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Alternative Fuel Along I-80

I-80 from Pennsylvania to Iowa
Google Maps
I-80 from Pennsylvania to Iowa
Credit US Dept of Transportation

Illinois and Iowa will work with four other states to study the availability of “alternative fuel” along Interstate 80.

They’ve received a federal grant, and will each contribute some of their own money, to figure out where electric vehicles can be charged and where compressed natural gas is available.

Herb Trix reports. 

From coast to coast, Interstate 80 is 2,900 miles long. The eastern half, known as the Mid-America Corridor, goes from New Jersey, through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, to the western border of Iowa. 163 miles in Illinois and 306 miles in Iowa.

Christopher Schmidt, Air Quality Manager for the Illinois Department of Transportation, says they want to find out where alternative fuel is available. Because right now, drivers of these vehicles often suffer from something called “range anxiety.”

Credit Earth and Main, Flickr

"So that's a real phrase. Range anxiety through a lot of national studies ends up being one of the top five, if not top three reasons why someone would not purchase an electric vehicle or let's say an alternative fuel vehicle. So the idea with this project is to make those gaps disappear. In Illinois we're in pretty good shape. You could travel from the Quad Cities to the Indiana border fairly easy in an electric vehicle with proper infrastructure along the way, depending on what level of charge you started out the trip with and what level you wanted to enter Indiana with."

Stu Anderson works for the Iowa DOT as Director of the Planning, Programming, and Modal Division. He says the range of the current “early generation” electric vehicles depends on the temperature and wind.

"We have some charging infrastructure which is called Level 2 which charge at a slower rate and take longer to charge. But what we really need on these corridors are the DC fast charging stations, direct current fast charging stations which do a really high charge in a short period of time."

Credit Earth and Main, Flickr

Iowa currently has just three of the DC-3, or fast charge stations - in Council Bluffs, Des Moines, and Coralville. And Tesla has some stations for its own vehicles.

"So what this planning effort will do is try to identify the ideal location to fill in gaps and also help identify partnerships to get those facilities developed."

Schmidt says to be considered available for drivers on I-80, alternative fuel stations must be located within 5 miles of the interstate. 

"We were just in a conference in Detroit with a lot of the regional states and the concept basically now is there's really no bad place to put EV charging. You know it's needed everywhere and you're going to see demand as long as it's connected to an interstate."

Anderson cautions though that the cost of connecting with the appropriate electrical service to fast-charge electric vehicles, can be very expensive. 

"And of course it's more than just the charging infrastructure. These sites also need to have amenities for the public - some sort of shelter, rest room facilities, adequate lighting, and ideally there's some kind of restaurant or food availability. So that all comes into the discussion as well."

Those three fast charge sites in Iowa - two are located at gas stations, while the third is in the parking lot of a Walmart store.

The study by the six states should take about a year, but Anderson says Iowa will not “stand still” during the coming year. It has some money from a national clean air settlement against Volkswagen.

"So for example in Iowa we will be releasing in December information on how to apply for some of that money. We have about one million dollars available in this first round of three rounds that will be dedicated to charging infrastructure."

Schmidt says this is a unique opportunity for the six states along I-80.

"One thing I'd emphasize is that when you hear about autonomous vehicles, and that revolution is coming, there's not a lot of manufacturers that are creating those vehicles with gas-powered engines. It doesn't make a lot of sense to take gasoline energy and convert it to electric and run all those sensors and all the things that are needed. Those vehicles are going to run on an electric engine and eventually hydrogen converted to electric. So that's where we're headed." 

 The multi-state collaboration includes the Argonne National Laboratory in Illinois, US Department of Energy, and Trillium - a company based in Oklahoma that develops and installs alternative fueling systems. It’s a division of the Love’s Company which owns truck stops and stores in 41 states.  

Copyright 2021 WVIK, Quad Cities NPR. To see more, visit WVIK, Quad Cities NPR.

A native of Detroit, Herb Trix began his radio career as a country-western disc jockey in Roswell, New Mexico (“KRSY, your superkicker in the Pecos Valley”), in 1978. After a stint at an oldies station in Topeka, Kansas (imagine getting paid to play “Louie Louie” and “Great Balls of Fire”), he wormed his way into news, first in Topeka, and then in Freeport Illinois.