Where Will Electrify America Drive “The Golden Spike?”

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Nine months after their first station came online, we are starting to see the Electrify America network come together. As more stations come online, it’s looking like a three-way race to see which transcontinental route for EV rapid charging will open first. Just as with the original transcontinental railroads, today’s transcontinental EV routes will improve safety and save lives.

The Original “Golden Spike”

On May 10, 1869, two trains pushed their way up a remote and rural Utah hill, one coming from the east and the other from the west — on the same track. Hundreds, possibly a few thousand, spectators waited at the place where the trains would meet, nose to nose. This was decades before entertainment professionals came up with the idea of crashing trains for profit.

The trains came to a stop a short ways from each other, and a mixture of dignitaries, railroad company officials, government officials, and the general public poured from the trains. Between the trains was a small uncompleted section of track, the last piece to be finished in a series of tracks connecting both ends of the continent. The last timber was made from laurel wood and had special engravings for the occasion. The last 4 spikes connecting the rail to the wood were also made special for the occasion. The State of Nevada provided a silver spike; Arizona made a special spike of iron, silver and gold; and a California newspaper provided a lower-quality gold spike. The final spike, to be driven last, completing the railroad from coast to coast, was made of high-quality gold.

Spending big sums and making such a fanfare over a railroad may seem silly to us today, but we have to look at it in perspective. Before 1869, going from New York to California was a long and perilous journey. One could go by ocean, traveling down almost the entire length of North and South America, going through dangerous and choppy waters between Chile and Antarctica, and then going back up the other side to California. Shipwreck, disease, and many other dangers claimed many lives in those days, and there was not yet a shortcut through the future Panama Canal.

By land, such a journey was even more dangerous. One could ride a stagecoach, along such routes as the Butterfield Trail. Along maps of these trails, you’ll find places like “Slaughter Canyon” and “Massacre Gap,” places where native Americans or thieves of European ancestry would wait to ambush a stagecoach. The term “riding shotgun” originates from this era, as the person sitting on the right of the stagecoach driver was expected to be ready to fight off attacks. There were also long, long stretches of land where the availability of food, water, and medicine was in serious question. Just decades earlier, many people traveling across the American west to reach places such as Utah, California, and Oregon would die in winter storms, from disease, or from starvation and thirst. “You have died of Dysentery” wasn’t just “game over” like it is today for people playing The Oregon Trail computer game. It was a literal matter of life and death trying to cross an unforgiving expanse.

For people living in 1869, the existence of a transcontinental railroad was nothing short of a miracle of then-modern engineering. One could purchase a ticket, load their belongings, and relax while crossing territory that killed thousands in prior decades. The ability to quickly, cheaply, and reliably ship goods across the continent not only made the world smaller, but resulted in untold fortunes in the following decades.

That’s why, even today, just shy of 150 years later, the term “Golden Spike” still refers to major changes in transportation, especially when new routes are opened.

Today’s Golden Spike

We might not know it, but today we face a similar challenge. While we aren’t crossing the plains and deserts, risking our lives to cross a continent, people are still struggling and dying, unseen, while we drive. Car pollution kills tens of thousands of Americans each year, and the number killed by the bad air far exceeds those killed in car accidents.

The number killed is small compared to the many others who aren’t killed but suffer from chronic respiratory problems. Additionally, climate change is already flooding US coastal cities, and the effects are only going to increase. We are already causing a 6th great extinction event, as extreme as the extinction event that killed the dinosaurs, and it’s possible that humans could become extinct along with the others. While these problems are not all caused by our gasoline- and diesel-powered vehicles, they are a major contributor.

To mitigate these problems, we need to make changes, and electrification is a big part of the solution. Sure, electric vehicles aren’t perfect any more than the trains of 1869 were. EVs are powered by a mixture of renewables and fossil fuels, and that mixture still favors the latter in many places. However, like the trains, they are better for health and safety than what came before. Even when powered by 100% coal (a fictional scenario today), EVs are still better for the environment, and that includes the impact of battery production. Plus, as dirty power plants continue to be replaced, and with renewables available now for cheaper than coal, the emissions of an EV bought today will decrease over time. No fossil fuel vehicle can do that!

This change will not happen without the ability to easily drive across the country in electric vehicles. Enthusiasts and ardent environmentalists are willing to make sacrifices to drive an EV. It’s been technically possible to drive an EV across the country for at least decades, because they can charge at any power outlet — but only adding 3–5 miles of range for every hour charging (this is known as “Level 1” charging). Carrying 220v adapters for 50-amp service at RV parks, dryer plugs, etc., improves the situation considerably, but charging rates are only 10–40 miles per hour from these “Level 2” sources, so you’re still going to spend hours charging for every hour of highway driving.

Without “Level 3” DC rapid charging stations, which can add hundreds of miles of range per hour of charging, the general public is not going to be willing to make the switch from gasoline and diesel nearly as readily.

The situation today is actually pretty good for Tesla vehicles, but not for the EVs produced by other manufacturers. Tesla had the foresight to know that it would be tough to sell EVs to the public without long-range driving options, so they have been working for years to put in “Superchargers” along most US routes. Plus, they’re still putting in more stations every month. Sadly, the situation has been much more patchy for the owners of other EVs, such as the Nissan LEAF. Until just this year, vast stretches of the country only had Level 1 and Level 2 charging available, and a journey around the country could literally take weeks or months.

Fortunately, that situation is now rapidly changing. You may remember Volkswagen’s “Dieselgate” scandal, in which it was caught cheating emissions testing for its “clean diesel” vehicles (and, like the villains in any Scooby Doo episode, they would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for those darned kids).

As part of VW’s punishment, US courts required VW to spend billions of dollars on EV infrastructure. To do this, Volkswagen Group created a wholly owned subsidiary: Electrify America. It is putting in hundreds of stations along major US routes in most states, and is getting pretty close to opening three transcontinental routes.

EV fast chargers without Electrify America.
EV fast chargers with Electrify America.

Which Corridor Will Open First?

US population density drops slowly going from east to west, as do the number of bigger metro areas. For this reason, interstate highways tend to reduce and combine the further west one goes until one approaches the West Coast, where density goes up again. While Electrify America has been covering most major corridors, there are basically three corridors left in the Western US where a transcontinental route can be completed: I-10/20, I-40/44, and I-70. This may sound confusing, but take a look at the map below (again, from Plugshare.com) to see where the remaining gaps are.

Electrify America took an interesting approach to a southern route across the country. At the far south, it built along I-10 through Florida, the panhandles of Mississippi and Alabama, Louisiana, and into Texas. But then, it stopped at San Antonio and left a big gap for now between there and Fort Stockton. I’m sure there are more stations planned, but I-20 to the north has been getting all of the construction work. After Fort Stockton, there are announced and under construction locations in El Paso, and then in Deming, NM, and Benson, AZ. From Tucson and on to the west coast, there are going to be sufficient stations for most EVs to make it the rest of the way.

I may be wrong, but it appears that another corridor is getting priority to be completed first. Instead of filling the gap from San Antonio to the I-10/I-20 split, I-20 is getting priority — at least until Dallas, where I-30 already has operational stations instead of I-20. After Little Rock, Arkansas, I-30 gives way to I-40, which is now largely complete to the east coast.

I-40 between Little Rock and Oklahoma City is another gap in the network, similar to the gap along I-10 in Texas. And, like in Texas, another route seems to be getting priority: I-44. The route from there to the east coast is largely complete. However, west of Oklahoma City, I-40 has some huge gaps without any announced stations in Texas, New Mexico, and Oklahoma. This intercontinental route appears to be somewhere on Electrify America’s back burners.

The I-70 and I-80 corridors both appear to be mostly complete from Denver to the East Coast, but there’s still one major gap. I-80 from Colorado to Salt Lake City doesn’t have any announced stations at present, but the route from Denver to I-15 in Utah would be a great way to quickly create a transcontinental route. There are, however, no announced stations along I-70 in Utah. With the big rural climbs, especially up to Soldier Summit, this may be a very challenging place to create a workable route for EVs. Electrify America could surprise us soon with several new stations, though.

Only EA may know when the remaining stations will be put in, and which will come first, but if I had to bet on which corridor gets completed first, I’d pick the I-10/20/30/40 corridor. Why? Because it has the fewest/smallest remaining gaps, and progress on remaining stations seems to be coming along rapidly. The final station will probably be in either Lordsburg, New Mexico, or in Van Horn, Texas (both are yet-announced but previously leaked future cities chosen for stations).

Be sure to check back, and I’ll keep following these developments as they occur! If you’re a particularly die-hard EV fan, maybe you’ll see me there when Electrify America drives the proverbial Golden Spike!

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1774 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba