Charging infrastructure is a topic on a lot of people’s minds – the federal government is putting a strong emphasis on building out a nationwide charging network; consumers are eager to see more charging stations in their own neighborhoods; and automakers are ramping up electric vehicle (EV) production, creating an even greater demand for more charging options. This has left a lot of state officials with big questions about how best to leverage federal programs to develop a more reliable and accessible charging network.
To help answer these questions, I sat down with Alexa Voytek, Deputy Director of Programs, Innovation & Transportation, and Communications, at the Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation Office of Energy Programs (TDEC OEP) and Matt Meservy, Director of the Long Range Planning Division at the Tennessee Department of Transportation (TDOT). They shared their key learnings from Tennessee’s implementation of the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure (NEVI) Program thus far, as well as advice for other state officials who are starting to build their own charging networks.
What follows is a condensed version of our conversation, edited for length. This article (Part 1) will focus on the implementation and initial steps Alexa and Matt took, in partnership with stakeholders, to develop Tennessee’s EV charging network. Next week, we’ll continue the conversation by digging into NEVI Phase 2 plans and how they’re supporting EV adoption across the state.
Noblet: To start, could you tell me a little bit about your work and role at TDEC and TDOT, respectively?
Voytek (TDEC): The transportation sector is now the largest energy-consuming, end-use sector in Tennessee, so we have increasingly built out our offerings to target more ways to make this sector more energy efficient. We have a number of programs, like education and outreach, as well as technical assistance to provide insight to local governments, private entities, or other fleets looking to evaluate different fuels or technologies. In addition to these programs, we also leverage funding opportunities, when available, to encourage deployment of different technologies across the state.
On the EV front, specifically, our work really took off in 2021 when TDEC and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) signed a memorandum of agreement to collaborate and co-fund what we now call the Fast Charge TN Network. We also partnered with EV manufacturer Rivian to install charging stations at all viable Tennessee state parks. The results and learnings from those two projects laid the groundwork for our partnership with TDOT to further build out charging infrastructure, which will be funded by the federal NEVI Program and by a few other federal programs, as well.
I’m also the Coalition Director for one of two U.S. Department of Energy designated Clean Cities coalitions in Tennessee, the Middle West Tennessee Clean Fuels Coalition. Together with our partner coalition, the East Tennessee Clean Fuels Coalition, we make up Tennessee Clean Fuels. This is a boots on the ground technical assistance organization that serves as an unbiased partner for fleets, local governments, and other entities trying to evaluate different technologies. We help them through the process of evaluating what fuels or technologies can best meet their needs, applying for and securing funding, and understanding what potential cost or operational savings they could see from deploying a certain fuel or technology.
Meservy (TDOT): My division at TDOT, the Long Range Planning Division, is the administrator of a lot of the program funds connected to air quality and resilience. For example, we’re the administrators of programs like the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement (CMAQ) program; the Carbon Reduction Program; and the PROTECT Program, which promotes resilience. We’re also the division looking to establish and promote a Transportation Demand Management (TDM) program at the state level.
Alexa laid the groundwork for our work together beginning a few years ago. Then, when NEVI came around, TDOT took a lead role, so we were able to reignite our partnership with TDEC and coordinate efforts.
Noblet: Could you share a high-level overview of the key steps your teams and stakeholders/partners took to draft, refine, and finalize Tennessee’s Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Deployment Plan?
Meservy (TDOT): The funding came straight to TDOT through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). Because TDEC had already started the fast charging network, collaborating with them helped to streamline stakeholder engagement. Putting together the plan itself was the “easy” part because of all the work that had been done already.
Voytek (TDEC): We decided to start the process with public engagement, whereas many other states seemed to complete a first draft of their plan and then share it for public reaction. While there was no right or wrong way, our approach allowed the agencies to ask people from the very start what they cared about, so we could use real input to inform our first draft. We ended up with over 1,000 responses to our engagement survey, thousands of social media impressions, and a fairly robust “road show” of sorts to nine different locations across the state to speak directly with communities. On that road show, all our listening sessions were either located in or adjacent to disadvantaged communities, and we tried to facilitate more candid conversations. We found it extremely helpful to have face-to-face interactions to inform what we eventually plugged into the plan.
Noblet: Recognizing we are still very early in the overall NEVI Program timeline, how are TDEC and TDOT preparing for implementation?
Voytek (TDEC): While waiting for the final program guidelines and Buy America provisions, we continued to keep things moving forward as much as possible.
One thing we did was build out a map that shows the current charging infrastructure gaps that need to be filled. From there, we worked with the East TN Clean Fuels Coalition to identify eligible highway exits near those gaps, and then overlaid those with the service territories of the local power companies serving the exits to identify who we would need to work with. We then held a call with those local power companies to have an open conversation about concerns from a power capacity standpoint and any other considerations we should take into account. In some cases, the power companies put forward some planned EV charging sites we weren’t aware of because they’re not Fast Charge TN funded. Power company representatives appreciated being looped in early, and it was helpful for us to gain their insight.
Another thing is that the National Association of State Energy Officials (NASEO) and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) have been convening regional groups, which has facilitated peer sharing about what other states are doing and how they’re thinking through different pieces of these NEVI.
Meservy (TDOT): Another thing we’re doing to prepare for implementation is to think through ADA accessibility, safety, and futureproofing plans so we’re ready to address those challenges.
We’re also expecting to administer a competitive application process. Some states have already issued requests for proposals (RFPs) to receive applications and are seeing a ton of early interest from vendors and other applicants. It’s no different in Tennessee, as we’re already getting flooded with emails expressing interest.
We see the NEVI Program as an opportunity to jump-start a privatized industry. These funds are not going to involve charging infrastructure ownership by the state. Ultimately, the private industry will become much more involved when it comes to operation and maintenance. Because of this, we need to make sure some decisions are left to the private industry so they have flexibility. It’s about finding that balance while filling our gaps.
Noblet: What planning challenges have you faced thus far, or what implementation challenges do you anticipate in the near term? And what are some potential mitigation strategies?
Voytek (TDEC): Operation and maintenance of chargers is an industry-wide challenge on everyone’s mind. A lot of states – Tennessee included – are thinking about how to ensure a consistent, reliable, and positive customer experience, especially when we aren’t necessarily going to be the ones operating these charging stations once they’re up and running. That responsibility goes to the grantee.
As part of the final rule for National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Standards and Requirements, there is a minimum uptime metric, and uptime isn’t always accurately reported. We’re figuring out how to bake these and other requirements into the contract and determine how to measure and ensure compliance with those requirements.
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