Stacy Noblet, Contributor, Forbes
Government agencies, utilities, automakers and technology providers alike are working hard to establish plug-in electric vehicle (EV) charging networks to support the growing EV wave nationwide. Electrify America recently completed its first cross-country EV charging route, the U.S. Department of Energy hosts a charging station locator, and Apple AAPL +1.4% launched a routing feature last month to its Maps app to help EV drivers locate charge ports along the way. While these solutions are promising, the industry still faces a major roadblock to the carefree cross-country road trip: the West.
While the eastern half of the United States is home to more metro areas and greater opportunities for intercity EV travel, many rural areas throughout the West lack sufficient electrical infrastructure and other amenities to support sustainable, widespread EV charging. It is home to some of the country’s most popular national parks and tourist attractions, but the current deficit of charging stations discourages EV road trippers, especially as the global health crisis continues to halt major air travel.
Further, the dearth of places to plug in also presents hurdles for permanent residents considering EVs — the majority of consumers cite range anxiety as their primary reason for avoiding purchasing an electric car. Yet, long term projections for the national EV sales remain steady, highlighting the need to invest in infrastructure now as its usage becomes more popular.
There are unique challenges with increased electric mobility and EV infrastructure development in more rural states like North Dakota, Utah and Wyoming, which aren’t at play in other parts of the country. In these expansive areas, extreme temperatures and high elevation can negatively affect battery range, though exact impacts are still being tested and understood.
Not only does the West’s landscape impact battery life, but its vast expanse proves problematic for the connectivity of EV chargers once installed. By connecting EV chargers to the cloud, companies can create a network of charging stations to optimize performance and streamline the user experience. This is especially difficult in rural areas with weak or nonexistent cellular coverage, which further disincentivizes charging companies to build stations there.
The good news is that there are several potential solutions in the works and, despite setbacks related to the Covid-19 pandemic, the EV industry has more government buy-in, technology and funding momentum than ever before.
For starters, EV chargers can be paired with renewables, improving the reliability of charging stations and reducing carbon emissions. This is a particularly viable solution for EV charging build-out in the West because that part of the country is ripe for solar power. Companies like Envision Solar and EVgo are actively pursuing EV charging with renewables at a large scale. Many western states have aggressive clean energy goals that will magnify the climate and clean air benefits EVs provide over their internal combustion engine counterparts.
Mobile charging is another solution on the rise to help address gaps in the electrical service infrastructure necessary for higher power charging. This technology could provide EV drivers some peace of mind on trips through rural areas with limited charging stops. There are a few companies piloting mobile charging, including SparkCharge and Freewire.
One entity can’t solve these complex challenges alone — the key is leveraging the right mix of strategic partners. States and cities need to team up with technology providers and utilities to unlock new strategies and maximize funding. As part of its EV Readiness Roadmap, for example, the City of Fort Collins is working closely with public and private stakeholders to support increased use of EVs. These local efforts are in addition to regional and national initiatives. Eight Western states banded together in 2017 to form the Regional Electric Vehicle Plan for the West, or REV West, with a collective mission to establish a coordinated EV charging network. Additionally, the FHWA continues to facilitate the build-out of a network of charging infrastructure along national highway system corridors. Both efforts involve a variety of stakeholders, including state agencies, utilities, alternative fuel providers and car manufacturers.
The current economic crisis is magnifying some of the challenges related to plug-in vehicle adoption. With this in mind, it’s especially important today to have key players, like utilities, seeding the market.
Utilities are well-positioned to help lead the charge for EV infrastructure development: they invest in and maintain the electrical infrastructure needed to power local economies and support EV chargers, they often have broad geographic footprints to support the deployment of charging infrastructure outside of high demand areas and they have access to capital to bolster the transition to EVs for the long haul. Western utilities, including Idaho Power, are receiving approval to invest in EV charging incentive programs, innovative technology pilots, highway corridor charging and more.
While uniquely challenging, investing in EV charging infrastructure in the West presents a valuable opportunity for cities, states, technology providers and utilities to form mutually beneficial partnerships that propel the EV market forward and ultimately pave the way for a sustainable transportation future.