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Meet the First Public-Sector Chief Electric Vehicle Officer in the Nation

The Oregon Department of Transportation's Ashley Horvat promotes an emerging form of transportation to meet the state's economic goals.

A lot of states talk about sustainability and the economic benefits of promoting new green technologies, but Oregon is taking things one step further: It has the nation's first-ever public-sector Chief Electric Vehicle Officer, a position Ashley Horvat has held since April 2013.

The unique position was created within the Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) to promote the sale and use of electric vehicles (EVs) in the state, a position Horvat took after the governor’s office determined the work she was doing in that space was crucial enough to warrant a dedicated, long-term position.

Before joining ODOT, Horvat worked at the Oregon Department of Energy as an analyst and at the Michigan Environmental Council working on environmental policy. Today, she works on programs in Oregon and collaborates with departments of transportation around the country to achieve the long-term goal of putting 3.3 million zero-emission vehicles on the road by 2025 (to put it in perspective, there are only about 250,000 electric vehicles registered in the United States today).

On May 29, this long-term goal, or "action plan," was agreed upon by governors from California, Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island and Vermont. The plan has 11 points, which include things like working with dealers' associations to create consumer incentives, removing industry barriers and spurring research, Horvat said. “It’s more of a concrete way of telling automakers that we’re wanting to work together to make this happen,” she explained.

For the last few years, Horvat has worked on EV projects to help support Oregon’s broader economic development strategy. A state document outlining its “Energize Oregon” program explains that “switching from using gas to electricity as transportation fuel ... creates jobs and supports economic growth.” The $8 billion Oregonians spend on gas each year could instead be spent on goods and services that support the local economy, while expanding the electric vehicle industry locally could attract high-value investments and high-skill workers to the state.

Horvat began her work at ODOT leading Oregon’s piece of the West Coast Electric Highway program, a cooperation between California, Oregon and Washington states. Most EVs get less than 100 miles of travel per charge, so the idea of this program was to create infrastructure that would allow an electric vehicle user to travel from Mexico to Canada without fear of running out of power. The program’s current $4 million in funding will extinguish this year, as 40 of the 43 planned charging stations are now installed, Horvat said. She added that Oregon’s original piece of the project has been complete since March 2012, and now they’re helping the other states complete their routes and expanding their own charging stations along the Oregon coastline, over the Cascades, along the Columbia River Gorge, and over Mt. Hood.

Horvat also conceived the EV Ambassadors program, not yet launched, which is intended to provide prospective first-time EV buyers with an additional information resource. ODOT is building partnerships with the Citizens' Utility Board and an automaker to identify EV owners throughout the state who would be willing to attend events and answer questions in their communities about the vehicles, Horvat said. Switching to an all-electric vehicle is a big change, she explained, and people may not want to get their information from a state worker or an industry representative.

Horvat co-chairs the Energize Oregon Coalition, through which the state has built partnerships with nearly 100 organizations, including Honda, Toyota and Nissan, Horvat said. “That kind of gives us a medium to do projects and have discussions,” she said. “It’s not just another place to have meetings. We actually do stuff – we create real projects and get them implemented pretty quickly.”

One such project is the state’s EV tourism program, an initiative run through Travel Oregon called Oregon Electric Byways. In partnership with Enterprise Rent-A-Car, the program offers tourists a choice of five curated trips centered around the use of an electric vehicle. In addition to the usual restaurant and sights recommendations, participants also get information about where to pick up their electric vehicle and where they can charge it. That program has exhibited precisely the type of economic growth and public-private interaction that the state is looking for, Horvat said.

A few weeks ago, the program hosted a countryside wine tour, which got people stopping at local businesses while they charged their vehicles. Even better, she said, within a week of the event, three wineries contacted their office and found electricians who installed charging stations at their sites.

Horvat explained that she sees her position as a needed intermediate step to the future of electric vehicles. But hopefully, she said, someday her position won’t be needed -- because private industry will see the value in supporting electric vehicles and the market will support itself.

Editor's Note: Minor accuracy updates were made to this story on May 30 at 2 p.m.

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.