A few weeks ago, I was really excited about a new side-project I was starting. The goal? To get more EV fast charging into rural areas. But, I’m going to have to sadly report that despite putting some good time into it, I’ve run into zero success. Why? Because nobody wants to pay for the stations.
Federal Funding Is Only Covering “Alternative Fuel Corridors”
You’d think that with all of the billions of dollars going into EV charging that there’d be plenty of money to cover every roadway in the United States, but you’d be wrong if you thought that. The funding is plentiful, but it’s supposed to all be spent on a limited set of corridors. Interstates are obviously supposed to be covered, but away from the blue and red shields, nothing is guaranteed.
You might think that the U.S. highways would be covered, but to even be considered for inclusion as alternative fuel corridors, they have to be part of the National Highway System. The NHS does include every interstate, but it doesn’t include every U.S. highway, and it does include some state and even local roads. It’s all about what roads the U.S. government considers to be strategically important.
On the surface, covering these strategic routes first is a good idea, because they generally hold most of the traffic. But, the plan stops there, and will keep the charging industry busy for the next decade at least. There’s currently no plan to subsidize even basic 50 kW charging along other routes in many states.
The Market Can’t Provide Yet
I talked to dozens and dozens of business owners along these routes with no plans. I thought that surely with the right equipment and some forward-thinking business owners, charging could be brought to small towns along these backroads. But, they all had the same concern: profitability. Obviously, as small business owners they have to turn a profit, but the numbers generally put the revenue too close to the costs for their comfort.
But, those conversations generally didn’t happen. Most people who responded at all to calls, e-mails, and messages on social media had one question: would the government or a major corporation pay for a charger. The answer was always no, and they had zero interest in any further conversation about it. They liked the idea of bringing in more customers, but felt that the whole “EV thing” was somebody else’s job to fund and take care of.
This attitude may change in the coming years as more and more potential customers are driving EVs, but that could take years if not a decade or two.
There’s one big problem with waiting for the market to be able to put EV charging stations in these far-flung low-traffic rural areas: that many people will refuse to buy until there are stations out there.
Let’s take a look at how this works. I live in an area with around 250,000 people. It’s a half-hour away from a bi-national metro area with around 2 million. The average drive for me is sadly about 5 miles. I’d take a bike, but I’m usually taking pets to the vet, getting groceries for six people (filling the entire back of my Bolt EUV, seats down), or taking the family somewhere for various reasons. I know talking to many other people that this and commuting is about all there is for driving. The average American drives less than 30 miles per day.
But, when we ask people what their range needs are, they won’t tell you it’s 30 miles, or even 100. People who understand EVs or have experience with them will tell you they want 200-300 miles. People who don’t understand EVs very well often say they need 500 miles. Why? Because they occasionally take a road trip. In the life of a car, many people might only do this a couple dozen times at most, assuming they don’t travel for business regularly or something.
Even if long trips is only 1% of a car’s miles, it deeply affects EV sales. When people shop for a car, they want a whole car. They don’t want half a car or even 99% of a car. They want the whole damned thing. So, when they find out that the whole car they bought can only do 99% of the trips they had in mind for it, it makes them pretty mad. Even if they accept the limitations like I do with my Bolt, when friends and family find out that the car can’t easily make it out to all of the fun places out there, it discourages them.
This is where the Catch-22 comes up. For these rural businesses to want to put in charging, most people will need to have an EV. But, for the adventurous gas-powered car drivers to go electric, they’ll want the stations to be out there.
I hate to be the pessimist, but I don’t see how this impasse can be solved without some serious help. Even getting a two-stall station every 100 miles along these routes could be enough to break the cycle, but there are no plans at present to do any of that.
The Biggest Losers: Small Towns (As Usual)
It’s possible that EV adoption gets really good without stations on these routes. They’re such an occasional or never drive for most people that they might buy an EV anyway. If that happens, then somebody with money will eventually be willing to invest in that.
But, this means that small towns are going to get left out of the EV transition for around a decade, if not longer. During that time, an increasing number of potential customers for the small businesses in these towns will likely take a break from traveling to those areas. When that happens, many people will get out of the habit of going there, and the word-of-mouth that brings in more people will fade.
I don’t think everyone will stop visiting, as there are some really cool places along these non-strategic routes. But, these businesses will suffer if they have to sit on the sidelines for years. That’s not something we should be happy with if we want a just and equitable energy transition.
Featured image by Jennifer Sensiba.
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