In the near future, it may be possible to drive an all-electric vehicle on Interstate 94 from Michigan, through Madison, to Montana and back without the fear that there won’t be enough places along the route to recharge.

This is the goal of the M2M Corridor, an effort being spearheaded by the Illinois-based Gas Technology Institute. The institute seeks, through collaboration between businesses and government agencies, to ensure a 1,500-mile span of I-94 from Port Huron, Michigan, to Billings, Montana, will have adequate fueling sites to serve drivers of the most widely available alternative-fuel vehicles, with electric and compressed natural gas vehicles at the forefront.

The institute was awarded a $4.9 million grant in December from the Department of Energy to kick-start the effort.

Ted Barnes, a representative for the institute, said partners, including businesses, community organizations and government agencies, will be needed to develop a plan. Meetings and planning likely will begin later this year with a target to begin implementing a plan by 2019.

Barnes said the section of I-94 between Michigan and Montana was targeted because it is a “key international trade route, connecting the Great Lakes and inter-mountain regions” of the country.

The project aims to assess what’s currently available in the corridor and where any gaps need to be filled.

“A (goal) will be to ensure that alternative-fuel vehicles have consistent access to fueling options,” Barnes said. “This will remove anxiety and allow light-duty, plug-in electric vehicle owners to travel longer distances, while also expanding commercial fleets’ abilities to utilize (electric and other alternative-fuel vehicles) for regional and long-haul applications.”

Using the Alternative Fuel Data Center’s trip planner to plot the best route where alternative fuels are readily available, the best route today from Port Huron to Billings mostly utilizes I-94, except through Illinois, where it uses I-294 and follows I-90 into Wisconsin.

Along this route, there are 538 alternative fueling sites, with the greatest concentration of stations between Michigan and Fargo, North Dakota. Availability of any alternative fuel greatly tapers off in the sparsely populated plains west of Fargo.

Traveling on I-94 in a plug-in, all-electric vehicle from Bismarck, North Dakota, to Billings, an estimated six hour, 415-mile trip, today may not be possible since there are no publicly accessible charging stations available on that route, according to the Department of Energy. Today’s all-electric vehicles with the best range — the 2017 Chevrolet Bolt, which can travel up to 238 miles on a full charge and the Tesla S, which can go up to 210 miles — could not complete the journey.

Gary Radloff, director of Midwest energy policy analysis at the Wisconsin Energy Institute at UW-Madison, is encouraged that businesses and private groups want more clean fuel vehicles on the road and are proactively seeking ways to make it easier for drivers of alternative-fuel vehicles to fill up or recharge.

“It’s natural that we’re seeing more interest in growing (fueling) networks outside urban centers,” Radloff said. “About 20 years ago, we were in the early stages of corn ethanol development as an alternative fuel and the network at that time was very limited. But now with this current wave of alternative-fuel vehicles on the road, a greater network to support them is needed.”

The Gas Technology Institute has approached La Crosse-based Kwik Trip, which has more than 500 convenience stores across Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota, to partner in the initiative.

“We’ve always been about consumer options and consumer choice and have tried to be out in front of whatever may be coming down the line,” said Joel Hirschboeck, spokesman for Kwik Trip.

Network expansion

America’s fleet of alternative-fuel vehicles is growing.

About 150,000 vehicles fueled by compressed natural gas (CNG) travel U.S. roads, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, mostly heavy-duty trucks and semis hauling trailers. They have up to 90 percent lower emissions than comparable vehicles that use diesel or gasoline.

All-electric vehicles have no emissions, but they run on batteries charged by electricity that may be generated using coal or other nonrenewable fuels. Driven by improved technology, more brands available and falling prices spurred by manufacturer incentives and government rebates, 159,131 electric vehicles were purchased in the U.S. last year, a 37 percent jump from 2015, according to InsideEvs, an organization which reports on electric vehicles.

While these numbers are fractions of the more than 250 million vehicles on the nation’s roads today, businesses that sell fuel want to serve the growing niche.

Kwik Trip was among the first gasoline retailers in Wisconsin to sell E85, a blend of gasoline made with 85 percent corn-based ethanol in 1997. In 2005, Kwik Trip began selling biodiesel at some of its stores and then in 2012, added CNG at select locations.

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Hirschboeck said many factors must be considered before deciding to sell an alternative fuel.

“It depends on the fuel that’s needed, whether it’s available and what type of vehicle is pushing the need for the new fuel,” Hirschboeck said. “It’s pretty dynamic how these new products come to be, and from our perspective, we’re making choices based on consumer choices and having what the consumer wants where possible and building in flexibility (at our locations) for the future.”

Bringing a new type of fuel to market isn’t easy, he said. Even some electric vehicles using fast-charging stations may require an hour or more of recharging just to be able to travel 30 miles.

Hirschboeck said a typical Kwik Trip customer spends about five minutes at a store, and there currently is no technology that can provide an adequate charge in that amount of time. But the company wants to serve those customers, so it installs charging stations where it makes sense and for the time being, they are free to use.

“It’s never just a flip of the switch where one fuel goes away and another comes in,” Hirschboeck said. “There has to be a balance between the existing products with what might be new. We have to be mindful of the infrastructure costs that come along with something new, and we also need to know when and if the volume will come to support that expense.”

Driving decisions

Many trucking companies are turning to CNG because they provide the performance and range of traditional diesel-powered vehicles. Fuel supplies also are readily available along the most heavily traveled interstates, especially with major shipping companies including FedEX and UPS utilizing CNG.

Amid soaring diesel prices, Sheehy Mail Contractors Inc. in Waterloo decided a few years ago to begin converting its fleet of semi-tractors to CNG, but it first needed to ensure the routes it traveled had the resources to support the switch.

John Sheehy, the company’s CEO, is familiar with the M2M Corridor effort but believes other areas of the country need better supply of CNG.

“When you look at (CNG) trucks available today, we’re buying models with an 800-mile range, so when you’re building a corridor, if you keep (CNG) stations within 500 miles of each other, you can easily get a trip done,” he said.

Sheehy said one of his company’s routes goes to Billings, but he cannot use a CNG vehicle for that trip because there is no place for that vehicle to fill up.

A CNG truck, however, can travel from Chicago to Los Angeles, he said, and CNG networks also are readily available from the Midwest to East Coast and to the South and Southeast.

The need for CNG stations is greatest in some northern Plains states including Wyoming, Montana and North and South Dakota, Sheehy said.

Sheehy said an all-electric semi-tractor is being tested, but it will take some time before it hits the mainstream and a charging network is available to support it.

“CNG is the only viable working option that has the network of stations out there and the equipment that allows you to make it work,” he said.

UW-Madison’s Radloff said it’s natural that alternative fueling sites today are more concentrated in more heavily populated areas.

“Some of the early focus in some cases was in urban areas simply because of economies of scale,” he said. “Businesses have to be where the people are and where the greatest need exists.”

Development of alternative fuel sites along heavily traveled interstates is the next phase of its evolution.

“When you’re talking traveling from one urban center to another part of the country, it just makes sense,” Radloff said.

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