Western States Try To Weasel Their Way Out Of Rural EV Charging

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In a previous article, I covered the aggressive plan the Biden Administration has for a buildout of EV charging stations across the United States. Funded by the infrastructure bill, states are required to build out Interstate highway EV charging first. To be considered built out, an Interstate highway corridor must have:

  • Gaps of no more than 50 miles between chargers, and chargers within a mile of the Interstate.
  • At least four 150 kW or higher rate chargers, with CCS connectors.
  • Ability to simultaneously charge four vehicles at that rate or greater.
  • Exceptions are available for any of these on a case-by-case basis (unavailability of electricity, etc.)

When I saw this, I figured the states would likely go ahead with the installations on Interstate highways, and then they’d probably give the federal DOT trouble when it came to stations along US and state paved highways. But, I underestimated their ability to bungle a good plan. Apparently the last point (exceptions are possible) is leading to states trying to weasel their way out of building EV chargers even along busy Interstate highways (non-paywalled story available here).

“There are plenty of places in Montana and other states here out West where it’s well more than 50 miles between gas stations,” Rob Stapley, an official with the Montana Department of Transportation, told the Wall Street Journal. “Even if there’s an exit, or a place for people to pull off, the other big question is: Is there anything on the electrical grid at a location or even anywhere close to make that viable?”

What They’re Right About

Before I get into why this is bad policy discussion, I do want to accept that these are valid concerns. There are wide areas that don’t have any electrical service in the American West. Trying to place charging stations every 50 miles would be extremely challenging and expensive, and might not make a lot of sense in some cases.

Utah has a great example I’ve written about before. The stretch of Interstate 70 between Green River and Salina is about as remote and unpopulated as you can find in the West. The area is so remote that plans to construct the stretch of highway were derided as a “road to nowhere” when plans were revealed, as there are just no towns or even a ranch house along the route. Today, it’s still the longest section of Interstate highway with no services available for motorists, except for a couple of rest areas.

Why build such a difficult stretch of road? It has been described by engineers as “one of the most significant highway construction feats of its time.” Crossing not only barren land, but canyons of dense stone and other extremely difficult terrain, made it a true engineering feat. The federal government did this because they wanted a better route between Colorado and California, and one of the principal reasons for building the Interstate highway system at all was to more easily move defense materiel in the event of a war.

So, while it was a high priority to construct a highway, it has never been a priority to build anything else along the route. There are no gas stations, restaurants, or even a 120-volt plug for a truck driver to charge an electric razor along the route, and this is true for over 100 miles.

This isn’t the only stretch like this in the West, and a cursory look at Google Maps will reveal several infrastructure gaps along interstates that are almost as long as the one in Utah.

Why Waivers Aren’t A Good Answer Here

The stretch of Interstate 70 in Utah is also a great example of why skipping challenging rural areas would be a terrible idea.

A 100-mile stretch of no services doesn’t sound that awful when many EV drivers have ranges of 200+ miles at their disposal. Just charge in Green River and then charge in Salina, right? But, there’s a problem. That stretch of road is not only long and lonely, but steep. Climbing up to Ghost Rock Summit and then Emigrant Pass makes for a lot of energy use. Most 200+ mile EVs can make the climb with something to spare at Salina, but lower range EVs (which poor people will own for decades) and anyone trying to tow a trailer is going to have a problem in this area.

Many other rural stretches of Interstate in the West have similar topography. The reason nobody lives and works in these remote areas is usually something to do with rugged terrain, which is also very bad for EV range.

There Are Solutions

I’ve written about how to solve this problem on several occasions. Instead of linking, I’ll describe it briefly. The real issue in these areas isn’t lack of power as much as lack of a power grid. I mean, consider that a gallon of gasoline has the potential to carry as much as 33.7 kWh of energy, and cars zip down I-70 and these other rural Interstates all the time with hundreds of kilowatt-hours of energy stored in their tanks. In other words, there’s plenty of energy in rural areas today, just not a good way to bring electrical energy from where it’s generated to that location.

But, most of the West also has a lot of sunlight. You have to turn your air conditioner up if you want to make sure that energy doesn’t make you miserable. Plus, most of these rural stretches have a lot of empty space, you know, where you could install a solar farm.

There are even commercial solutions, like FreeWire, that are built for this kind of a challenge. By integrating battery storage into a charging station, and then giving it 5-10 kilowatts of solar power, you can make DC fast charging a reality, even in the middle of nowhere. The cost wouldn’t be a lot more per station than a residential solar installation.

Obviously, this kind of setup wouldn’t be ideal for everyone passing through to use, as it would deplete the battery storage and leave travelers limping along at Level 2 speeds. But, that’s a problem that can be solved with dynamic pricing. By making that limited service station more expensive, people who don’t need to use that one will use other stations along the route. Problem solved.

If these states think they can get a waiver to have no station at all out there, they certainly can get a waiver for a higher-priced limited-service station. The only challenge will be to get state DOT officials to know that this is a good option.

Featured image by FreeWire.

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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 1770 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba