Q&A With Officials From Volunteer Countries (Part 1)

Charging infrastructure is a topic of concern to many – the federal government places a strong emphasis on building a national charging network; consumers are eager to see more charging stations in their own neighborhoods; and automakers are increasing production of electric vehicles (EVs), creating greater demand for more charging options. This left many 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, in the Tennessee Department of Environment & Conservation (TDEC OEP) Energy Programs Office and Matt Meservy, Long Range Director of the Planning Division in the Department of Transportation. Tennessee (TDOT). They share their key learnings from Tennessee’s implementation of the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Program (NEVI) so far, as well as advice for officials of other states starting to build their own charging networks.

Here is a condensed version of our conversation, edited for length. This article (Part 1) will focus on implementation and the first steps Alexa and Matt are taking, in partnership with stakeholders, to grow Tennessee’s EV charging network. Next week, we’ll continue the conversation by learning about NEVI Stage 2 plans and how they support statewide EV adoption.

Nobleman: To start, can you tell us a little about your respective jobs and roles in TDEC and TDOT?

Voytek (TDEC): The transportation sector is now the largest end use and energy consuming sector in Tennessee, so we are increasingly expanding our offerings to target more ways to make this sector more energy efficient. We have a number of programs, such as education and outreach, and technical assistance to provide insights to local governments, private entities or other fleets looking to evaluate different fuels or technologies. In addition to these programs, we also take advantage of funding opportunities, when available, to encourage statewide adoption of various technologies.

On the EV front, in particular, our work really starts in 2021 when TDEC and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) sign a memorandum of understanding to collaborate and co-finance what we now call Fast Charge TN Network. We’re also partnering with EV manufacturer Rivian to install charging stations in all of Tennessee’s eligible state parks. The results and lessons learned from these two projects laid the foundation for our partnership with TDOT to further build charging infrastructure, which will be funded by the federal NEVI Program as well as by several other federal programs.

I am also Coalition Director for one of the two US Department of Energy designated Clean Cities coalitions in Tennessee, the Midwest Tennessee Clean Fuel Coalition. Together with our partner coalition, the East Tennessee Clean Fuel Coalition, we form the Clean Fuel of Tennessee. It is an in-the-field technical assistance organization that serves as an impartial partner for fleets, local governments, and other entities trying to evaluate various technologies. We help them through the process of evaluating what fuel or technology will best meet their needs, applying for and securing funding, and understanding what potential cost or operational savings they can see from using a particular fuel or technology.

Meservy (TDOT): My division within TDOT, the Long Term Planning Division, is the administrator of many program funds related to air quality and resilience. For example, we are administrators of programs such as the Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement (CMAQ) program; Carbon Reduction Program; and the PROTECT Program, which promotes resilience. We are also a division looking to establish and promote a state-level Transportation Demand Management (TDM) program.

Alexa laid the foundation for our collaboration starting many years ago. Later, when NEVI arrived, TDOT took the lead role, allowing us to rekindle our partnership with TDEC and coordinate efforts.

Nobleman: Can you share a high-level overview of the key steps your team and stakeholders/partners took to develop, refine, and finalize the Tennessee Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Deployment Plan?

Meservy (TDOT): Funding comes directly to TDOT through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). Since TDEC has started a fast charging network, collaborating with them helps to streamline stakeholder engagement. Putting together the plan itself is the “easy” part because all the work is already done.

Voytek (TDEC): We decided to start the process with public engagement, while many other states seem to be finishing first drafts of their plans and then sharing them to get public reaction. While there’s no right or wrong way, our approach allows agencies to ask people early on what they care about, so we can use real input to inform our first drafts. We ended up with over 1,000 responses to our engagement survey, thousands of social media impressions, and a pretty strong “roadshow” of sorts to nine different locations across the state to speak directly to the community. At these road shows, all of our listening sessions are located in or adjacent to disadvantaged communities, and we try to facilitate more honest conversations. We found it very helpful to have face-to-face interaction to inform what we ultimately put into the plan.

Nobleman: Recognizing that we are still very early in the overall NEVI Program timeline, how are TDEC and TDOT in preparation for implementation?

Voytek (TDEC): While waiting for the final program guidelines and Buy America terms, we are continuing to do as much as we can.

One thing we did was create a map showing the gaps in the current charging infrastructure that need to be filled. From there, we worked with the East TN Clean Fuel Coalition to identify eligible highway exits near those gaps, and then layered with the service areas of local power companies servicing the exits to identify who we needed to work with. We then had a call with the local power company to have an open conversation about the concerns from a power capacity standpoint and any other considerations we had to consider. In some cases, the power company submitted multiple planned EV charging sites that we were not aware of because Fast Charge TN was not funded. Power company representatives loved being circled early, and it was helpful for us to get their insights.

Another thing is that the National Association of State Energy Officials (NASEO) and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) have created regional groups, which have facilitated peer sharing of what other states are doing and how they think. through different parts of the NEVI.

Meservy (TDOT): Another thing we do to prepare for implementation is think through the ADA’s accessibility, security, and preparedness plans so we’re ready to address the challenge.

We also expect to manage a competitive application process. Several states have issued requests for proposals (RFPs) to accept applications and are seeing a lot of initial interest from vendors and other applicants. It’s no different in Tennessee, as we’ve been inundated with emails expressing interest.

We see the NEVI Program as an opportunity to start a privatized industry. This fund will not involve replenishment of state ownership of infrastructure. Ultimately, private industry will become much more involved in operations and maintenance. Because of this, we need to ensure some decisions are left to the private industry so they have some flexibility. It’s about finding that balance while filling our voids.

Nobleman: What planning challenges have you faced so far, or what implementation challenges do you anticipate in the near future? And what are the potential mitigation strategies?

Voytek (TDEC): Operation and maintenance of chargers is an industrial challenge on everyone’s mind. Many states – including Tennessee – are thinking about how to ensure a consistent, reliable, and positive customer experience, especially when we don’t have to be the ones operating these charging stations once they are up and running. That responsibility falls to the grantee.

As part of the latest rules for the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Standards and Requirements, there is a minimum uptime metric, and uptime is not always reported accurately. We figure out how to incorporate these and other requirements into contracts and determine how to measure and ensure compliance with those requirements.

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