The road ahead for EV adoption is made of gravel

Every day, Mitch Stults commutes about 60 miles each way from his home in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, a town of 17,000 people, to his job as a sales manager for a manufactured homebuilder in Cullman.

Stults was driving a King Ranch pickup 110 miles per day, spending an estimated $1,000 on gas per week, and getting just 13 miles to the gallon. “That was when I decided to give a Tesla a try,” he said.

Stults, 29, began hunting for a Tesla Model Y and found one at a dealership in Tupelo, Mississippi, 87 miles away. He traded in his King Ranch a few days later.

But the thrill of an electrified ride didn’t last long. Three months later, Stults returned the Tesla and traded it in for a GMC half-ton Duramax diesel pickup. 

“That was when I decided to give a Tesla a try.”

“I ended up getting over it because of the job that I do,” Stults said, noting that there are times when he has to go off-road to get to a wooded property. “The tipping point was a customer needed a set of stairs, and I had no way to get them out to them,” More importantly, however, he said that even with a range of 315 miles, he had moments of anxiety. “There were a few times where it was just hopes and prayers that you find a Supercharger,” he said. 

Stult’s attempt to go all-electric and his very real struggles with electric range are not uncommon in rural America. Rural populations make up about 20 percent of the current population in the US, according to the most recent numbers from the Census Bureau, and 68 percent of all the lane miles in the US are in rural America, according to the Bureau of Transportation Statistics. On average, Americans drive about 15,000 miles per year, and those in rural areas drive roughly 10 more miles per day than urban dwellers, which amounts to nearly 4,000 additional miles per year. Everything in rural America is just further apart. 

That distance has been an issue for everything from the current EV infrastructure and broadband rollout for rural America to the basic electricity installation in decades past, according to Nicholas Jacobs, an assistant professor of government at Colby College in Maine and the author of The Rural Voter: The Politics of Place and the Disuniting of America, released in November this year.

“You’re talking about big swaths of space that are just more expensive to cover when you’re dealing with infrastructure projects,” he said. “We learned that with electrification during the New Deal. There’s a reason why electricity didn’t get to rural America until the 1950s,” Jacobs said.

Everything in rural America is just further apart

These challenges have spurred the federal government to make huge promises to help electrify the country, including huge investments to the tune of $7.5 billion to help America make the electric transition.  

Yet, there are some questions about how rural America will get to the electric future alongside the country’s more populous cities, which already boast more income, higher EV adoption rates, and more public EV charging infrastructure. Between a current lack of robust public charging infrastructure, divisive politics, and class warfare surrounding everything from technological hurdles and climate change to the practicality of EVs, the rural EV transition is facing a very bumpy road ahead. 

Electrification in rural America: where are we now?

It’s difficult to get clear numbers on the EV transition in rural America. For one, public charging infrastructure is a bit of a moving target, with everyone from utilities, auto manufacturers, and private companies to governments and universities racing to install new chargers. Richard Mohr, senior VP of Americas at ChargePoint, points out just how fast the build-out is happening in rural areas. 

“When you look at EV charging deployments outside of large metropolitan areas, there are multiple charging companies deploying AC charging across segments of where people work, play, and sleep,” Mohr said. “It’s getting harder to not find some kind of charger.” 

“It’s getting harder to not find some kind of charger.”

He also shared his own anecdote involving his son, who attends school in northern Alabama and drives a Ford Mustang Mach-E. From one summer to the next, Mohr and his son went from being unable to find any chargers that were on their route to finding numerous ones. 

Like Tesla, some automakers are paying for their own charging installations. Volvo recently completed its charger installation in partnership with Starbucks, installing 60 chargers at 15 stops between Seattle and Denver, through some rural areas. Alex Tripi, head of electrification at Volvo, said that the company specifically chose that route because it had been underserved with charging. 

Electric co-ops like the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, or NRECA, say that they are approaching electrification in whatever way makes the most sense for each individual community. “That might mean becoming directly involved in the deployment of charging infrastructure, but it could also mean helping or partnering with other providers interested in meeting that need. Just as long as the job gets done,” according to Jennah Denney, the electric vehicle strategy and solutions manager at NRECA.

EV registrations in rural areas in the US are still relatively low compared to those in cities, according to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute. Most rural areas register new electric vehicle rates of between 0 and 0.5 percent, which translates to fewer than five (and, in many cases, zero) registered EVs per 10,000 people in the majority of nonmetro counties​​​​, according to the 2021 report. 

EV registrations in rural areas in the US are still relatively low compared to those in cities

A recent study looked at data across eight years for the adoption of electric cars and SUVs. It concluded that advancing technology will continue to drive EV adoption in all communities, including rural ones. “If electric vehicles are offered as ubiquitously as gasoline vehicles, and if their technology goes where we think it’s going to go, then we would expect roughly half of people to prefer an electric over a gasoline for both cars and SUVs,” said Jeremy Michalek, a professor of mechanical engineering and engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University and a co-author of the study. 

Another study shows that demand for electric pickup trucks is also up but notes that particular market is a bit more complicated due to everything from vehicle availability (there are a smaller number of all-electric pickups on the market today) to politics. As Michalek points out, there are some pickup truck buyers who simply won’t make the electric shift, no matter how much EV technology improves.

He refers to them as “holdouts” and said that, according to his study, there are about 22 percent of pickup truck buyers who simply won’t go all-electric. Holdouts take issue with everything from claims that climate change is a human-caused phenomenon to the idea that buying an EV sends jobs overseas, a frequent Donald Trump-repeated falsehood

Politics and rural electrification

To be sure, we can’t talk about EVs without talking about politics and class division. According to Michalek at Carnegie Mellon and Jacobs at Colby, the divides are particularly acute in rural America. 

Jacobs said that when electrification is framed around a transition to renewable energy or climate goals, it’s frequently met with the resistance of tribal politics. 

“These are not usually discussed by mainstream political figures as policies that benefit rural Americans,” he said. “These are usually draped in the imagery and the culture or cultural signals that this is something that progressives, read urban people, mostly care about. That’s not to say it’s true. But there’s certainly a perception out there that things like electrification are not from rural America, maybe not for rural America.” 

There are some pickup truck buyers who simply won’t make the electric shift, no matter how much EV technology improves

That sentiment has frequently manifested itself in behavior like vandalism and “ICE-ing,” a practice that occurs when internal combustion engine vehicles park in spots reserved for charging electric vehicles. Republican candidates for president on the stump have been trying to turn EVs into a wedge issue throughout the primary campaign.

Then there’s the sheer expense of EVs, which automatically excludes those with fewer financial resources. According to Kelley Blue Book, the average new EV price for the month of October this year was $51,762, nearly $4,000 more than the average price of an internal combustion engine vehicle. Rural per capita income as of the most recent USDA Economic Research Service report from 2021 was just shy of $50,000 per year at $49,895. Urban per capita income, in contrast, was $66,440 per year. EV ownership also generally requires the installation of a home charger and an upgrade to electrical panels, which can cost thousands, all of which means that EVs are still well out of reach for lower-income buyers, a phenomenon that is particularly acute in rural areas.

Stults had his own experience underlining what the experts say about both politics and income disparities in rural areas. Stults said that a motorcycle rider rode up next to him at a stop light while he was driving his Tesla, flipped him the bird, and sped off. He said it didn’t really bother him but that it did embody some of the sentiment that arises around the electric transition. 

“I think it’s going to take some time to grow in rural parts of the country,” Stults said. “They think it’s stupid because you can’t always charge it.” He continued, “The other thing around here is, it can be the middle of Kentucky or Tennessee — when you have something that automatically categorizes you to, ‘Oh he thinks he’s better than me because he has a Tesla,’ that just goes on a lot. Not just with cars, but with anything.”

Grid and technology challenges

Changing hearts and minds isn’t the only challenge to electrifying transportation in rural areas. Everything from grid updates to changes in how power is generated at peak usage times needs to be improved in order to make the transition smoother and more equitable. 

“Your utility has many constraints and needs across their whole distribution system,” Casey Donahue, the founder of Optiwatt, an app that helps EV owners optimize their home electricity usage for EV charging, said. “If everyone plugs in their electric vehicle at the same time and all charge at the same time, it’s going to put a lot of undue stress on the system. That causes utilities to fire up some peaker plants that are pretty much the dirtiest electricity we can generate.” 

“I think it’s going to take some time to grow in rural parts of the country.”

Transformers, which distribute power to individual locations, will need to be updated. “Local infrastructure does often have to be upgraded when there’s a large adoption of electric vehicles,” Michalek said. “A lot of those transformers are designed to cool down at night when nobody’s using them. So that’s when they go through their cycle. So if you charge at night, and then you’re just constantly using the transformer, they actually break down faster.” That’s problematic since the US is facing an ongoing transformer shortage for grid upgrades, with backorders taking more than a year to clear.

The EV transition could also affect the way that pollution impacts rural America. As cities get more electric vehicles, local emissions drop because fewer idling internal combustion vehicles are stuck in traffic. At the same time, the demand on power companies, which are generally located in more rural areas, increases, causing a potential increase in pollution around those plants.

“Some of the emissions go out of the urban areas where lots of cars are driving around and might move to become more distributed in the rural areas because there’s a smokestack from a power plant and those emissions get distributed over a really wide, wide area,” Michalek said. “I don’t think we’re talking about peak concentration of pollutants in rural areas. There’s just a little bit of a redistribution of where the pollution is happening.”

Finally, there is the question of managing high-demand periods for public charging infrastructure and its impact on rural areas. While most charging is done at home, there are times like the holidays when Michalek notes that demand may well outstrip public charger supply, which could put considerable stress on rural charging infrastructure. “On peak travel days, suddenly everybody needs a public charger,” Michalek said. “I do worry about the effect of this on rural  areas. Because some of that local infrastructure, if it’s mostly used by locals, there may be plenty of it, but then on peak travel days when lots of people are rolling through, suddenly there’s no charger available for the people who live there.”

A bumpy road ahead?

All of this points to a potentially bumpy road ahead for the electrification of rural America. Yet, as EV sales flatten in urban areas thanks to a saturation of early adopters, there’s still opportunity in rural communities. 

In spite of his experience with his Tesla, Stults said he does miss the crossover. He still said that he’d go all-electric all over again and that he hasn’t soured on the electric transition at all, and he thinks that more people like him will make the shift, even if there is some resistance.

“You know, maybe it’s going to be like guns,” Stults said. “People will hide their motorized vehicles, so they have a gas vehicle,” he said, “But I think people are interested enough in it. If they’re saving money, and they can fill up the same way they fill up with gas, the way the world’s going, I promise you, they’ll go electric.” 


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