By EC Director of Technical Services Matt Stephens-Rich
With the heightened focus on rural EV charging networks following the announcement of the $2.5 billion Charging and Fueling Infrastructure (CFI) grant program, we would like to share this timely piece written by EC Director of Technical Services Matt Stephens-Rich about a road trip in his 2015 Nissan Leaf, and the lessons he learned about the state of rural EV charging in the United States.
I recently won an eBay bid for a bike rack, requiring pickup in Akron, Ohio – about 130 miles from my home in the suburbs of Columbus. Rather than take the two-hour drive up I-71, I planned a backroads route to test how the 84-mile range of my 2015 Nissan Leaf would fare with Ohio’s existing rural charging network.
My first stop was a relatively short charge about 30 miles away in the Village of Sunbury. Sunbury’s chargers were unique in that they were publicly sited (that is, owned and operated by the Village of Sunbury), but located in what appeared to be a public church parking lot. Turning on the charger stoked quite the surprise; in what one can only assume is a clerical error, the charger was set to $5 a minute rather than the modest $15-$20 per hour typical for DC fast charging units. I reluctantly plugged in for a quick top-up to get to my next destination, watching my digital wallet balance evaporate with each passing second. While charging, a red Mustang Mach-E pulled up, initiating something every EV owner is familiar with: the awkward conversation about how long you have left to charge and whether it’s worth waiting or just moving on. As the Mustang pulled away, I reflected on the first lessons of the road trip:
Lesson #1: Unpredictable charge pricing can be a big hurdle. Although extreme outliers like the $5/minute Sunbury station are uncommon, the patchwork of inconsistent pricing methods (per minute, per kWh, or totally free) can be quite difficult to navigate. Flexibility to set pricing based on the needs of a particular site is a valuable benefit of EV charging, but as we scale up this infrastructure, we must consider the proper balance of complexity and flexibility.
Lesson #2: Multiple charging stations are almost a must. During much of the first wave of charging deployment (which most of the U.S. is still admittedly in), the sheer notion of getting a single charger, any charger, to site locations was the goal. Yet, as EV adoption scales and larger batteries requiring longer charging time (or, in turn, higher charging speeds) become common, increasing the number of chargers at each site will be necessary.
With my lackluster charge complete, I continued to Bellville, just outside of Mansfield, OH. Taking back country roads and connectors was no sweat, but driving through populated intersections and clusters of neighborhoods and communities drove home another lesson:
Lesson #3: “Rural charging” isn’t necessarily “rural” in the traditional sense – it’s cities, towns, and villages too. What makes a region or area “rural” or “urban” is not as simple as a yes/no input.
These areas don’t have the population density of cities, but they also aren’t in the middle of nowhere or one-road towns. Quite often, the population density might be rather comparable to the average suburb, and the “flip” to these rural areas is gradual – not something rapidly apparent from one highway to the next.
At the Bellville station, I warmed up with a cup of coffee from the Dunkin’ that served as the charger site host. Numerous DC fast chargers at this location meant that a second Tesla cold pull up halfway through my charge and plug in.
With my car fully charged, it was on to a well-placed DC fast charger in a public parking lot in the sleepy college town of Wooster, OH. Taking a quick look around during my charge revealed a few open restaurants and bars on the immediate block, with plenty to do if a longer charge demanded it.
With a (yet again) full battery, I steered the car toward I-71 to complete the remainder of my journey to Akron. Along the way, I realized that my car had dipped a little below my expected battery range generously throughout what had now become a full snowstorm. A Nissan dealer off the interstate provided a free, quick, final DC fast charge.
Pulling into the level 2 charging station at my friend’s house in late evening, I was grateful to be done with the journey. However, I couldn’t help but consider two new realizations from my day on the road:
Lesson #4: Even with limited range, rural charging works! The expansion of rural charging has opened up my access to numerous towns, small cities, and non-metro areas in Central/Northeast Ohio.
Lesson #5: One size doesn’t fit all – nor does it have to! In a single day of driving, I had charged at DC fast chargers in publicly and privately owned stations, in parking lots, a private home, for free, and for a fee. The location, price, and type of charger can all be customized to fit the needs of the site host and to best benefit the local economy.
The next morning, bike rack in tow, I set the GPS back towards Columbus, stopping through the same charging stations I had the day before. In Wooster, my stop included a cup of coffee and a breakfast sandwich from a local coffee shop. In Bellville, I stopped at a nearby Amish shop to grab some smoked cheese, and, rolling into Columbus, I stopped for a final top-off at the Worthington recreation center charging station.
Upon reflection, the trip taught me two final lessons:
Lesson #6: Charging stations are valuable economic contributors to rural areas. Throughout my trip, I bought coffee, lunch, smoked cheese, and paid for charging in several communities I may have never even visited without DC fast chargers. By expanding EV owners’ access to rural communities, rural charging networks integrate regional economies and boost small and local businesses.
Lesson #7: Public funding programs are 100% necessary – but not enough. By closing investment gaps for local site hosts, the $15 billion from federal programs like NEVI and CFI allow this technology to boost local economies without the prohibitively high entry costs that have existed until now. The real question now is whether utilities, local governments, and other potential site hosts will commit to – and receive the technical support to follow through with – the electrification transition.