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An electrical cooperative serving Colorado’s farm country tests new fast-charging infrastructure along I-76. Will this device help fill in the state’s rural gaps?


by Allen Best

A fast-charging station has opened along Interstate 76 in Julesburg, in far northeastern Colorado. If tiny Julesburg has a fast-charger, what does this say about some of Colorado’s other small towns, say Springfield or Walden?

In time, of course, they’ll all have fast chargers. What is notable in this case is a partnership that made this happen. Highline Electric Association is the local cooperative, a member of Tri-State Generation and Transmission, which chipped in some funds.

The third critical partner is a California-based company called FreeWire. The key challenge was to overcome limitations of the distribution systems in rural areas to be able to provide rapid charging. EV drivers will be able to reach an 80% state of charge within 30 to 45 minutes, depending on battery size.

Integration of battery storage is the secret sauce, if you will, in FreeWire’s technology. That battery-integrated direct-current, fast charger will open up opportunities for more charging stations in rural areas of the state.

Dennis Herman, general manager for Highline Electric Association, explained that the FreeWire direct-current, fast charger is one of the first of its kind in Colorado in that it can use existing single-phase conductors, in combination with battery storage technology. That combination allows the stations to charge vehicles comparable to charging times for other systems currently available.

“This represents a breakthrough in efforts to offer reasonable charging times, with the distribution systems we have available in rural areas,” he said.

For now, though, Highline wants to see how much use this new charging stations gets before it commits to plans for another high-speed charging station, perhaps in Crook, an even smaller town along I-76 between Julesburg and Sterling. The new charging station is located at the Wagon Wheel Conoco in Julesburg, which is 130 miles from Denver and 30 miles from the next nearest fast-charging station, in Ogallala. There are also fast charging stations in Sterling and Fort Morgan.

The business has a gift store, so it might provide something of interest for travelers while they wait for their cars to charge.

There’s also a Colorado welcome center about a quarter-mile away, which gets strong use. No commercial operations are allowed at visitor centers, however.

Drivers of Tesla have a strong charging infrastructure setup for their needs. With this charging station, said Tadius Huser, member service manager for Highline Electric, the cooperative is meeting needs of other drivers.

But how about charging stations along U.S. Highway 6 between Sterling and Holyoke? It’s a two-lane not a four-lane highway. When will Holyoke get a fast-charger?

A logical next step, said Huser, might be a Level 2 charger at Ballyneal, the high-end golf club south of Holyoke. Most customers come from the Front Range, so a charger at the golf course would make sense for players during their 18 rounds.

If Phillips County today has relatively few electric vehicles, that may change as manufacturers deliver electric pickups. “The Ford-150 e-Lightning could be a game changer, because most people drive pickups. That is something that may change the game a little bit,” says Huser.

See also: “Electric pickups and farm country,” from Big Pivots, Aug. 3, 2022.

This is the second such installation in Colorado by FreeWire. The first was in Estes Park, within a mile of the east visitors center for Rocky Mountain National Park. A press release at the time noted that without a strong network of charging stations, EVs could struggle to traverse the Trail Ridge Road from Estes Park or the Peak to Peak Byway that extends from Estes Park to Central City.

“Our charging solutions require minimal electrical infrastructure investment, significantly reducing permitting and installation times,” explained Daniel Zotos, FreeWire’s director of communications. “As charging demand continues to surge, we are seeing ultrafast, battery-integrated chargers offer the streamlined, shovel-ready solution that many entering the EV charging space are looking for.”

Zotos said he believes his company has received strong interests from electrical suppliers in other rural areas of Colorado.

“I certainly foresee more coming,” he says. “Just talking with our sales team, I see some things in the pipeline.”

With that expectation, FreeWire has set opened an office in Denver.

While prices of EVs decline and consumer choices expand, the real limitations to Colorado’s effort to meet its vehicle electrification goals will depend upon the charging infrastructure, says Zotos.

But he also points to an agreement between his company and Phillips 66, one of the first major oil companies to begin working at how to integrate electrical charging into its locations. He also says vehicle electrification will be a lively target at a convention of convenience store owners.

Top photo: Tadius Huser, member service manager for Highline Electric, charges a pickup at the new charging station along I-76 in Colorado’s northeastern corner. Photo/Tri-State Generation and Transmission.

Allen Best
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