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Michigan To Montana In Alternative Fuel Vehicles

Chevrolet Bolt photo
Scott Pohl
Jaime McKnight of Shaheen Chevrolet in Lansing stands with a Chevrolet Bolt. The all-electric car can go about 240 miles between charges.

One of the things holding back advancements in alternative fuel vehicles is their range. Nobody wants to run out of fuels like battery power, compressed natural gas or propane. The alternative fuels group Greater Lansing Area Clean Cities is partnering with the U.S. Department of Energy on a project to enable travelling greater distances in these vehicles powered by something other than gasoline.

What motivates a car-buyer to choose an alternative fuel vehicle like the fully electric Chevrolet Bolt? Jaime McKnight of new car sales at Shaheen Chevrolet in Lansing says these buyers are eco-friendly, well educated, and have done their research on how to escape the addiction to oil. And with cars like the Bolt on the market, he thinks their numbers will grow. "Within the next ten years, I would say that 75% of new passenger vehicles are going to be electric or some form of a hybrid system," McKnight states. "They're trying to be on that cutting edge."

The Bolt can go about 240 miles before needing to re-charge. That’s plenty for many drivers, but not nearly enough range for cross country travel.

The Department of Energy is trying to reduce or eliminate the gaps that prevent long-distance driving of alternative fuel vehicles with a project called “U.S. Fuels Across America’s Highways: Michigan to Montana.”

What they’re hoping for is that one day, an alternative fuel vehicle will be able to drive the entire 1,600 miles of Interstate 94 from Port Huron, Michigan to Billings, Montana.

Greater Lansing Area Clean Cities is seeking partner applications for the project through the end of the month.Coordinator Jeremy Orr says the Department of Energy project started in January of 2017. He explains that "we're looking at I-94 from Port Huron, Michigan to Billings, Montana, and identifying critical gaps in alternative fuels infrastructure, meaning electric vehicle DC fast chargers, compressed natural gas, and propane."

Along with filling in the fueling option gaps, the project aims to promote alternative fuel vehicle usage to the point where providing these fuels is attractive.

Signage showing motorists where fueling stations are located is critical in part so that people thinking about buying an alternative fuel vehicle are reassured that there’s less risk of running out. Orr has hopes that the Michigan Department of Transportation will deploy fueling option signage this summer. "It's going to allow consumers to know if you want to buy a Bolt or whatever it may be, you can charge here," Orr continues. "It's called range anxiety. It helps relieve the range anxiety" of knowing where drivers can charge up.

Orr says southeast Michigan has a pretty well established system of fueling stations, but there are gaps along I-94 in the state where it’s hoped that this project would help. Orr concludes that "depending on the fuel, if you look west of Ann Arbor or Jackson, it's pretty barren, and so we're looking for partners now to help deploy infrastructure."

This $5-million DOE grant-funded project is in its early stages. Along with Michigan, groups similar to Orr’s in Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota, North Dakota and Montana are also looking for fueling station partners. Ultimately, there would be no more than 50 miles between stations.

If that happens, you’ll be able to plug in to a DC fast charger near the Blue Water Bridge in Port Huron and take that road trip to Billings.

If it works on I-94, alternative fuel proponents like Jeremy Orr would foresee expansion along other American highways.

Scott Pohl has maintained an on-call schedule reporting for WKAR following his retirement after 36 years on the air at the station.
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