When Jean Robison moved to Green Valley about three years ago, she was elated to find two Blink electric vehicle charging stations nearby at Rancho Sahuarita Marketplace.

But her enthusiasm quickly faded when she went to plug in.

“This was maybe November 2018, the first time I’ve ever used them, and they were absolutely not operational and that was a big disappointment,” Robison said.

Robison and her husband moved here from central Illinois, where she said electric cars and the charging infrastructure to support them is abundant. But the lack of charging opportunities outside their Green Valley home has made them second-guess their decision at times.

“Suddenly, I’m left with this vehicle that I’m unable to charge, to use. I feel like I’m just trying to do a good thing for the environment, and it’s just frustrating when I can’t,” she said.

For EV drivers who live south of Tucson, Robison’s experience is all too familiar.

Though the electric vehicle market is on the rise in the U.S. – climbing at an annual rate of 28% between 2015 and 2020 – the infrastructure to support it remains spotty, leaving some electric drivers on the fringe and some hesitant to make the switch at all.

Stations removed

After logging several years of complaints on their inoperability, and running into maintenance and repair complications with the parent company, Blink, Rancho Sahuarita permanently removed its two electric vehicle charging stations last year, a decade after they were installed.

But the charging stations had seen better days.

Originally installed in 2011 as part of the national EV Project – a $230 million endeavor funded by the U.S. Department of Energy and ECOtality – the chargers near Interstate 19 were a lifeline for early adopters.

“When I first used those chargers back in 2012, they were non-optional for me to get home – those stations were the only ones within 20-40 miles and were essential to my existence as an EV driver back then,” said Joshua Landess, an electric vehicle owner and advocate from Rio Rico.

“It was fantastic to have those charging stations there, and those who used them really appreciated them,” he said.

Colleen Crowninshield, former coordinator of the Tucson Clean Cities Coalition and longtime advocate for alternative fuels, spent years identifying the best spots for the chargers, and said the program provided a big boost in understanding the habits of electric vehicle drivers.

“You have to remember that this program began back in 2009, when only a handful of EVs existed, so it really was on the cutting edge of gathering information about what was needed and how people needed it,” Crowninshield said.

“We were trying to see what the issues were, and how to move forward from those issues. There’s no other way to grow and learn other than getting them out there,” she said.

But for several reasons, the two stations, as well as several other Blink charging stations throughout Pima County, fell off the grid.

In 2013, after deploying more than 12,000 AC Level 2 charging stations across the country, the company that created and managed the project, ECOtality, filed for bankruptcy.

Technical and business operations of the charging infrastructure continued after a Miami-based EV charging provider – which later took the name Blink – purchased ECOtality’s assets later that year. When the federal grant program ended, host sites that continued contracts with Blink found them unresponsive.

“When there was vandalism or when they weren’t working, they were taking weeks or months to get back to us, and that just did not work well for us and for what we needed,” said Tony Cisneros, who works with Pima County Facilities Management.

Rancho Sahuarita, which hosted the stations, also hit roadblocks.

“They were just functioning at a really low standard, they were an earlier model, and they were an eyesore that just hadn’t been maintained,” said Jeremy Sharpe, chief operating officer of Rancho Sahuarita Co.

Like Rancho Sahuarita, Pima County decided to end its contract with Blink about a year ago and is in the process of removing about a dozen inoperable chargers, mainly from its public libraries.

Cisneros and Sharpe expressed their interest in installing more public EV charging infrastructure in the future, but did not have concrete plans.

Blink did not respond to requests for comment.

Electric pioneers

According to PlugShare, a community-based tool that maps public EV charging stations around the world, there are more than 230 charging stations in the metro Tucson.

Drive south on I-19, however, and you’ll find fewer than six – a plug running from Steve Spearman’s Green Valley casita is one of them.

“I thought it might be useful for someone in a pinch, someone coming from Nogales or something because the EV infrastructure, it’s not great down here,” said Spearman, a part-time Green Valley resident who also lives in Colorado.

Just two months ago, Spearman and his wife transitioned all their vehicles to 100% electric power.

“I would not recommend that for most people, especially if you're driving long distances. There’s still some places, like the Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, that I would really like to go to but I just can’t get to comfortably right now because we made this decision,” he said.

Garry Hembree, owner of Old Presidio Traders in Tubac, is another pioneer trying to make electric road trips a reality in Southern Arizona. Together with help from Landess, Hembree installed the first EV charger in Santa Cruz County at his storefront in 2013.

“I thought it was a wonderful idea, and I was just happy to help out and provide a place to mount the thing,” Hembree said. “It’s first come, first serve, and absolutely free.”

Though uptake was slow at first, Hembree said he now sees a new charging almost every day as they journey along the “Green Cactus Highway” – an informal name EV drivers have given the route from Hermosillo, Mexico, to Tucson, and beyond.

“We’re at the turning point now where the station may even become less relevant, which is what we want,” Landess said.

“We want dozens of more stations to go in to serve the public because, really, we never meant for this to be more than an introductory point,” he said.

But to get there, Spearman and Landess agree that the main pathway is building more infrastructure.

“I think in a few years, it’s going to be a really different picture than it is right now, but if we don’t build the infrastructure, of course, then we’re not going to get people to go that route either, so it’s a bit of a chicken and egg problem,” Spearman said.

Currently, there are 2,067 public electric vehicle charging stations in Arizona, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center. As of June 2021, the state tallied 28,770 registered electric vehicle owners, seventh-highest in the country. That's 1.2 percent of all registered vehicles in the state in 2020.

Gaining momentum

Some relief for electric vehicle owners could be on the horizon – if only on major highways.

As part of the recently enacted Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Biden Administration outlined plans to drive American leadership and automakers forward on electric vehicles by building out a national network of 500,000 public chargers across the national highway system.

Through a partnership with the new Joint Office of Energy and Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration, Biden plans to invest about $5 billion to grow the nation’s EV charging infrastructure over the next few years, with an additional $2.5 billion in grant funding focused on filling the gaps in rural, disadvantaged and hard-to-reach locations.

In Arizona, the I-10 corridor from California to New Mexico has already been identified as a key focal point for additional EV charging stations and compressed natural gas fueling facilities as part of the Federal Highway Administration’s Alternative Fuels Corridor Program.

Additionally, Electrify America – the entity set up by Volkswagen as part of its settlement with U.S. regulators over its diesel emissions scandal – recently announced an expansion of its EV infrastructure to about 1,800 stations and 10,000 individual chargers across the U.S. and Canada by the end of 2025.

But for Crowninshield, making these endeavors and more a reality for electric vehicle drivers in Pima County all boils down to one thing: teamwork.

“We’re going to need to work together, all of us – jurisdictions, car manufacturers, other industries, community stakeholders – to keep up with the newest technology. It’s imperative because we're heading toward this new, electric future,” she said.

“If we can lose our egos and do it for the greater good of making sure Tucson and Pima County are ready for the future, we have a lot of opportunity. But if we don’t, we’ll be left out. And we don’t want to be left out on an initiative like this.”

Mary Glen Hatcher | 520-547-9740

Mary Glen is a North Carolina native who's excited to explore the Tucson area through her reporting with Green Valley News. She graduated from UNC-Chapel Hill's Hussman School of Journalism and Media in 2019.

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