The Texas Electric Transportation Resources Alliance — or TxETRA — stopped in Longview as part of its Electric Vehicle Roadshow. Representatives from the pro-EV advocacy group presented city officials information on grants and resources for bringing electric charging infrastructure here and invited attendees for test drives.

Members of the alliance include Conservative Texans for Energy Innovation, a renewable energy advocacy group, and the Texas Electric School Bus project, which is spearheading a transition to a zero-emission school bus fleet.

Sleeping on a revolution?

“Texas recorded the registration of its 250,000th plug-in vehicle, and that rate is increasing 50% annually,” alliance Executive Director Buzz Smith said Tuesday during a presentation at the Longview chamber.

Smith encouraged Longview to take advantage of state grants aimed at specifically growing the EV charging network.

The Texas Department of Transportation is in the first phase of a $400 million program to install EV chargers on major state roads. The second phase, which is still in the planning stage, will require smaller municipalities such as Longview to apply for grants that fund EV charging infrastructure at the county level.

Electric School Bus
Texas Electric Transportation Resources Alliance executive director Buzz Smith speaks during a press conference about electric vehicles Tuesday, January 30, 2024, at the Longview Chamber of Commerce. (Les Hassell/News-Journal Photo)

Smith argues that whether or not climate change is a concern for a city and its residents, the charging stations bring visitors, travelers and dollars to communities where they’re installed.

“In the 19th century, if the railroad came through town, your town prospered. In the 20th century, if the interstate came through your town, your town prospered,” Smith said.

“Well guess what? In the 21st century, it’s going to be the … fast-charging infrastructure.”

He explained how modern electric cars allow drivers to map out their journeys and all the charging stations they’ll stop at before their vehicle leaves the driveway. A town can be one of those waypoints — or it can get passed by.

Depending on the kind of charger installed, Smith said, the average battery top-up can last anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour, affording time to check out surrounding shops and restaurants.

During an interview preceding Tuesday’s roadshow, Smith hinted at the growth in rural Texas communities during the pandemic and the swell of interest in outdoor recreation that followed. He described charging infrastructure as a way to introduce someone to a city.

“A lot of people are thinking, ‘I want to get out of the city and live in the countryside’,” Smith said. “But how are they going to discover your town and become a taxpayer if they never find it?”

Electric school buses

You would struggle to tell that the yellow school bus outside of the Longview Chamber of Commerce Tuesday was powered by batteries — or that its motors supply 3.5 times the torque of a standard diesel bus engine.

But there was Kilgore ISD’s new EV bus, fresh from a trip on its daily route. It was one of four the district has received in the past year.

Longview ISD will likely receive 10 of the buses by the end of 2024, said Jessica Keithan, director and co-founder of the Texas Electric School Bus Project.

Electric School Bus
Jessica Keithan with the Texas Electric School Bus Project speaks Tuesday during a news conference about electric vehicles at the Longview Chamber of Commerce. (Les Hassell/News-Journal Photo)

Texas and the federal government are moving quickly to retrofit and replace old diesel school buses after studies show their exhaust is dangerous for children.

Keithan founded the nonprofit Texas Electric School Bus Project in 2023 after reading those studies.

“The reason why electric school buses are important and the front of my mind is because of studies that show diesel exhaust concentrating inside the bus cabin is 10-times the concentration of the ambient air outside,” she said.

According to that research, diesel fumes increase the likelihood of childhood asthma, cancer, and measurably reduce test scores and physical fitness.

Keithan wants Texas to become the national leader in electrifying its school bus fleet. At least in one case, it already is.

“I’m gonna shout out Martinsville ISD,” she said. “They are operating all of their daily routes with eclectic school buses, and they are the first school district in the nation to do so.”

Keithan emphasized another advantage for districts that transition to electric buses: The vehicles can serve as massive power banks in times of need.

She estimates just one of the buses contained the battery equivalent of around 20 Tesla Powerwalls. Powerwalls are a Tesla battery installed in a home that stores electricity, typically from rooftop solar panels.

Like the Powerwall, the buses can perform the duty of a mobile generator. They can also generate money, she said.

Keithan cited a school district in Massachusetts that made thousands of dollars per bus per month during the summer by discharging electricity back into the power grid during peak hours, effectively making the buses a separate revenue stream even as they sat parked.

“This is not something that we need to wait on. This is something that we need to do now,” Keithan said.

Electric School Bus
A convoy of electric vehicles leaves the parking lot to take passengers for test rides Tuesday, January 30, 2024, at the Longview Chamber of Commerce. (Les Hassell/News-Journal Photo)

‘Give them the treatment’

Attendees on Tuesday exited the chamber’s meeting room with a grin. The time had come for test drives, and the most popular choice was a white eclectic Hummer. The five-ton, 1,000-horsepower behemoth smirked at physics.

Andrew Higgins, board chair of Texas Electric Transportation Resources Alliance and the owner of the Hummer, invited media members on board.

Matt Welch approached the driver’s side door. Welch, the state director of Conservative Texans for Energy Innovation, put one hand on the hood: “Give them the treatment.”

By “treatment,” Welch was referring to a setting on the Hummer called “Watts to Freedom” — or WTF. The car lowered itself into a crouch and raised the temperature of its battery pack.

“This won’t be subtle,” Higgins said. Then the Hummer launched.

The vehicle reached 60 mph faster than a Ferrari F430. A journalist in the back seat let out an involuntary scream. And that was just one party trick in the Hummer’s arsenal.

Higgins activated the “crab walk” mode that allowed the SUV’s rear wheels to turn in the same direction as the front pair. The Hummer was facing straight forward but slaloming diagonally from one side of Center Street to the other.

A final shift of the drive selection knob allowed the EV to perform turns with the radius one would expect from a Mini Cooper or Smart car, but not a Hummer.

Demonstrations such as Tuesday’s are critical for bringing EV skeptics on board, Smith said.

He referred to a 2020 Consumer Reports survey that found 40% of respondents had no plan to purchase an EV. After driving one, however, that number dropped to 4%.

“Very few people select a car based on saving the planet or being good for the environment,” Smith said. “They buy a car for its acceleration, its cornering, its smooth, quiet ride or low cost of maintenance and fuel.”

“Those are all things electric vehicles provide,” Smith said.

According to that same survey, the main issue holding most consumers back continues to be lack of charging infrastructure and the high price of vehicles.

The Texas Electric Transportation Resources Alliance hopes East Texas will help solve one of those problems by embracing state aid for chargers.

While the vehicles on display Tuesday were all in the luxury price range, Smith believes their performance and the low price of electricity versus gas are reason enough for those who can afford an EV.

“You don’t have to love green energy,” Smith said. “You can also just enjoy having fun and saving money.”