One of the biggest challenges in designing an EV is the limited battery capacity, and until relatively recently, it has kept most EVs on the highway. But, with battery prices lower than they once were and a wider variety of electric trucks hitting the market, that’s changing. With greater outdoor capabilities comes the need for charging that isn’t centered around interstates, and that’s exactly the journey that Rivian just started in two US states.
Why Rural EV Charging Hasn’t Been An Industry Priority
When it comes to the lack of rural charging options, it’s not because people don’t love rural areas. While there is the occasional weirdo who lives in cities and never leaves them, almost everyone likes to get out and see the great outdoors, but our EVs haven’t generally been very good at getting off the beaten path.
One big problem that leads to all of the others here is limited energy density. A gallon of gasoline contains up to 33.7 kWh of possible energy, and ICE vehicles tend to only use a small fraction of that potential (the rest gets lost as waste heat through the radiator and the exhaust). But, even with the lost energy, it’s not hard to put a big enough gas tank to more than make up for that, and it only takes up a little bit of space under the vehicle. An EV’s battery typically only holds anywhere from 24-200 kWh.
A typical 70 kWh-ish battery like you’d find in a Chevy Bolt or Tesla Model 3 holds the energy equivalent of around two gallons of gasoline, and the equivalent of 4-6 gallons if you consider the wasted energy in ICE cars. But, a 70-ish kWh battery pack is far, far bigger and heavier than even 10 gallons of gas in a plastic tank.
The other thing that has kept automakers from just going with big, big battery packs has been cost. Early Teslas were derided by the public as “rich people cars,” and the more affordable options like a Nissan LEAF often had under 100 miles of range with their smaller battery packs. So, automakers had to try to make up for the lack of space and budget for more battery by wringing out more range from smaller packs.
While trucks and SUVs have been popular in recent decades, they also tend to have the lowest efficiencies. Their blocky shapes tend to be a lot harder to push through the air, and having more ground clearance means even more air drag. Heavier weights, higher ceilings, and the lack of slope in the back all make this problem worse. So, Tesla and other automakers getting into EVs just didn’t start there. They focused on more aerodynamic shapes, lower profiles, and optimized their vehicles for pavement.
Charging Follows The Vehicles
At first, and for non-Tesla cars until around 2019, it was hard to find a DC fast charge station anywhere but the largest cities. Then, the paved roads connecting metro areas started to get charging stations, because that’s where the cars were. This meant (and often still means) that rural areas and small towns only have Level 2 charging stations at best. In areas that don’t even have that, an EV owner who isn’t in range of their home station often needs to find an RV park to charge up at, getting up to 40 amps from a NEMA 14-50 50-amp plug.
But, things are changing for the better. Battery prices are slowly falling, and battery packs big enough to push a more optimized electric truck down the road are now within the realm of the economically possible. You wouldn’t be able to get something like an F-150 Lightning, Rivian R1T, or the upcoming Silverado EV on minimum wage, but enough people can buy them that companies can make them. So, they’re, well, making them.
But, the outdoor adventures you can take such a truck on are often going into areas where the interstate-focused charging networks just don’t quite reach. So, now it’s time for the network to start its journey out toward the wilderness.
Rivian Is Leading That Charge Now
Rivian doesn’t do what other manufacturers do and market its vehicles to commercial users or suburban commuters. Rivian is explicitly positioning its offerings as “Electric Adventure Vehicles,” so the company knows that it has to deliver on the adventure part of that promise. That’s why Rivian is starting the process on the Rivian Adventure Network that we’ve written about before here and here.
The good news that came out recently is that the company is starting to deliver, with three stations in two states.
“We designed Rivian charging to support electrified adventure, and these first sites demonstrate how we’re enabling drivers to responsibly reach some of the nation’s most breathtaking natural spaces,” said Trent Warnke, Rivian’s Senior Director of Energy and Charging Solutions. “In addition to scenic or off-the-beaten-path destinations, our fast charging rollout is designed to ensure travelers have places to charge along major transportation corridors coast to coast.”
On June 27th, Rivian opened a site in Salida, Colorado. This site has not only four 200-kilowatt chargers, but spaces designed to give you room to pull through with a trailer. They also included four Level 2 “waypoints” chargers for people who plan on staying around for longer or who want to give their battery a break. More importantly, putting an EV charging station in the Rockies gives owners access to high adventure, and not just more access to cities.
Other stations in Inyokern and Bishop, California, opened on the 28th and the 29th. These stations are similarly appointed, and give drivers access to places like Yosemite National Park, Sequoia National Forest, Mammoth Lakes, and Death Valley National Park. So again, they focused on adventure, and Rivian has no plans to stop anytime soon, with a goal to add 3,500 stations at 600 sites across North America.
This focus on enabling adventure and travels off the beaten path doesn’t come at a heavy environmental cost, either. While these remote sites can’t be run directly off renewable energy today, Rivian has made arrangements with renewable energy providers to put as much renewable energy into the continent’s power grid as these chargers use. So, the overall effect to the environment will be the same as if Rivian had powered its charging stations directly with renewables.
Overall, this is a very exciting development for people who not only visit rural areas, but also people who visit them to get out of the city and decompress. It will be great to see this network continue to roll out.
Featured image provided by Rivian.
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