EV Drivers, Charge Your Engines

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – As major automakers announce ambitious plans to convert their portfolios to all-electric platforms over the next 15 years, the area’s dealerships, workforce, electrical contractors, municipalities and private vehicle owners already are making adjustments to what appears is the inevitable demise of the combustion engine.

But it’s likely going to take tens of millions of dollars to equip infrastructure in this region to accommodate the EV market. Indeed, the entire country has found itself in a position that will require an estimated $87 billion to prepare for the EV future, according to a newly released research report.

From multi-port electric-vehicle stations to plug-ins from your own garage – the Mahoning Valley is beginning to embrace the swift march toward an all-electric auto industry.

“We saw this as the future and we wanted to get involved,” says Bobby Ritchie, private sector group specialist at the Columbiana County Port Authority in Lisbon.

In October, the port authority launched a single station capable of charging two vehicles, made possible through a five-year agreement with EV charging company ChargePoint. The port authority leases the equipment and provides the EV service to the public at no cost, he says.

The numbers are small – the single station logged seven unique drivers and 13 sessions in March – but use is on the rise. “April is looking to be better than March,” Ritchie says.

Drivers of Chevrolet Bolts, Ford Fusions, and Honda Claritys – all plug-in models – have visited the charging port, Ritchie says. He expects activity to increase as more EV models are introduced to the market.

“We’ll continue to track usage,” says Penny Traina, the port authority’s executive director. “We have plenty of room to expand. And we’re talking to other municipalities about EV stations in their community as well.”

Atlas Public Policy, a Washington D.C.-based research firm, recently published its analysis that concluded northeastern Ohio – in fact, most of the country – lacks EV infrastructure adequate to accommodate the rapid deployment of electric vehicles.

More than $87 billion in investments devoted to charging infrastructure would be necessary nationwide over the next decade to support all EV sales by 2035, the analysis found. Of this number, $39 billion would be required for charging stations accessible to the public, while $22 billion is needed for private home installation.

The analysis also found new infrastructure would require the build-out of an estimated 495,000 public and workplace charging ports to serve all EV passenger vehicles by 2035.

A provision of President Joe Biden’s infrastructure proposal – The American Jobs Plan – calls for dedicating $174 billion to “win” the EV market in part by establishing grant and incentive programs for state and local governments to build a national network of 500,000 EV chargers by 2030.

The Atlas study determined that the lack of new investment in public charging stations presents the biggest roadblock in developing a cohesive EV strategy. These public stations would be equipped with 350-kilowatt DC fast-charging ports, able to charge vehicles in about half an hour and are necessary to provide reliable service to motorists throughout the country.

“The current pace of investment falls woefully short” of the $87 billion required over the next decade to support the EV market, the study states. Commitments from utilities, states and charging service providers are less than $4.5 billion – the vast majority of this investment coming from New York and California.

By 2025, the study estimates that 253,000 public charging stations should be in place across the country to meet accelerating demand – more than 13,000 of them in Ohio alone.

An internet search displayed nine charging sites in Columbiana, Mahoning and Trumbull counties available to the public while Mercer County in western Pennsylvania boasts three stations dedicated solely to EV titan Tesla.

One of the first local public stations was installed in downtown Warren through Brite Energy Innovators. “Ours was the first public one in the Mahoning Valley,” says Rick Stockburger, president and CEO of Brite.

Stockburger says Brite is acting mostly from a consulting standpoint to help other entities that are working to improve the region’s electric-vehicle network and grid. “A lot of us have the technical background to understand all EV aspects as opposed to just a planning background. One of the exciting things about the Mahoning Valley is that we have the people with expertise willing to work together.”

Efforts underway by the Eastgate Regional Council of Governments, the Regional Chamber, and the Western Reserve Port Authority to secure federal and state funding to develop EV infrastructure in the Mahoning Valley are a major step in addressing the public gap, Stockburger says.

“I hope we see that come to fruition this year,” he says.

Meanwhile, auto dealers are looking ahead as manufacturers announce their intentions to make the transition to zero emissions.

“We’re excited about it,” says Alexa Sweeney Blackann, president of Sweeney Chevrolet Buick GMC in Boardman. The dealership has two charging stations used by Sweeney Chevrolet’s service department to charge the Chevrolet Bolt, General Motors’ all-electric passenger vehicle.

The Bolt is able to hold a charge for 259 miles and GM is acclimating customers to the EV market by adding incentives on the 2022 models, Blackann says. For example, GM partnered with Qmerit to install household chargers at no cost for those customers who buy or lease a 2022 Bolt or Bolt Electrical Utility Vehicle.

These incentives would cover the installation of a 240-volt “Level 2” port capable of charging a drained Bolt battery in about 9½ hours.

“GM’s market research tells us that most people want to be able to charge in their home,” Blackann says.

The dealership plans to develop additional charging stations for public use as GM introduces new EV models to the market, she says. Sweeney’s newly remodeled Buick GMC showroom, for example, was constructed with GM’s electric future in mind.

“We knew this was coming,” she says. “We have conduit running from the building to the street to be able to do a couple charging stations. I’m just waiting for GM to tell me what I need to build.”

The auto giant said last year it plans to introduce 30 EV models by 2025 and go completely electric by 2035. The automaker’s commitment is evident across this region, as work continues on Ultium Cells LLC’s $2.3 billion EV battery manufacturing plant in Lordstown. Ultium, a partnership between GM and LG Electrical Solutions, will supply GM’s new lineup of EV models.

Blackann says that once these EV models – especially the all-electric Hummer – hit the streets and prove themselves, it will ease consumer “range anxiety” and speed adoption of electric vehicles. Today Bolt owners are assigned a phone app that pinpoints charging stations on longer journeys so drivers can plan trips.

Recently, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency announced $3.25 million in grant awards to install public charging stations across the state. The grants would be used to leverage the construction of 500 EV ports at more than 170 sites across 22 counties. The money was made available through the Volkswagen Mitigation Trust Fund, a fund created as a result of a federal lawsuit accusing the automaker of installing bogus emissions equipment covering model years between 2009 and 2016.

Five locations in Mahoning County – four in Youngstown and one in Boardman – were awarded $132,298 from the program.

“We plan on having ours done this year,” says Matt Taylor, president of Taylor Kia in Boardman. The dealership secured a $15,000 grant from the OEPA program to subsidize the installation of a public charging station at the dealership on Market Street.

Kia, he adds, plans to introduce an EV in about 18 months.

Taylor says he expects to invest between $80,000 and $100,000 on the new station – a Level 2 DC fast charger. “It’s significantly more money,” but is able to charge 70% to 80% of an EV battery in about a half hour.

Other applicants that received grant money include Mercy Health St. Elizabeth Youngstown Hospital, which received $27,298 toward the installation of new charging ports there.

“As of right now, we’re looking to install four single-vehicle charging stations in our parking deck,” says Jonathon Fauvie, public relations manager at Mercy Health. “There’s no timeline set but we’re looking at sometime in mid-summer.”

The hospital also has plans to privately invest in two additional charging stations in the physicians’ deck, Fauvie says. “As a health organization, we emphasize sustainability and taking care of the environment.”

The city of Youngstown received two grants worth $30,000 each to install new charging stations, while the Western Reserve Transit Authority secured $30,000 to develop three stations at its administration offices in Youngstown.

“It’s a change coming down the pike,” says Jason Rubin, president of CR Electric Inc. in Girard.

Rubin’s company has installed several household chargers over the years – especially for Tesla vehicle owners. He’s confident that more public charging ports will emerge, presenting more business opportunities for his company and other contractors.

One company based in California – Rubin declined to name the firm – is interested in entering the Ohio market and building about 1,000 new charging stations. Oil and gas retail outlets also are beginning to install charging ports at area locations.

Equally important is developing a trained workforce capable of building this new infrastructure, says Jim Burgham, business agent for the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 64.

“The IBEW is breaking out some training for advanced charging stations that will be added to the apprenticeship programs,” he says.

Most traditional stations do not require a great deal of specialty training, Burgham says. But the more complex, fast-charging hubs planned along the interstate will.

“I’m sure they’ll be looking for contractors willing to travel the state and install them in rest stops and things like that,” he says.

“The demand for the workforce will be the biggest challenge.”

Pictured: Judin Balella and Sweeney Chevrolet Buick GMC President Alexa Sweeney Blackann charge a Bolt.