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Will electric vehicles catch on in the wide-open West?

As interest in electric vehicles grows, the infrastructure needed to support these cars and trucks is lagging behind

Illustration by David Plunkert

When Mark Nienow bought his 2019 Hyundai Kona Electric it was still difficult to buy a used electric vehicle in rural Montana. So he had it shipped from a dealer in Vermont, setting aside his nerves about spending so much money on a car he’d never seen, let alone driven.

Two years later, Nienow’s put about 12,000 miles on the vehicle, which he mostly uses to drive 100 miles round trip south to Billings for his weekly shopping trip from his home near Roundup, Montana.

“For some people, it’s just not going to be a good fit. But for me, it’s perfect,” he says.

Perfect with a few caveats.

“Infrastructure is an issue, especially in this part of the country,” Nienow says. A trip to visit Yellowstone (a 212-mile drive) required far more planning than it normally would to ensure he’d have a place to charge.

His experience isn’t a singular one and is a perfect example that even if the United States seems primed to experience an electric vehicle renaissance of sorts, the infrastructure out West needs a slingshot to catch up with EV policy and manufacturing.

The signs of a changing private vehicular ownership model are all around. In January, General Motors announced plans to phase out production of gasoline vehicles entirely by 2035. The state of California announced that by that same year, all new cars and passenger trucks sold in the state must be zero-emission vehicles.

Throughout this year, a host of manufacturers — from legacy brands like Chevrolet to newcomers like Rivian — have released new EV models. Even Ford dropped news of its electric F-150 Lightning. In an advertisement for the vehicle Ford boasts, “It’s not just another new EV.” The ad features the truck on desert roads and parked in a wooded forest with a camper hitched to the back. These images seem to imply that this electric vehicle will take you to the remote parts of the West, or that it will be useful on a farm or construction site.

But that won’t be the case without electric vehicle chargers placed strategically in those remote locations — which the West does not yet have. A massive bipartisan federal infrastructure bill was passed by the Senate in August, setting aside $7.5 billion to build charging stations. It seems that metaphorically the cart has come before the horse — or more aptly the car has come before the charging station.

With purported cruising ranges of 300 miles, some EVs are getting close to being useful in rural areas, but perhaps not close enough. “Two hundred miles in Montana is nothing,” Nienow says.

“Range anxiety,” or fear that people will not be able to drive and charge their EVs with ease, is particularly acute in regions where getting plain old gasoline can be a concern on remote byways. So what kind of infrastructure is needed?

The Electric Highway Coalition is a partnership of 14 U.S. utilities, established to create a seamless network of rapid electric vehicle charging stations that connect major highway systems stretching across more than a dozen states — from the Atlantic Coast, the Midwest, the Gulf and Central Plains regions.

The West hasn’t seen private utility company partnerships of that magnitude yet — but Nevada, Utah and Colorado partnered in 2017 and signed a memorandum of understanding, which aims to enhance EV adoption, coordinate EV charging station locations and create voluntary minimum standards. Arizona, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico and Wyoming later joined as well, with the stated purpose being “improved availability of regional electric vehicle infrastructure (that) will increase access to our highways, promote tourism and recreation in our rural communities, and support our economies.” In the last three years, more than 100 DC fast-charging stations have been built out across the interior West, according to the latest progress report released in 2020.

Currently, Nevada has several projects in the works — including an electric highway on I-80 that would allow travel from Salt Lake City to Tahoe, California.

In Utah, Rocky Mountain Power, Maverik and the Utah Clean Air Partnership completed an electric vehicle corridor on I-15.

In Colorado, the state is working to add electric vehicle charging stations along all its major highway corridors, as well as along smaller scenic byways (electric vehicle registrations are high and rapidly growing in the state, making up 6% of sales in the first quarter of 2021). Colorado has also partnered with Rivian, an electric vehicle maker, to build charging stations at every state park. These types of privately owned chargers installed with public subsidies are the most common agreements in the U.S.

“We need to make sure that we’re building charging that works for the whole state, not just the urban areas,” Will Toor, the executive director of the Colorado Energy Office, says. “We know that recreational travel is very important to folks, and they really want to know that they can get to that state or national park, ski slope or camping area.”

But for now, that’s not possible for EV drivers, although the plans for a more ubiquitous electric highway are slowly materializing. A chunk of funding for electric vehicle infrastructure — about $10 million — came from a settlement from the Volkswagen emissions scandal of 2016, in which a U.S. federal judge ruled that Volkswagen must pay criminal fines for “rigging diesel-powered vehicles to cheat on government emissions tests.” (To date, the company has booked more than $35 billion in fines and settlements.)

Colorado’s largest utility is rolling out a program where roughly $100 million will be invested in electric vehicle infrastructure. Additionally, a transportation funding program signed in June 2021 will invest hundreds of millions of dollars. And the $7.5 billion coming from the bipartisan infrastructure bill could help kick-start projects in other Western states that haven’t made as much progress.

“Right now, (electric vehicle charging infrastructure) has to be subsidized by the government or by the utility,” Gil Tal, director of the Plug-in Hybrid & Electric Vehicle Research Center at the University of California, Davis, says. That’s because driving on electricity is extremely cheap (filling up your “tank” can cost somewhere between $6 and $8), and at this point, still pretty rare. It’s not a profitable business.

Tal’s cautious about encouraging states to invest in infrastructure, because he understands there may be different priorities that need more immediate attention, but “federal investment right now will build a nice push.”

Similarly, Mark Nienow in Montana — despite liking his own electric vehicle — is cautious about encouraging his neighbors to invest in their own EVs. He had a friend interested in purchasing the F-150 Lightning and was skeptical.

“He’s out West, too — thinking that he’d be able to go from New Mexico to Washington or something and there’s going to be a charge station anywhere he wants to stop. That’s not the case.”

This story appears in the October issue of Deseret Magazine. Learn more about how to subscribe.