Watts in the wild: Utah has plans for electrifying its scenic highways

With federal funding, UDOT is finding locations for EV charging stations every 50 miles.

This story is part of The Salt Lake Tribune’s ongoing commitment to identify solutions to Utah’s biggest challenges through the work of the Innovation Lab.

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Torrey • Travis Van Orden has watched the trickle become a stream.

The owner of the Broken Spur Inn and Steakhouse in the southern Utah tourist town of Torrey was one of the early adopters of Tesla’s nationwide electric vehicle charging network six years ago. The process took a year before Tesla approved his application and installed the chargers at his hotel.

And it worked well during the early years.

“It was one car a week, or two cars,” Van Orden said. “Now it’s three or four or five cars fighting over my three chargers.”

The same upward trend is happening at other hot spots. Growing numbers of tourists need more than the charge that Utah’s stunning beauty provides.

In 2020, Utah legislators passed HB259, which directed the Utah Department of Transportation to plan a statewide electric vehicle charging network that would be funded under the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure program. Federal funding requires charging stations at least every 50 miles, although there is a mechanism for exceptions.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cars charge at the electric vehicle charging station at Soldier Hollow Golf Course in Midway on Monday, June 20, 2022.

Utah’s main freeways (Interstates 15 and 80) are in good shape, but the next step down — particularly the major tourism routes — are thin. UDOT says the state needs about 42 more charging stations on highways, including those connecting Utah’s national parks and other tourist destinations.

“UDOT and the Utah Office of Energy Development are working together on preparing a plan [due by Aug. 1] to unlock the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure program funding,” said Lyle McMillan, director of strategic investment for UDOT.

Utah is also joining seven other Western states in rolling out ChargeWest, a collaborative that is intended to facilitate a charging-station network across the Beehive State, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico and Wyoming.

(Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Tammie Bostick, executive director Utah Clean Cities, said ChargeWest continues the work of state transportation and energy departments and Clean Cities groups in the eight states, and one intent is to let travelers know that ChargeWest will be there to power their exploration.

“The Intermountain West is becoming one of the most visited places in the United States,” said Bostick. “We want the modern traveler to experience the same highways and byways of our Western heritage with today’s new electric fuel horsepower. Drivers can ‘charge West’ with range confidence.”

In addition, Rocky Mountain Power last year filed its Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Plan with the Utah Public Service Commission, and it includes a $50 million investment in charging stations across the state.

Van Orden has the only public charging station in Wayne County, which includes parts of Capitol Reef and Canyonlands National parks.

The Broken Spur sits near the intersection of Highway 24 and Highway 12, two of Utah’s most scenic highways. UDOT’s gap analysis said Highway 24 needs another five chargers and Highway 12 needs six more chargers.

As required by Tesla, the Broken Spur’s chargers are free to use, said Van Orden. Most users stay at the hotel and/or eat at the steakhouse, but he does get people who just show up for a charge. “Sometimes they’ll sleep in their car overnight while it charges.”

(Tim Fitzpatrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Electric car chargers at Broken Spur Inn and Steakhouse in Torrey were getting used about twice a week. Now it is getting harder to find one available, says owner Travis Van Orden.

Van Orden plans to update the chargers with a non-Tesla system that takes a credit card so he can recover his costs. He said he has to work it out with his electricity provider. Legally, Garkane Energy Cooperative customers are not allowed to resell electricity, so he is working with the utility to recover only his costs and not profit from the juice.

The new rules put out by the U.S. Department of Transportation last week require the stations to use direct current fast chargers, and they must have at least four ports capable of simultaneous charging at or above 150 kilowatts. That is enough to charge most EVs in less than half an hour.

The stations are also required to be open all hours, have adequate lighting and security, and access to emergency shelter.

If strict adherence to 50 miles is required, it may include a few lonely charging stations that sit at ranch exits. Such remote stations provide a further challenge with just getting power to them. Rapid-charging stations need more than 400 volts of juice, and that may require solar panels and batteries.

“We are pleased with the leadership UDOT is showing to install EV charging stations throughout rural Utah,” said Vicki Varela, managing director of the Utah Office of Tourism. “They have brought the Utah Office of Tourism into the conversation so we can get charging stations in the right places near state and national parks.”

Tim Fitzpatrick is The Salt Lake Tribune’s renewable energy reporter, a position funded by a grant from Rocky Mountain Power. The Tribune retains all control over editorial decisions independent of Rocky Mountain Power.