‘Charging Deserts’ Challenge Electric Car Growth in Rural Areas

  • Convenience stores, highway corridors pitched for EV chargers
  • Range limits make EVs impractical for rural drivers, GOP warns

Rural America risks being “left behind” in the transition to electric vehicles, lawmakers and industry groups are warning.

With billions being spent on the transition to electric vehicles, Democrats pushed industry representatives at a House Agriculture Committee hearing Wednesday on ways to ensure widespread and equitable adoption.

“If we go back to electricity, it took almost forever for it to get it to rural America,” Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.), chair of the committee, said at the hearing. “I want to see that we make sure that rural America is not left behind as they were left behind in movements to electricity, to plumbing, to all of the other areas.”

Republicans warned the vehicles just don’t meet rural Americans’ needs currently. The electric vehicle transition will also be challenged by China’s dominance of minerals needed to manufacture the vehicles and the current capacity of the electric grid, Republicans and witnesses said.

The recently enacted infrastructure law (Public Law 117-58) includes $7.5 billion for electric vehicle chargers, and Democrats and industry witnesses said that money needs to be fairly distributed, including to rural regions. The Biden administration wants to deploy 500,000 chargers across the U.S. by 2030.

Photo: Bing Guan/Bloomberg
An EVgo charger connected to a Nissan Leaf electric vehicle during AutoMobility LA ahead of the Los Angeles Auto Show on Nov. 18, 2021.

“Charging deserts still exist in many rural and underserved areas,” David Strickland, vice president of global regulatory affairs at General Motors Co., said at the hearing, while pushing for more EV incentives.

Charging Sites

Industry representatives suggested highways and convenience stores as good places to expand charging networks in rural areas.

Trevor Walter, vice president of petroleum supply management at Sheetz Inc., said 86% of Americans in rural regions and 93% in urban areas live within 10 minutes of a convenience store.

“When drivers are able to readily see that they can get electricity the same way and in the same places they refuel now, range anxiety will no longer be an impediment,” said Walter, who was testifying on behalf of National Association of Convenience Stores.

GM’s Strickland said fast-charging stations are needed along highway corridors and could be funded with money from the infrastructure law. Strickland said GM also supports tax credits and EV consumer incentives, which are proposed in Democrats’ stalled Build Back Better package (H.R. 5376).

Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) introduced a bill Wednesday that she said will ensure “rural communities have greater access to EV charging infrastructure” by making the equipment eligible under the Agriculture Department’s Rural Energy for America loan and grant program.

Rural Drivers

Republicans on the committee are skeptical of the effectiveness of government intervention pushing electric vehicle infrastructure to rural areas, where they said the technologies are unlikely to be adopted.

“I can see where electric vehicles would be very valuable for people who just need a daily vehicle to commute, they start and stop at the same place every time,” Rep. Austin Scott (R-Ga) said. “For some of us who are on the road significantly more, I think that we will probably stick with the internal combustible engine for the foreseeable future.”

Rep. Dusty Johnson (R-S.D.) noted that EV batteries still underperform in cold weather, which is a problem for rural states like his.

Republicans also said it’s unfair that electric cars don’t contribute to the Highway Trust Fund, the federal government’s main mechanism for financing highways and transit, which is funded by the federal motor fuels tax.

All vehicles “should pay their fair share for road maintenance and repair,” Rep. Rick Crawford (R-Ark.) said.

Critical Minerals

Challenges remain with performance and production of electric vehicles since Chinese firms dominate the critical mineral mining and processing needed for electrification, said Mark Mills, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.

Republicans from the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee wrote to the Biden administration this week calling for changes to permitting processes for cobalt and other EV mineral mines, and legislation that creates incentives for buying domestic minerals.

House Agriculture Committee Republicans also worried about the electric grid’s ability to sustain an increase in EVs.

Rep. Doug LaMalfa (R-Calif.) said unprecedented levels of snow at lower elevations in his state knocked out a lot of the power grid, and at times the power has been intentionally shut off in the summer when trees might blow into power lines because of high winds.

“What you’re looking at is a grid that’s already in question,” he said. “Where the hell is the power supposed to come from to run all this?” LaMalfa said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Lillianna Byington in Washington at lbyington@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Sarah Babbage at sbabbage@bgov.com; Fawn Johnson at fjohnson@bloombergindustry.com

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