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The Growing Debate Over Where to Put EV Chargers in Rural America – Route Fifty

The Valley of Fire State Park is a public recreation and nature preservation located 50 miles northeast of Las Vegas. Denis Tangney Jr. via Getty Images
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By Daniel C. Vock
State transportation officials are worried that a new federal initiative to create a national charging network for electric vehicles might be too ambitious—or impractical—for rural areas.
As the multibillion dollar effort to build out a national EV charging network gets underway, many rural states are asking the Federal Highway Administration to loosen requirements it set for how many chargers must be placed at each location, and how far apart each station can be from the next one. 
In making their case, officials are highlighting long stretches of highway through remote corners of states like Nevada, where roadside services are few and there isn’t any electricity infrastructure in place. Others are looking for greater flexibility to install chargers in areas visited by tourists, like near national parks, rather along routes that are part of the federal government’s current plan. And some are seeking more leeway around how much power must be available at each charging site.
Under the program, the federal government would pay the bulk of the cost for installing 500,000 chargers around the country, and states must follow federal rules when determining the details of where those chargers would go.
The FHWA is starting with funding for “alternative fuel corridors” that are major highways, like interstates, where it wants charging stations every 50 miles and within a mile of the highway. Each station would have at least four chargers, which could deliver power at 150 kilowatts or more.
“There are a lot of areas in the American West, including Nevada, that do not have any type of electrical service,” wrote Kristina Swallow, the director of the Nevada Department of Transportation, in a comment letter to the FHWA. “Placing charging stations every 50 miles would be extremely challenging, very expensive, and may not make sense in some cases, let alone providing 600 kilowatts of power at each location.”
“There are many areas that are uninhabited and so remote that they do not have any towns or even a single house that can be seen along the route… Several hundred miles along these routes, there are no gas stations, restaurants, or even places where truckers can charge their cellphones, and this is the case for hundreds of miles along US roadways in Nevada,” she continued.
The remoteness of such areas creates logistical and financial challenges to building out charger networks.
In Nevada, for instance, the transportation department is asking for a waiver for one stretch of Interstate 80 where there would be 71 miles between charging stations, rather than the required 50 miles. That section actually has a lower-power charging station already, but to upgrade the grid to be able to handle the four, 150 kilowatt chargers would cost “in the millions of dollars,” Kandee Worley, who oversees the electric charging initiative for the Nevada DOT, said in an interview with Route Fifty.
Nevada officials hope that the Biden administration will not only grant them the waiver for that segment of road, but also that the administration will make changes to the proposed federal rule. The gaps in the network are less worrying as electric vehicles improve their battery capacity and their ability to direct drivers to the nearest charging station when fuel runs low, they said.
Other states have reported similar challenges.
In Wyoming’s application for funding for the charging network, its officials said the proposal for such robust charging stations would ensure that no station in the state would be profitable until the 2040s. Even more troubling, federal officials don’t want states to spend their federal charging dollars on other projects until the highway segments connecting states are completed first.  
“Wyoming has no desire to establish infrastructure that will likely fail, therefore recommends a departure from the draft federal program requirements,” the state wrote in its funding application.
The biggest potential for electric vehicles in the state is not from local residents, Wyoming transportation officials explained, but from out-of-state tourists heading to national parks like Yellowstone and Grand Teton. The state proposed installing chargers along the routes to state and national parks, rather than along interstate corridors.
“The plan creates the conditions for residents to use EVs for personal or business travel. It also facilitates movement of tourists who chose to use an EV to visit the state and protect Wyoming’s second biggest industry, tourism,” the state wrote in its application.
In New Hampshire, a top transportation official encouraged the FHWA to reexamine the power requirements at its stations in rural areas. Providing up to 600 kilowatts would require the grid to use three-phase power, which is common in commercial settings, rather than single-phase power, which is more common for residential areas.
“Several rural areas in New Hampshire do not have three-phase power, and therefore require additional infrastructure investments to expand grid capacity,” wrote William Cass, the assistant commissioner and chief engineer of the New Hampshire Department of Transportation. That would make stations in rural parts of the state “significantly more expensive to construct than similar stations in more densely populated areas,” he said.
Instead, he suggested, the state should be allowed to use battery storage or be powered by renewable energy sources.
That would allow the state to use more of its money to meet the Biden administration’s goal of serving underserved communities, plus it would accommodate more tourists who travel into rural parts of the state, Cass wrote.
Joyce Noel Taylor, the chief engineer for the Maine Department of Transportation, noted that Maine is 3.5 times the size of New Hampshire or Vermont, but it was allotted about the same amount of money to build out its electric charging infrastructure. “As a result, we will have to do more with less,” she wrote.
One way to get more mileage from the federal funding would be to relax the standards for charging stations in rural areas, she said. That would also help avoid a situation where no charging infrastructure gets built at all, because vendors conclude that it’s too expensive.
“A partial solution, in the form of fewer plugs or lower capacity per plug, or both, seems like it would be preferable to no solution at all for certain 50-mile segments meeting [certain] low-traffic/high-cost criteria. In the absence of some flexibility, we are concerned that some states may be forced to consider de-listing stretches of [alternative fuel corridors], which would seem an unfortunate, unintended consequence of setting a high bar,” Taylor warned.
In fact, Nevada is asking to rescind its designation of one highway as an alternative fuel corridor, because it doesn’t want to have to direct resources to building out a charging network along that stretch before it addresses more immediate needs, Sondra Rosenberg, the Nevada transportation department’s assistant director for planning, said in an interview.
When states designated the alternative fuel corridors, they were meant to accommodate other kinds of fuel, like hydrogen or natural gas, not just electricity, she said. (Nevada is particularly interested in the development of hydrogen-fueled freight vehicles, because its neighbors in California and Utah are promoting that technology.) Plus, Rosenberg added, the federal rules about the kinds of electric charging infrastructure required along those stretches have become more stringent.
“It doesn’t mean we’re not going to invest in that corridor. It just means we want the flexibility to invest in it in a way that makes sense,” she explained.
But Rosenberg also stressed that the long distances between facilities in Nevada are sometimes hard to fathom for people from outside the region. There’s one sign in the state that warns drivers that the next gas station is in 200 miles, she said.
“There’s a lot of difference in what ‘rural’ means in different states,” Rosenberg said. “The large Western states have what actually used to be classified as ‘frontier’ counties, which are more ‘rural’ than rural communities.”
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.
NEXT STORY: Against Federal Guidance, States Plan to Expand Highways
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