Carnegie Mellon University
December 13, 2023

The road ahead for EV adoption is made of gravel

Mitch Stults, a resident of Muscle Shoals, Alabama, faced the common rural challenge of long commutes, driving 60 miles each way to his job. Spending $1,000 monthly on gas for his King Ranch pickup, he decided to try a Tesla Model Y, only to return it three months later for a pickup due to off-road job demands and range anxiety despite the Tesla's 315-mile range. “There were a few times where it was just hopes and prayers that you find a Supercharger,” he said.

Rural Americans like Stults, constituting 20% of the U.S. population, face unique challenges in adopting electric vehicles (EVs). With 68% of all lane miles in rural areas, the greater distances contribute to issues with current EV infrastructure, broadband access, and historical electricity installation. The federal government has pledged $7.5 billion to help America make the electric transition, but rural America grapples with divisive politics, class disparities, and insufficient public charging infrastructure.

However, according to Richard Mohr, senior VP of Americas at ChargePoint, the rural EV charging infrastructure is expanding rapidly, making it increasingly accessible outside metropolitan areas. Some automakers, like Tesla and Volvo, are investing in charging installations, recognizing the underserved, rural areas. Additionally, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association (NRECA), a trade group that represents 900 rural electric co-ops, is approaching electrification in a variety of different ways, adapting to each specific community's needs.

While EV registrations remain low in rural areas, a recent study by Jeremy Michalek, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, suggests that advancing technology could 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.”

Politics play a crucial role in rural electrification, with tribal politics resisting the transition, especially when framed around renewable energy or climate goals. According to Michalek, the political divides in rural America are particularity acute. The perception that electrification is a progressive urban concern leads to divisive behaviors, such as vandalism and "ICE-ing" (combustion engine vehicles parking in EV spots). The high cost of EVs, averaging $51,762 — nearly $4,000 more than an average internal combustion engine vehicle — further excludes lower-income buyers, particularly affecting rural areas.

Changing hearts and minds isn’t the only challenge; 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. 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.”

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.”

Cities and major travel corridors will get electrified in the coming years thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act, but the road to electrification in rural America may be bumpy.

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