In this article, I’m going to explain what’s holding rural EV charging back, why that matters, and what non-profit and governmental entities in rural areas can do to fix the problem. It’s still going to take a lot of work, but it’s a worthy effort that I’d like to help rural areas tackle.
The Rural Charging “Catch-22”
Decades ago, the United States revolutionized transportation with the Interstate Highway System. The interstates meant safer, faster, and more convenient car travel, but they came at some pretty significant costs that are easy to forget about. In the cities, whole minority-owned neighborhoods were often wiped out to make way for them. Between the big cities, many rural towns had a steady flow of customers cut off almost overnight, leaving poverty and even ghost towns behind.
While obviously not historically accurate, the animated film Cars gives us a pretty good idea of how this went in many small towns across the country (article continues after embedded video):
The good news today is that many Americans are realizing what was lost. Outdoor recreation of all types is at an all-time high, and people from the suburbs and the cities are starting to spend a lot more time on the backroads looking to have a good time instead of making good time.
In fact, this is probably the #1 complaint and trolling comment we see on our social media accounts. “An EV can’t take me on all the trips I want to go on, so I won’t buy one.”
What they’re saying reveals an ugly truth about the state of EV adoption and infrastructure in 2023. It’s a sort of “Catch-22” or “chicken and egg problem,” where people want rural charging access to be able to buy an EV, and the people who could put in an EV charging station want it to turn a profit. Without drivers (who want the infrastructure), there will be no stations. And, without stations, there won’t be drivers…and so on forever.
If this problem is left to fester, it could be a repeat of the death of Route 66 (and other rural highways). While people want to get off the interstate and see the backroads, there’s really not much of a plan for EV drivers to easily do this. This problem can both stall EV adoption and impoverish rural communities, while also denying EV drivers the opportunity to see some really beautiful places.
Sure, NEVI is supposed to cover major corridors, and this includes highways off the interstates, but that’s both years away and only covers some US and state highways, leaving many rural areas underserved (or not served at all).
Even when the favorited highways do get their charging stations, they’ll only have one station every 50 miles with four stalls, and no extra stations to serve as a backup during outages or extra stations to serve the growth of EVs when those four stalls get swamped. So, even rural interstates are going to need more stations than the best federal programs are going to cover between now and 2035.
I’ve spent the last couple of weeks trying to find some answers to this, and after spending a lot of time talking to rural business owners, charging infrastructure experts, and even having some stressful dreams trying to work on this problem in my sleep (not fun), I’ve finally come up with a workaround, but it’s going to require your help to get it done.
The Recipe For Solving The Rural Charging Conundrum
Below is a three-step recipe for solving each barrier to rural EV charging.
1. Battery Storage Fixes The Cost Of Infrastructure Problem
First, let’s talk about the cost problem. The charging stations themselves aren’t really that expensive (relatively speaking, of course). The real issue in rural areas is almost always making sure there’s actually power to run them. Running a new set of wires tens or dozens of miles to a small town just to run the charging station is prohibitively expensive. After that, utilities charge demand fees that can total thousands of dollars per month to maintain the big wires.
The sad fact is that most rural businesses just can’t afford to cover the cost of getting power to run DC fast charge stations. At present, there are too few EV drivers visiting those areas. Even if monthly demand fees were $1,000 (they’re usually a lot more), that’s a cost you can only pass along to the few EV drivers currently trying to go into these areas. With two people charging per day, that require an extra $16 per charge, on top of any normal energy fees.
The way around this is battery storage. Instead of pulling hundreds of kilowatts from the local grid, charging batteries with just a few tens of kilowatts is a lot cheaper. When an EV pulls up to charge, the batteries can deliver the speed drivers want.
2. Tax Credits and “Elective Pay” From The Federal Government Bring The Remaining Costs Down
The second big issue is paying for both the station and the batteries, and with multiple stalls (at least two are required for redundancy and reliability), we’re talking about hundreds of thousands of dollars. There are businesses that cater to tourists in even the smallest towns, but they often simply can’t afford to buy these charging stations, and the few travelers who would currently use them just wouldn’t pay for them quickly enough. With two cars a day, these places would require at minimum an extra $50 per charging session to cover the cost over 5 years (and that’s before any interest the business would have to pay to borrow that money if needed).
The answer for this second problem is tax credits, but there’s a catch. The Inflation Reduction Act and other federal laws authorized some pretty hefty tax credits for buying these stations, and they can cover a big chunk of the cost. But, small rural businesses don’t owe enough taxes to really get any good out of the tax credits, so they’re basically worthless to a general store or gas station in most cases.
But, there’s another provision in the law that allows non-profit entities to take these tax credits basically as a check from the government. This means that private nonprofits, local governments (city, county), rural electric co-ops, chambers of commerce, and many others can greatly reduce the cost of getting a charging station set up. The specific tax credits that apply vary by location, but they’re often more than $75,000 per stall.
There’s nothing preventing a non-profit or governmental entity from buying the equipment and then locating it at a local business. For example, a local rural electric cooperative can buy the stations and install them at a general store or gas station to make sure that local business benefits from the increased traffic. As long as the nonprofit entity owns the station, it’s good.
With each small town needing at least two stations, it makes sense for the governmental or non-profit entity to put the stations at two or more local businesses to keep it fair and impartial. As long as they’re close to each other, they can still serve as a backup.
3. Spreading The Remaining Cost To More Drivers Requires Marketing
The final piece of the puzzle is marketing. Using a battery-powered station and getting the tax credits to make the cost reasonable still would leave a small trickle of drivers needing to pay a hefty premium for rural charging, which would in turn lead to discouraging people from leaving the interstate.
Spreading the cost of the station across more drivers not only makes it reasonable, but it also brings in more business to the rural area that hosts the station. So, the rising tide ends up lifting all boats.
Small businesses and small towns in rural areas already know how to market (the ones that didn’t are now ghost towns), but they’re going to need help to specifically target EV drivers for now. Eventually, most drivers are going to have an EV, but for now it’s going to take a specialized effort done by people who understand EVs.
I’m Willing To Help Rural Governments & Non-Profits Bake This Recipe
I think this is an important enough problem that I need to spend more time on it, but I can’t pay for groceries by telling the self-checkout bot, “I don’t have money, but I did some really important stuff for the planet this month, I swear!” So, I’m starting a small “side hustle” to work on this problem.
If you’re involved in a rural non-profit or governmental entity, be sure to check my new website out. My contact information is on there, and I’m here to help you get the process started, answer questions along the way, and otherwise help where I can. If the numbers work out for your entity, and you buy some stations, I get a small referral fee from the charging manufacturer, which will help me keep the lights on and groceries in the pantry to justify spending the time making it happen.
After installation, I’ll offer an optional monthly marketing and monitoring service to help bring EV drivers out to your rural charging station, which will help fix that last part. Like the referral fee I get from the charging manufacturers, it’s not going to be much, but it will help keep the self-checkout bot happy at grocery time after I spend a bunch of time on promoting the rural station.
If that sounds like something you’d like to look into further, feel free to visit my new website and get in touch!
Featured image by Jennifer Sensiba.
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