- Rural drivers have been slow to adopt EVs because they often lack access to charging infrastructure.
- The Biden administration has put $7.5 billion toward 500,000 EV chargers to address the issue.
- Private companies like Francis Energy are also helping by building superchargers in rural areas.
Rural communities are home to about 20% of the US population and 70% of America’s road miles, according to the Federal Highway Administration. Yet rural drivers have been slow to adopt electronic vehicles, mainly because they often lack access to EV charging infrastructure.
“Drivers in rural areas often have the longest commutes and spend the most money on gas — which means they have a lot to gain from an electric vehicle future,” US Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg tweeted in February after his department released a tool kit to help rural communities tap into federal funds to expand EV charging stations.
Rural residents need equitable access to transportation alternatives, Scott Barrios, the development and project manager at KeyString Labs, the innovation hub of the electric utility Entergy, told Insider. While the average EV costs about $10,000 more than the industry standard for a car, EVs offer lower fuel and maintenance costs and can improve air quality in rural communities.
EV drivers can potentially save up to $1,000 a year in fuel and other costs and reduce carbon-dioxide emissions by about 3 metric tons a year, according to an analysis by the Union for Concerned Scientists.
“Increasing charging stations will ensure rural communities have the confidence that they can reliably charge when and where they need,” Barrios said. “Listening to and understanding the needs of the community is key in the planning process.”
Along with resources for communities, businesses, and planning agencies, the Biden administration is devoting $7.5 billion to building a network of 500,000 EV chargers nationwide as part of the bipartisan infrastructure law.
Increasing EV drivers in rural America
The new funding, which hasn’t been distributed yet, should make driving an EV more accessible for rural drivers and encourage them to purchase sustainable vehicles, said David Jankowsky, CEO of Francis Energy, a company in Tulsa, Oklahoma, working to create networks of EV chargers.
In counties outside of major metro areas, EV registrations range from zero to about 20 per 10,000 residents, compared with between 10 and more than 100 in counties with metros, according to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute.
More sustainable vehicles will likely hit the roads in rural areas after Ford’s rollout of the new 100% electric F150 Lightning pickup truck and GMC and Chevrolet‘s new electric trucks later this year, Jankowsky said. While these trucks range in price from $40,000 to more than $100,000, comparable to a Tesla, they’ll likely be more popular in rural areas, where pickups tend to be popular.
“People love trucks,” he added. “They love to tow things and powerful cars. We’re pretty sure that the electric trucks are going to be very popular in our market. We know there’s going to be a need for EV chargers in every community in the heartland.”
Private companies are banking on federal funds to bring chargers to rural areas
Jankowsky said his company, which was founded in 2015, set out to prove that EV chargers were necessary in the middle of America, outside major metros that have a higher concentration of EV drivers.
The company has built about 550 fast-charging ports, or superchargers, in large and small communities in Oklahoma. The ports can charge vehicles in 15 to 45 minutes.
Over the past year, Francis Energy’s network has seen a 500% increase in usage, which Jankowsky said is a function of more EVs on the road in that market, which he expects to increase over the next few years.
“We wanted to make sure that charging stations were placed equitably across the state to make sure that everyone had access,” he added.
The goal is to create a network of superchargers every 50 miles across the rural communities, he said. The company is expanding into 24 states and has been in talks with state highway departments, governors’ offices, utility companies, and other stakeholders.
Part of the infrastructure bill is the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure formula program, which will provide $5 billion over five years to states to deploy EV-charging infrastructure. States will submit plans for building the chargers to the federal transportation department and use a competitive request-for-proposal process to select organizations to build them.
Jankowsky said the RFP process won’t start for a few months, but it’s what his company and others are waiting for to increase the use of EVs.
“It’s not just enough that there’s money,” he added. “It really is going to take everybody working together because otherwise, it’s only going to be the cities where all the Tesla drivers currently reside that will get these stations because that’s where the economics are today.”
Utility companies are helping expand EV access to rural residents
Utility companies are also working with public- and private-sector stakeholders to develop EV charging infrastructure.
Last year, Entergy Arkansas launched Charge Up Arkansas with the nonprofit Adopt a Charger to install several stations across the state, with more being added in 2022, including in rural areas, Barrios said.
Entergy — which also operates in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas — is focused on NEVI funding. To meet the requirements of the program’s Alternative Fuel Corridors, Barrios said the utility will work with stakeholders to ensure fast-charging stations are located no more than 50 miles apart on Arkansas’ major highways, including I-40 and I-30.
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson recently established the Arkansas Council on Future Mobility to identify state laws that pose barriers to advanced mobility and recommend policy to incentivize development.
Transportation contributes to the highest percentage of carbon emissions in Arkansas, Barrios added. Expanding EV usage would likely bring a positive environmental impact, he said, including improved air quality.
EVs do have an environmental cost, though. Charging an EV relies on local electricity grids, many of which are still powered by fossil fuels, like coal. Producing EV batteries also requires extensive energy resources.
Still, research by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Energy Initiative shows that the environmental toll of charging and producing batteries for EVs is offset by the vehicles’ efficiency over time.