The road to electric: Oklahoma navigates transition to embracing electric vehicles
In front of a hundred-year-old soda fountain café in midtown Oklahoma City stands an inconspicuous pole with a long, heavy cord — partially wrapped around a spool, partially plugged into the front of a baby blue Nissan.
The Nissan belongs to Pete Schaffer, who owns the historic Kaiser’s Grateful Bean Café that sits behind the charging station. It’s one of a handful of free public charging stations in Oklahoma City. Schaffer worked with city officials to file an application to install a charging station, and, after partnering with St. Anthony Hospital and Baker Brothers Electric, the station went operational last summer.
“Electric vehicles are becoming more prevalent,” Schaffer said. “However, charging stations are not.”
Schaffer said it was important to him that the station was free because his café operates around a philosophy of public service. He said it employs people who have been “down on their luck.” It holds a once-a-month “pay what you wish” meal for people who may not be able to afford a meal otherwise. It offers free Thanksgiving meals every year and made 3,500 masks for first-responders during the pandemic. To Schaffer, the public charging station is an extension of the mindset he runs his restaurant by, and he hopes it will play a role in incentivizing people to make the switch to electric vehicles (EVs).
“Clean energy is really the way to go,” Schaffer said. “This is a very small pebble here with this charging station that is thrown into a very, very large lake.”
That very large lake of barriers for EV-driving Oklahomans is filled with issues like accessibility, infrastructure and “range anxiety” — a term referring to the fear that EV drivers could be stranded due to a lack of charging options, especially in rural areas. The transition to greener alternatives isn’t without its bumps in the road, but Oklahoma is navigating the journey toward embracing EVs.
While Oklahoma is the fourth-largest oil producer in the US, it also holds the title of No. 1 in the nation in per capita Level 3 charging stations — the fastest kind of EV charger — according to Oklahoma Secretary of Energy and Environment Ken Wagner. Much of that is due to the ChargeOK program, which used $3.1 million from the 2017 Volkswagen emissions scandal settlement to build out Oklahoma’s charging networks.
According to Leon Ashford, the environmental program specialist at the Oklahoma Department of Environmental Quality (OKDEQ), the program awarded a total of 32 charging station projects with up to 80% of the cost incurred from installing new stations.
“We tried to look at the charging network we have in Oklahoma and tried to fill in the gaps where they were,” Ashford said.
OKDEQ Communications Director Erin Hatfield said the department prioritized putting charging stations in well-lit areas close to amenities, like restaurants and shops. Hatfield said the project’s goal was to make it as convenient as possible for Oklahomans to drive EVs around the state.
“The more (charging stations) we have, the more people can buy electrical vehicles,” Hatfield said. “If you feel like your state doesn’t have the infrastructure, you may not be as inclined to buy one. But if we make this program more visible and let people know truly how many of these electric vehicle charging stations are throughout the state, our hope is that people will consider buying electric vehicles, and then they’ll get more use.”
One of the main contributors to Oklahoma’s charging network is Tulsa-based company Francis Energy. Francis took advantage of a 75% state tax credit for alternative fueling infrastructure and, according to Francis Energy CEO and founder David Jankowsky, made Oklahoma the first state to have a Level 3 charger every 50 miles. The road to robust charging networks, though, came with a few potholes.
Whether in the comment sections of Oklahoma EV Facebook groups, a YouTube roadtrip with nearly 60,000 views or from Jim Holman, the chair of the Oklahoma City chapter of the Electric Vehicle Association, EV drivers have reported malfunctioning Francis chargers across the state.
“Unfortunately, there is a reliability issue,” Holman said. “We’ve complained to the company — ‘we’ meaning EV drivers individually and collectively, and as an association — and I think they’re trying to react to it in a positive way. I think it should be quicker, but I think they’re on it on some level.”
Francis Chief of Staff Clark Wheeler said issues with the chargers stem from a wide range of problems, such as certain cars not communicating properly with chargers, user error and vandalism. But Wheeler also acknowledged the technology is new and evolving.
“As the industry matures, the technology that supports it is improving, and so are our capabilities to provide better service,” Wheeler said.
Wheeler said the company has processes in place to address station issues. The chargers are in a data network that connects to a 24/7 online portal, which allows Francis to monitor stations for issues. When a charger goes down, the company is notified through the portal.
Sometimes issues like software corrections can be handled remotely, and for other problems, Francis deploys technicians to work on the chargers on-site. He said the company aims to have a 24-hour turnaround on repairs, and Francis operates a 24/7 call center for customer service. If drivers are feeling range anxiety, they can also log on to PlugShare or the Francis EV Charging app to check the real-time status of particular stations.
“It’s a different fueling experience than what you’ve been used to for over a hundred years,” Wheeler said. “We built this charging network in order to increase adoption and to encourage drivers to be able to get an efficient and reliable charging experience any time they need us.”
Francis could soon have another big opportunity to build out more of the state’s charging network with new funding made available under the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Formula Program established by the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
Over $66 million will be made available to Oklahoma after it submits a deployment plan to help create a network of charging stations along designated Alternative Fuel Corridors — a Federal Highway Administration program that charts highway segments with infrastructure or plans for infrastructure that support alternative fuel options.
Cody Boyd, a spokesperson for the Oklahoma Department of Transportation, said the department will work with Sec. Wagner to develop a plan to submit by August.
“We’ll be working with stakeholder groups like our tribal governments, local government partners, cities, counties, metropolitan planning organizations, other state agencies, et cetera, on the plan for how we will deploy that money,” Boyd said.
Boyd said ODOT will partner with the private sector, local governments and community groups, which will build and operate the stations.
But as Oklahoma moves toward embracing EVs, state transportation officials are facing another issue: If fuel tax pays for roads and bridges, how will the state pay for infrastructure if its main revenue source is dying off?
By 2045, ODOT estimates motor fuel tax revenue will be cut by nearly half. Lawmakers answered by passing House Bill 2234, also known as the Driving on Road Infrastructure with Vehicles of Electricity (DRIVE) Act of 2021.
Starting in 2024, the law levies a three-cent tax per kilowatt hour to charge an electric vehicle, though it won’t apply to slower charging stations with a capacity of less than 50 kilowatts or at free stations. It also requires fully electric vehicle owners to pay an annual registration fee of at least $110, and for most plug-in hybrid vehicles, $82.
While all EV drivers will have to pay the tax initially, in-state drivers can later claim a tax credit up to the amount of their registration fee. Oklahoma is joining at least 30 other states that also charge an EV registration fee.
Also in 2021, lawmakers passed House Bill 1712, which creates a Road User Charge Task Force to study methods to record and report road usage for EVs and hybrids, and seek alternatives to the current motor vehicle fuel taxes. The bill requires the task force to report on its findings and recommendations by Dec. 31, 2023.
Oklahoma’s Road User Charge (RUC) Task Force is led by Oklahoma Secretary of Transportation Tim Gatz. So far, the task force has held two meetings. In those meetings, task force members learned about Utah’s and Oregon’s RUC programs, which are the only states that have active RUC programs collecting money.
Gatz said it’s too early to tell exactly how Oklahoma’s RUC program will work, but the task force meeting discussions highlighted some key issues: privacy, policy, costs and user education.
With an RUC, a driver would receive a device to install in their car, and that device would track the driver’s mileage. In the Oregon system, a third party collects the data and destroys the location-based information, then sends the aggregated data to the state for billing. Gatz said the task force hasn’t yet decided on a model, but that privacy would be a “focus area” of developing Oklahoma’s program.
As far as how an RUC would interact with the DRIVE Act, Gatz said there are some policy issues to reconcile, like if people who choose to enroll in the RUC program would need to pay the annual registration fee outlined in the DRIVE Act — and if not, how they could claim a tax credit from being taxed at chargers, given they hadn’t paid the registration fee amount that caps the tax credit.
In one of the task force meeting presentations, a representative from the Utah Department of Transportation explained the cost structure involved with the state’s RUC program. The program costs about $1 million per year to operate, and after two years, isn’t yet covering its own operating costs.
“One of the biggest challenges that we have — quite frankly, all states have — is balancing whatever model you choose to use with the cost of collection,” Gatz said. “We’re going to be paying close attention to [other states’ programs] because we don’t want to create a challenge here where it’s so costly to collect that it drives up the cost for our citizenry.”
User education was also a key topic from the meetings. Not only because users would need to have some level of tech savvy to use the RUC device, but also to dispel misconceptions about cost structure — such as rural residents worried about paying more with the new program. The UDOT representative said in the meeting she “cannot overstate the importance of public education and education with policy makers.”
Gatz said usability of the new technology would be another focus of the task force, as well as public outreach and education in community forums.
“I think everybody understands the challenges that we’re going to have with finding new ways to invest in transportation infrastructure, and that means it’s not going to go away in the near term,” Gatz said. “We’re going to put our best foot forward, and community involvement is a huge part of that.”
As the state grapples with how it will need to modify its infrastructure and tax policies to pave the way for EVs, EV ownership itself is evolving rapidly — especially with the expanding proliferation of Level 2 and 3 charging stations in Oklahoma.
There are three types of charging available for EVs: Level 1, Level 2 and Level 3.
- Level 1 chargers plug directly into a standard 120 volt AC outlet. Level 1 is the slowest kind of charge, with a power output of about 3-5 miles of EV range per hour. A full charge with a Level 1 charger can take over 24 hours.
- Level 2 chargers operate at 208-240 volts and have a power output of about 18-28 miles of range per hour. These chargers can generally fully charge an EV in 3-5 hours.
- Level 3 includes DC Fast Charging and Tesla Supercharging. Level 3 can recharge EVs at a rate of 3-20 miles per minute.
According to Michelle Merchant, the sustainability programs project specialist at Tulsa Area Clean Cities, most EV drivers charge at home on either a Level 1 or Level 2 charger. While the charging time may seem like a burden at first, she said it can actually work better for the user in the long run.
“The way that you charge what you need, versus having to go to a gas station, could actually be more convenient,” Merchant said. “We’ll be charging overnight, and you’ll never have to spend time shopping at a gas station again.”
For drivers who live in metropolitan areas or have a short commute, charging at home is an easy way to wake up every morning with a full battery. People who travel longer distances have to account for charging time along the way and plan their trip around these charging stops.
With Oklahoma’s relatively low cost of electricity, EV drivers consulted for this story reported slight increases ($10-20/month) in their electricity bills, and all said they pay significantly less for electricity than for motor fuel.
Eric Pollard, the air quality and Clean Cities coordinator at the Association of Central Oklahoma Governments, said the average urban Oklahoma City area driver commutes about 34 miles per day, and rural drivers around the region drive between 30-50 miles per day.
Merchant said the people who can benefit the most from EVs are those who drive the most, due to the lack of fuel costs. Rural users, she said, stand to save the most by switching to EVs. With the rollout of new EV models like the Ford F-150 Lightning, an all-electric truck with a 300-mile range, rural users may be more inclined to start looking into EVs.
Pollard said the technological evolution of EVs has come a long way since the days of the first Nissan Leaf in 2011, which had 60-90 miles of range, and still has room to improve as the industry grows.
Tucked away on a quiet street in Ponca City, Bryan Crumrine can be found tinkering away with the patent-pending EVs he designs and builds himself. As his 3D printer hummed in the background — building the movie prop recreations he sells to fund his EV dreams — he talked through the specs on his creation: a seated, one-wheeled electric vehicle under the brand name Evolution EVs.
Crumrine’s machine tops out around 27 miles an hour and works similarly to a hoverboard — no brakes, no steering wheel, and everything is controlled by self-balancing weight distribution. Crumrine, who used to race motorcycles when he was younger, is looking to expand from a one-wheeled vehicle to motorcycles, and eventually, to cars.
“It was a way of me pushing my limitations of understanding and reaching milestones I’ve never touched before,” Crumrine said. “I didn’t expect the reaction I got out of it, because it started more as just a wild idea that I just wanted to create so I can ride around with my kids… and then it just caught fire on the internet, and people were trying to order it from me.”
The Kansas native moved to Oklahoma about six months ago to start his business. Crumrine is working with Ponca City-based Pioneer Tech to set up an incubator with an office and manufacturing area, and is actively seeking investors for the start-up.
The history of Ponca City is especially relevant to Crumrine’s business philosophy. While the Phillips 66 refinery provided the economic foundation for the city for most of the 20th century, the company has reduced its workforce substantially in the last few decades. Crumrine sees his business as an opportunity to bring not just a new employer to the area, but also for the city to look toward clean energy solutions as its economic backbone instead of oil and gas.
“Ponca has really given me a hope of starting my company here,” Crumrine said. “In a city that was based and established around the refinery.”
Crumrine’s EV company isn’t the only one looking to call Oklahoma home. EV maker Canoo announced in 2021 it would bring in more than 2,000 jobs by building its manufacturing facility in Pryor, as well as research and software development centers in Tulsa and a customer service and financing center in Oklahoma City.
While Crumrine’s company has a ways to go before it can reach a level like that of Canoo, he sees the development of Oklahoma’s EV industry as a marathon, not a sprint.
“As we continue our path into the world of electric vehicles… if we focus 100 years on it like we did with internal combustion motors… and focus that on vehicles that produce less of a carbon footprint, there’s not enough cons to have an argument against doing that,” Crumrine said.
The new frontier of EVs in Oklahoma isn’t without its challenges — accessibility, range anxiety, infrastructure and competing in a state with a historic reliance on oil and gas production. But for people like Crumrine and Pete Schaffer, when it comes to this new generation of transportation, Oklahoma represents opportunity.
StateImpact Oklahoma is a partnership of Oklahoma’s public radio stations which relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online.