NBC12: Electric vehicle charging deserts plague much of the country, especially rural areas

NBC12, JOCE STERMAN & JAMIE GRAY

There’s a massive push to get more electric vehicles on the road, with President Joe Biden’s administration setting the goal of having EVs account for half of all new car sales by 2030.

But as new EV drivers join the millions already on the hunt for charging stations, they may wind up stranded in charging deserts that exist across the country, especially in rural areas.

Justin McCormick knows the struggle all too well — he’s got an electric vehicle he’s in love with, in part because of how its technology aids him with planning out long trips.

“I know exactly when I’m going to get there. I know how long I have to stop, the charge, everything,” McCormick said.

But his plan for a trip from Austin, Texas to Arkansas to see his family went south quickly once he got north of Dallas and headed into Oklahoma. McCormick’s car, which can usually find charging stations at the push of a button, suddenly couldn’t locate any options as his charge dwindled.

“All of a sudden, the battery was like, ‘Just kidding, we can’t make it anymore’,’” he said.

McCormick found himself in what’s called a “charging desert.” That’s an area with no public places for electric vehicles to plug in and recharge. Outside the east and west coasts, these deserts are fairly common, with federal data on charging stations examined by InvestigateTV showing EV infrastructure lacking in many places — especially middle America.

The lack of charging options in many places creates what EV drivers refer to as “range anxiety,” with many concerned their cars won’t have the charging capacity to make it through long trips. Concerns about the problem are echoed all over social media with people from across the nation calling out a lack of publicly accessible charges.

“That really creates a lot of barriers that I think that people don’t realize,” McCormick said.

Federal data shows charging deserts, lack of fast charging options
National data from June from the Department of Energy analyzed by InvestigateTV shows there are more than 53,000 public charging stations for electric vehicles across the U.S., often located near convenience stores, parking garages, or universities.

Data shows California, New York and Florida are the top three states when it comes to the most available public chargers, with thousands located in each.

However, InvestigateTV discovered there are five states — Alaska, Montana, South Dakota, North Dakota and Wyoming — with fewer than 100 stations each.

The federal data shows less than 15% of all public charging stations nationwide have DC Fast chargers. Those are the quickest type of charging ports that can typically charge 200 miles in a matter of minutes. Most stations are Level 2, where charging could take hours.

Even when public chargers can be located, InvestigateTV’s analysis discovered many places may have restrictions that limit hours of operation, put caps on charging time, or require you to bring your own cord, creating other problems for EV drivers.

“There is much more that needs to be done to strengthen the network,” Virginia Rep. Abigail Spanberger said.

‘It would be catastrophic’ if rural areas aren’t prioritized for EV infrastructure money
Work to bolster the EV charging network and eliminate deserts is already getting a boost from the federal government, with the bipartisan Infrastructure Law channeling $5 billion over five years to the effort in hopes of building a national network of 500,000 chargers in the next seven years.

But with much of the focus on EVs so far centered on big cities and suburbs, Spanberger is fighting to make sure charger funding also makes its way to rural areas, saying it would be “catastrophic” if they were left behind.

The lawmaker, whose district includes parts of rural central Virginia, has introduced legislation designed to fund EV charging infrastructure specifically for farmers. She says rural areas will feel the pain well into the future if they’re not prioritized for charging stations, pointing out that small towns and counties would greatly benefit from the revenue created when chargers become destination points for drivers.

“They’re not just having to hug the interstate because they think that’s where they’re going to be able to find the charging stations,” Spanberger said. “Those can be major drivers of tourism to rural and agricultural communities.”

U.S. Congresswoman Abigail Spanberger, D-Virginia, has been pushing to make sure rural communities are prioritized for EV charging infrastructure funding. Concerns about the need to fund EV charging stations in rural areas are shared by stakeholders across the country, including environmental groups pushing to expand green infrastructure.

Emily Wirzba handles federal affairs for the Environmental Defense Fund.

“I think we have a real opportunity right now to make sure that rural communities aren’t left behind,” Wirzba said. “That’s not a foregone conclusion.”

Wirzba emphasized that stakeholders have to get involved in the process now because every state in the country is getting a piece of the $5 billion designated for EV infrastructure, and every state must submit specific plans outlining how they’ll spend it year by year.

“It’s a really pivotal moment right now because there’s a chance to course correct. We can give feedback to let the government know the funding is working,” she said.

Emily Wirzba, the senior manager of federal affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund, says…
Emily Wirzba, the senior manager of federal affairs at the Environmental Defense Fund, says stakeholders in rural communities have to be part of the conversation when it comes to funding EV charging infrastructure.

investigateTV analyzed those state plans for spending the federal funding, discovering the primary work is focused on building out so-called “Alternative Fuel Corridors,” or AFCs, along some of the nation’s busiest highways. That effort will put fast EV charging stations every 50 miles — no more than a mile off the interstate.

After that, Wirzba said states have more wiggle room to decide where stations could go off the beaten path.

“It’s up to their state department of transportation to have conversations across the state to figure out where they need charging the most,” Wirzba said. “The conversation is really geared toward making it work for the local community.”

Underserved and rural communities will also get a boost from another round of funding recently announced by the Biden Administration. That grant program will funnel an additional $2.5 billion to help build out EV infrastructure, with those specific areas getting approximately half of the funding.

Justin McCormick is pictured with the electric vehicle he purchased last year in Austin, Texas
Justin McCormick is pictured with the electric vehicle he purchased last year in Austin, Texas(Justin McCormick)

Drivers like Justin McCormick know first-hand how much the funding, and the charging options it will create, is needed. He got help from customer support from his EV manufacturer and was guided to a gas station with a plug in he could use to boost his charge.

Encountering a charging desert didn’t change McCormick’s mind about owning an electric vehicle, but he said it is impacting his family’s decisions about purchasing another one, especially with long trips home on his mind.

“If there were options along the way, we would probably both have electric vehicles,” McCormick said.

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