Democrats push electric car infrastructure bill as a solution to rural gaps

Proposal picks up limited Republican support in both chambers but comes with a high price tag

By: - February 4, 2022 12:05 am

Democratic proposals for a statewide program to speed up the buildout of electric vehicle charging stations are picking up some Republican support in both chambers of Virginia’s General Assembly. But backers will have to convince the state’s powerful money committees that the plans are worth millions in new spending. 

Widespread electric vehicle adoption “is going to happen, frankly whether we like it or not,” Del. Rip Sullivan, D-Fairfax, told the House Natural Resources Subcommittee Wednesday. “And what we need to do is make sure we’re prepared.” 

Sullivan and Sen. Dave Marsden, D-Fairfax, are carrying legislation to establish the Driving Decarbonization Program and a related fund this year. Both lawmakers are also asking that $40 million spread over the next two years be added to the state’s biennial budget.

Under the program, which would be administered by the Virginia Department of Energy, private developers could apply for grants to install charging stations throughout Virginia. Developers proposing projects in “historically economically disadvantaged communities” would be eligible for funding to cover 70 percent of their non-utility costs, while developers with projects elsewhere could receive grants covering 50 percent of such costs. 

The program would be capped at $20 million annually, with a quarter of that earmarked for historically economically disadvantaged communities, a designation borrowed from the Virginia Clean Economy Act that refers to low-income communities and those in which a majority of the population are people of color. 

Democrats and backers of the proposal are selling the idea to Republicans largely on the benefits it could offer rural areas, where charging stations are few and far between. 

“Ultimately, the question is going to be, ‘Is rural Virginia going to be left behind as EVs begin to take over the market?’” said Greg Habeeb, a former Republican delegate from Salem who is lobbying for the proposal on behalf of EV infrastructure development company Carbon Solutions Group. “Because it is not going to happen organically where charging stations pop up in rural and underserved parts of Virginia without a nudge. It just won’t happen.” 

Virginia began embracing electric vehicles during the 2021 session. Under Democratic control, the legislature pushed through laws committing the state to California vehicle emission standards (rather than less stringent federal ones), setting up a rebate program that remains unfunded and calling for a study on charging infrastructure. The party considers the replacement of gas-powered vehicles with electric ones as key to reducing the state’s carbon emissions, roughly half of which come from the transportation sector. 

Republicans, however, have been openly skeptical of policies designed to promote electric vehicle use, with many members portraying the technology as a perk of the wealthy. 

Earlier this session, Sen. David Suetterlein, R-Roanoke, decried a bill fining drivers for parking a gas-powered vehicle in a spot meant for EV charging as imposing a “disparate impact yet again on folks that are less affluent and don’t have high-end vehicles that take a charge.” 

In the same floor debate, though, Sen. John Cosgrove, R-Chesapeake, told lawmakers that “we all know that the future of transportation is in electric vehicles, and we’re going to need more and more of these charging stations.” 

Cosgrove was the sole Republican on the Senate Transportation Committee to vote for the Driving Decarbonization Program and Fund. 

The bill gained more Republican traction in the House Natural Resources Subcommittee, where it picked up three Republican votes from Dels. James Edmunds, R-Halifax, Buddy Fowler, R-Hanover, and Danny Marshall, R-Danville. It is expected to clear the larger committee next week. 

House Majority Leader Terry Kilgore, R-Scott, has also signaled support for devoting funding to EV infrastructure.A budget amendment submitted by the influential Republican would put $15 million toward the expansion of EV infrastructure in “rural and underserved localities.” 

Kilgore’s office did not respond to a question about whether his proposal was linked to the Driving Decarbonization Program.

While EV sales have been growing in Virginia — registrations jumped 44 percent for electric vehicles and 12 percent for hybrids between June 2020 and June 2021 — charging infrastructure remains limited in many parts of the state. 

According to a dashboard maintained by Virginia Clean Cities, a nonprofit that is part of the federally sponsored Clean Cities network that aims to promote alternative fuels, Virginia has 1,162 charging stations. But while clusters of stations can be found in Northern Virginia, Richmond and Hampton Roads, the infrastructure is far sparser in rural areas.

“We have gaps in infrastructure almost everywhere in Virginia,” said Alleyn Harned, executive director of Virginia Clean Cities. “There is a wide opportunity to begin investing further in chargers for rural Virginia.” 

Harned said a statewide approach to infrastructure development could be “very helpful.” 

“There’s a need for a planning and ethical framework for chargers to reach all areas, not just for them to reach the profit centers,” he said.

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Sarah Vogelsong
Sarah Vogelsong

Sarah is Editor-in-Chief of the Mercury and previously its environment and energy reporter. She has worked for multiple Virginia and regional publications, including Chesapeake Bay Journal, The Progress-Index and The Caroline Progress. Her reporting has won awards from groups such as the Society of Environmental Journalists and Virginia Press Association, and she is an alumna of the Columbia Energy Journalism Initiative and Metcalf Institute Science Immersion Workshop for Journalists.