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The Rivian R1S will be the Michigan startup's first SUV. The vehicle is expected to be available at the end of 2020. (Provided by Rivian)

Electric vehicle maker Rivian will put public charging stations in every state park at no cost to the state, with the first installations planned for July, after the Colorado Parks and Wildlife Commission unanimously approved the proposal. 

Backers on the commission and from outside environmental groups said the pact is a fast and worthy step toward the state’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions Roadmap, which requires a statewide changeover from gas-powered vehicles to an electrified transportation network. 

Commissioner Jay Tutchton said the agreement with Rivian, which bills itself as a maker of “electric adventure vehicles,” is good for both the “not if but when” changeover to EVs and Colorado’s leadership on the environment and outdoors-related travel. “This is putting us a little ahead of the curve,” he said. 

Department of Natural Resources Executive Director Dan Gibbs fully endorsed the pact before the vote, and said Gov. Jared Polis “can’t wait to be at a ribbon cutting” for new EV chargers at the parks, possibly by summer. 

The project aims to install two Rivian Level 2 chargers, which would be universally compatible with all EV makes and models in the U.S., at each of Colorado’s 42 state parks, including newly established Fishers Peak.

Colorado already has EV chargers at a handful of busy Front Range parks, including St. Vrain State Park near Longmont. Level 2 chargers add about 25 miles of driving range for each hour they are plugged in. Supporters said Rivian’s contribution under the plan is worth about $2 million.

A remote network of chargers is key to eliminating the “range anxiety” that is one major hesitation among potential EV buyers and users, say backers like Environment Colorado, which testified in favor of the Rivian pact.

The state’s emissions reduction plan commits to getting nearly 1 million EVs on Colorado roads by 2030, as part of an effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030 and 90% by 2050. Colorado has made significant progress booking future cuts to one major category, utility power generation, and now needs to turn to large transportation-related cuts to make more progress.

Colorado has a few electric vehicle chargers at state parks, like this one at St. Vrain St. Park. In March 2021, EV maker Rivian agreed to build chargers in all other state parks. (Colorado Division of Parks and Wildlife photo)

Environment Colorado director Hannah Collazo sees partnering with a for-profit,  “mission-driven” company like Rivian to build out infrastructure for climate change goals — at no cost to the state budget — as an easy “yes.” 

Rivian said at the meeting it would cover all costs for installation, as well as maintain each charging post free to the state for five years. The state could renew the contract for up to 25 years. 

The commissioners did not make decisions on the next set of questions, such as where to locate the devices in the parks without disrupting natural areas or experiences, or whether park-goers will be charged to use the stations. A Rivian representative said possibilities include everything from completely free use, to a small plug-in fee, to a kilowatt-hour charge for a set period of plug-in time. Rivian apps and software can handle the transactions for the state if it chooses that route, company public policy manager Corey Ershow said. 

Rivian benefits by having a wider and more reliable network of places for its buyers to go, and by promoting the general use of all EVs with Colorado adventures that match up with their brand. 

“Rivian has a few ethos. One is to electrify everything. Another is to keep the world adventurous forever,” Ershow said. “The inability to go out and charge at certain locations is a barrier to broader EV adoption, and whether it’s going to be in a Rivian R1 vehicle or is going to be in another automakers’ EV, the decision to go electric is really going to be dependent on the ability to charge anywhere you may be, anywhere you may go.”

He called Colorado “an ideal flagship deployment for the Rivian L2 charging networks.” 

Commissioners did have questions about whether promoting use of EVs, which until recently have been significantly more expensive to buy than gas vehicles, is equitable to lower-income taxpayers.  

Commissioners and Gibbs said electrifying state park locations also gives the state more opportunities to electrify its DNR vehicle fleet. Lack of a widespread charging network, as well as lack of for-sale EVs rugged enough for some outdoors jobs, has slowed DNR’s fleet changeover, Gibbs said. The pact says nothing about the state acquiring Rivian vehicles. 

Commissioner Taishya Adams said she supports emissions cuts and electrification in general, but it’s important to point out that EVs are not perfect. They are manufactured using oil and gas resources, and also rely on battery materials from exploited countries like Africa’s Democratic Republic of Congo, Adams said. 

The entrance to Jackson Lake State Park on May 17, 2020. (Eric Lubbers, The Colorado Sun)

Commissioners also said they did not want to perpetuate any perceptions that both EVs and adventure time outdoors are limited to more elite state residents. 

Collazo assured the commission that backing this effort was only a facet of decarbonizing transportation, along with efforts to increase access to parks through Bustang-style public transportation. She encouraged CPW commissioners to “get involved” with the transportation funding bill this session, as an opportunity to influence where millions of dollars meant for transport will be allocated. 

The commission asked what data would be gathered at the charging stations. They want to know how and when the chargers get used, but they also said they did not want consumers’ information abused or exploited. Rivian said it gathers anonymized information about usage and would report regularly to the state to help improve the network. 

The commission acknowledged that for the new charging network to be truly green, Parks and Wildlife and Rivian must look into alternative and renewable energy sources to power the charging stations. Some charging stations on the market are solar-powered. 

Special to The Colorado Sun