working on even with CHARGE. We've been working with our legislators here in Wisconsin to make sure that they understand the impact of public charging, and that those entities have to work closely with utilities so that we don't harm the reliability of our grid. There's a lot to do, there's a lot to think about, and I would just encourage all co-ops to start putting together a plan, to start tackling some of these challenges.

Teri: We had this conversation and you sent me this great link to the Live Better Podcast program and you had interviewed Brian Berg. I think he's a director at your co-op for District 3. He's also a former dairy farmer now beef and crop farmer from River Falls. He invested time to actually test a number of vehicles that provide insight to your members. Let's talk a little bit about your podcast program and that in particular in terms of the EV driving experience that Brian had.

Nate: If you met Brian just out on the street you'd probably never think, "This is a guy that's going to be really into renewable energy and electric vehicles." But he is totally bought into it. He's done a tremendous amount of research on his own. He's put in his own residential solar that actually powers most of his consumption at his home on an average basis. He's not the only director frankly that we have at Pierce Pepin. We have another director that's very similar, has residential solar, has a couple of Teslas, has an electric bike which we had a chance to take for a little bit of a spin and so it's great.

When you can see that your directors are starting to use, and I'll call them technologies, but starting to use these technologies in their personal lives it really makes our job a lot easier at the co-op to make investments and plan for this for our future. I would just encourage anyone who's listening to this that is working with their directors, find out what their interest level is in some of this. If they've never driven an electric vehicle, get them in an electric vehicle because taking them for a test drive is a lot different than just talking about them in your boardroom.

Tamra: Nate. That's a really cool story and I really appreciate your work around what you do for Pierce Pepin and for CHARGE, but also for being in our program today. Thank you.

Nate: You're welcome. I think we're just really passionate about this. This is really a great opportunity for electric co-ops to be able to take on new sales and, and new load growth and do so in a way that is still very much environmentally friendly. It's really going to be a win-win for all of our members and really for all the co-ops across the country.

Tamra: That was a terrific overview. Some of the great work that CHARGE is doing. The coalition is not only making a significant investment in more level two and level three chargers but also creating important regionally connected corridors for recharging and building technology awareness with members and other critical stakeholders.

Teri: Rural communities are home to 20% of Americans and almost 70% of America's road miles, so EVs can be especially attractive alternatives to conventional internal combustion vehicles. Increasing the availability of affordable public charging will help rural Americans and really, as Nate suggests, anyone who drives in rural America. the confidence that they'll have to be able to recharge when and where they need to.

Tamra: I hope that our audience found this discussion helpful. For our next Power Plays episode, we'll be recording in Nashville at the CoBank booth and we look forward to seeing you then.

Teri: I hope you will listen in over the next series of Power Play podcasts, where we dive deep into EV Home Integration Systems, how many home appliances are becoming DERs by virtue of their behind-the-meter control features and functionality and a toolkit for developing strong rural broadband programs. Stay tuned.

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