Going from gas to electric – can PA switch gears in a few years?

ChargePoint EV Charging Station For Electric Vehicles In Muhlenberg Pennsylvania

ChargePoint EV Charging Station For Electric Vehicles In Muhlenberg Pennsylvania MediaNews Group/Reading Eagle via Getty Images | Contributor

State officials want Pennsylvania to be the envy when it comes to EVs – electric vehicles. 

The driving force behind this push toward electric vehicle expansion in the commonwealth is the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act Congress passed in November. 

Under the new federal infrastructure bill, Pennsylvania is slated to receive $2.8 billion over the next several years to improve public transit options, which the state hopes will help electrify its own fleet as well as other public transportation. The state also expects to get an additional $171 million to build out its network of electric vehicle charging stations. 

At a recent Senate Transportation Committee hearing, state legislators heard from electrification advocates and trucking companies about the potential impacts on electric vehicle expansion in the state. And while some Republicans expressed concerns about imposing mandates on the oil and gas industries, there was no denying the sector’s overall growth throughout the commonwealth. 

“This is the future,” said state Sen. Wayne Langerholc, a Republican from Bedford County. “I think we need to get ahead of this and realize the potential this has to bring jobs and economic growth to our region.” 

But there are plenty of roadblocks the state must bypass to get to sustainability. It needs a network of charging stations in order for consumers to plug in while on the go. 

David Masur, executive director of PennEnvironment, said it’s a “chicken and egg” situation. 

“Do you need to build the infrastructure so that consumers buy the cars? But also, who wants to invest in infrastructure if there’s not somebody to use it?” he asked. 

As it stands, Pennsylvania has 2,450 public charging plugs at more than 1,000 locations across the state. More than 950 of the locations have plug types usable by non-Tesla vehicles, according to the Department of Environmental Protection. The state’s Alternative Fuels Corridor program has focused on filling charging gaps along major interstates, including I-78, I-80 and I-81. There’s a charging project that has either been completed or is under construction in 46 of the commonwealth’s 67 counties and the program’s goal is to have electric vehicle chargers every 50 miles along the highways and no more than five miles from the road, with accompanying roadside signs.

Federal infrastructure funding is earmarked for the installation and operation of electric vehicle chargers, including the installation of traffic control devices, signage and mapping and analysis related to charging equipment. 

Matt Smith, president of the Greater Pittsburgh Chamber of Commerce, said his city is primed to be a leader in electric vehicle expansion and autonomous vehicle development.

“The Pittsburgh region is really putting down a marker where we think we're going to be a global leader because we've got companies like Argo AI and Aurora, which [are] now public,” Smith told City & State. 

He said the region’s academic institutions, growing companies and energy sector can all help it become a model for infrastructure upgrades. One thing that Pennsylvania has a lot of – natural gas – could also play a role, something that environmental advocates say is counterintuitive to the purpose of electrification. 

“Here in western Pennsylvania, the really exciting opportunity is sort of marrying our natural gas baseload resources with electric vehicles and electric vehicle charging stations,” Smith said. “That could be a really high-value opportunity for this region if we're able to put the two things together.”

Although natural gas emits less carbon dioxide than other fossil fuels, charging electric vehicles with power from a non-renewable grid would diminish the environmental and health benefits associated with electrification. 

Ashleigh Deemer, deputy director of PennEnvironment, said the Port Authority of Pittsburgh’s 25-year plan fell short of its goal to electrify its fleet because the plans relied on the use of gas buses. She noted that those plans were changed after more than a dozen groups sent the port authority a letter thanking it for its promise to have a zero-emission fleet by 2045 and urging it to commit to powering the fleet with renewable energy. 

“If you're going to electrify and try to get to zero emissions, you should make sure the sources of power are also clean,” Deemer told City & State. 

Unfortunately for Pittsburgh and the burgeoning electric vehicle industry, it’s not that simple. 

Pennsylvania is among the largest energy producers in the country, trailing only Texas in natural gas production. Despite carbon emissions dropping due to natural gas taking the place of other fossil fuels, the state has a long way to go if it wants a renewable energy grid. 

“We actually view natural gas as a very sustainable source of baseload energy here,” Smith said. “We have an all-the-above energy strategy and we think that natural gas actually is a critical piece of that puzzle.”

Colton Brown, an energy program specialist with DEP, said rural and urban communities alike face difficulties when it comes to accessibility to the new technology that powers electric vehicles. 

“They're certainly different struggles whether it's a rural area or urban area,” said Brown. “Urban areas are much more likely to have issues with charging … there’s a much higher percentage of people that cannot charge where they park their vehicle overnight. But then the rural areas have issues with having charging somewhere nearby. So, we're definitely thinking about all of those pieces and trying to ensure that everybody gains access to charging.”

PennDOT is currently developing a mobility plan to look at key destinations across the state and determine how electric vehicles remain safe during emergency responses, like major floods and snowstorms. 

The state faces a lot of barriers as it looks to become a leader in electric vehicle infrastructure and development, but experts in the field say the federal funding boost should get the commonwealth’s network off the ground. Still, there may be more questions than answers when it comes to the state’s future in transportation.