IDAHO FALLS – The Congressional rollout of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act last year provided federal funding for road, bridge, pipes and other improvement projects across the nation.
The bill includes an initiative designed to create a network of electric vehicle charging stations situated along interstates. Idaho is expected to get about $28 million in federal funding over the next five years with the goal of installing a charging station every 50 miles.
Efforts to speed the process are already underway in eastern Idaho.
Fall River Electric, a member-owned utility company in Ashton, is deploying three fast charging stations that can charge two vehicles simultaneously up to 80% in under 20 minutes throughout the Upper Valley. Company spokesman Ted Austin tells EastIdahoNews.com one charger will be placed in Fall River’s parking lot, and the other two will be in Driggs in the commuter parking lot between Kaufman’s & Ace Hardware and in Island Park next to Pond’s Lodge at the city office building.
“We have commercial businesses that rely significantly on the tourist traffic (on U.S. Highway 20 and in Teton Valley) and we want to be a part of relieving the anxiety electric vehicle owners may have … in the lack of charging stations on the route to Jackson or Yellowstone,” Austin says.
It’s also expected to benefit locals as electric vehicles become more accessible and cost-effective.
The Island Park location was previously announced in September as part of a news conference with ChargeWest, a coalition of eight states committed to improving electric corridors across the western U.S. A similar project is in the works in Arco, McCall, Lewiston, Hailey, Bonners Ferry, Coeur d’Alene, and other places across the state, according to the Department of Environmental Quality.
The $900,000 Fall River project is slated to begin next spring, with a completion date set for sometime in the summer, barring any supply-chain issues.
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In the last year, interest in owning an electric vehicle seems to have spiked. Between June 2021 and June 2022, the Gem State had a 40% increase in the number of registered electric vehicles. There were 2,685 electric vehicles in Idaho in June 2021, according to the Idaho Transportation Department. As of July, there are 4,508.
With more electric vehicles on car lots across the U.S., the demand is much greater, Austin says, which makes access to charging stations even more critical.
In 2017, Rocky Mountain Power partnered with Maverik to build 700 charging stations along I-15 throughout Utah, Idaho and Nevada. Since then, Rocky Mountain Power spokesman Jona Whitesides says they’ve been able to install 110 fast chargers and about 2,900 level 2 chargers, which take several hours to fully charge an electric vehicle.
The effort was implemented throughout southern Utah and made it to the Ogden area before it fizzled out two or three years ago. The main reason for that, according to Whitesides, is because of changes in technology.
“Maverik opted to not upgrade their charging stations, so the plan to continue the buildout through Idaho did not come to fruition,” says Whitesides.
Though businesses still have the option to have a charging station installed, Whitesides says there are no financial incentives outside of Utah. In 2020, the Utah legislature passed a bill that allowed “a large-scale electric utility to recover the utility’s investment in vehicle charging infrastructure.”
Rocky Mountain Power currently has no plans to expand into Idaho or Wyoming, but the Biden administration’s infrastructure investment and jobs act could change that.
For $20 a month, Idaho Falls Power will install and maintain a charging station at any business. But businesses are responsible for the cost of electricity.
IFP has two charging stations in front of its building at 140 South Capital. It also owns and operates a site at Ball Ventures in Snake River Landing and at City Hall. There are other locations in Snake River Landing and at Walmart on Utah Avenue, along with other places throughout Idaho Falls and Ammon owned by other companies.
Over the last several years, IFP General Manager Bear Prairie says there’s been an uptick in how often the charging stations have been used.
“Three or four years ago, the chargers at our office would be used 10 to 15% of the time. Now those numbers are bumping up to 50 to 60% of the time,” says Prairie.
With the federal program focusing on filling the gap along interstate corridors, Prairie says the sites in town increase charging accessibility, and they’re engaged in conversations with ITD to assess the interest and need in providing more charging stations.
“We have very affordable electricity here, compared to areas outside the city. That’s an advantage, and we’d like people to be able to charge (somewhere in town) and take advantage of the Riverwalk, restaurants (and other sites) while they wait,” says Prairie. “The Museum of Idaho has expressed interest in building some chargers around their facility as a way to draw people in.”
Still, the total number of electric vehicles in Idaho reflects only a tiny fraction of the population. At this point, it doesn’t seem to be a mode of transportation the vast majority of people are on board with. While Prairie believes there will be a significant increase in the number of people using electric vehicles over the next five years, he says it will still be a small percentage of the population.
“It’s going to cause a lot of changes in infrastructure,” he says.
Regardless of how many people buy them, Prairie says other challenges need to be addressed, like the impact of increased electric vehicle usage on the power grid.
“If you look to electrify the transportation sector, the amount of energy the fast chargers use is massive. We’re focused on programs and rate development to help incentivize people to charge their vehicles in the late evening hours when it’s optimal for the utility and for (people’s wallets),” explains Prairie.
If electric vehicles become a mainstream mode of transportation, Austin says Fall River Electric is “comfortable” with its ability to meet consumers’ energy needs, and this project to install three charging stations will give them additional insight into usage and its impact.
Austin has more immediate concerns. Fall River Electric purchased a Tesla several years ago to allow customers to take it for a spin and see what it’s like. Austin says the cold weather in eastern Idaho has a negative impact on battery efficiency.
“When you get down below freezing and even a little bit warmer than that, you lose about 50% efficiency with your battery,” Austin explains. “If you’ve got a vehicle that supposedly can go 300 miles when it’s fully charged, in the winter time, you’re looking at half that range.”
With many people coming through the area with recreational vehicles, Austin says another challenge is the ability for electric vehicles to pull heavy loads.
“If you live in Idaho Falls and you’re commuting to Pocatello on Interstate 15, then an electric vehicle might make sense. But if you’re using it for some of the other things I’ve described, presently, that might be a challenge,” says Austin. “Those are challenges I’m sure technology will be addressing.”