The EV charging station in Cottage Grove, Oregon. (Source: Wikimedia)

As the automotive world presses ahead with a transition to electric vehicles (EVs), things are starting to feel a bit Field-of-Dreams-esque in rural areas. Until now, communities may have held back on infrastructure because few residents seemed to be zipping around town in EVs.

But rural regions need to face some fundamental questions. “Do we want to bring commerce into our area? Do we want tourism to come through?” asked Matt Fitzgibbon, Beneficial Electrification Manager for Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, Inc. 

Build it, they will come, he suggested. 

As more and more Americans make the move to electric, “range anxiety,” a driver’s worry that they won’t have enough battery charge to reach their destination, is likely to become more pervasive. Ultimately that fear could prevent travelers from visiting areas they don’t feel they can find sufficient charging infrastructure. 

Though most EV charging takes place at home, a little at work, and only about five percent at public fast chargers, range anxiety is nonetheless real for EV owners. 

“Being able to really help develop this infrastructure is going to be utterly important,” Fitzgibbon predicts for small towns.

At this moment, Fitzgibbon sees Tri-State, a not-for-profit cooperative energy supplier, returning to its roots when it was first formed in 1952. 

“Back then, the for-profit utilities didn’t want to come out to these lower-number residential areas,” he described. Now, the same thing is happening, but cooperatives like his are filling the gap.

Tri-State, which serves Colorado, Wyoming, Nevada, and New Mexico, has positioned itself as a trusted energy advisor, working with its member communities to find them clean, affordable energy solutions, like heat pumps and EVs. From its inception, Tri-State has specialized in alternative energy, largely feeding off hydropower and later investing in utility-scale renewable energy projects.

In 2009, the company was contracted for one of the largest solar installations in the country at the time in New Mexico. That was followed by a wind farm in Colorado. Both projects were expensive, but Tri-State’s members decided to purchase power contracts to gain experience with new technologies. 

“The exciting part of the story,” said Lee Boughey, vice president of Communications at Tri-State, “is that from 2009 to today, we have seen significant drops in the cost of wind and solar power.” In fact. Tri-State has seen prices drop more than 80%. 

In tandem, an increasing percentage of energy is coming from emissions-free, renewable resources. 

Boughey says, “It’s a winning proposition for consumers no matter what they care about.” 

In 2020, Tri-State announced its Responsible Energy Plan. By 2024, the company intends to make 50% of the energy its members consume, clean. The plan also focuses on expanding clean grid benefits, like beneficial electrification and electric vehicle infrastructure. Tri-State has 45 members, including 42 distribution cooperatives and public power districts, that serve communities across 200,000 square miles of the West, an area larger than the state of California, but obviously with a much sparser population. 

“We want to make sure that everybody has this opportunity to either get an EV themselves or bring that tourism to the area,” Fitzgibbon said.

A 2017 study from the U.S. Department of Energy found that nationwide there is an insufficient number of fast-charging stations for EVs and posited that more are needed. However, towns must weigh the cost versus the benefits. 

“More often than not, if you’re putting in fast-charging infrastructure, you’re looking at a $100,000 project or more,” Fitzgibbon said. Regions must see enough use to recoup that cost, either through local patronage or tourism, so it can be a tough call. 

But Fitzgibbon says one thing is clear: “Electric vehicles are coming. They’re going to be everywhere whether we want to believe it or not.”

In January, The New York Times announced that General Motors committed to only selling zero-emission vehicles by 2035, one of the most ambitious plans in the auto industry. As more vehicle types pour into the market, like pickups, the trend will likely spread quickly to rural communities, where about 60 million people, or one in five Americans, live, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

For Tri-State’s participating members, substantial infrastructure funding and a robust rebate program are available.  But that doesn’t exist in every community. “It just depends on who the utility is and what their role is. Some states fare better than others right now,” Fitzgibbon said. He’s hopeful with new legislation in motion, more widely available funding for EV infrastructure will be in play soon. 

“Outside of these financial incentive programs, we have to start thinking too: How do you get folks to experience an electric vehicle?” Fitzgibbon asked. 

What he’s witnessed is that once someone drives one, they’re hooked. 

“I can tell you one of the best parts of my career so far is that someone said, ‘I really loved driving that,’ and they went out and bought one the following week,” he said.

To that end, Tri-State has invested in a fleet of electric vehicles, which is loaned out to membership communities for a month at a time. The vehicles are currently booked solid into the summer of 2022. 

“It’s been wildly successful, more successful than I ever imagined,” Fitzgibbon said. As the trend catches on, it ups the ante, leaving it up to rural residents to imagine that fleet full-time and charge up infrastructure efforts.

Caroline Tremblay is a freelance writer and assists in the news coverage of Radically Rural, a two-day summit on key rural issues, September 22-23, in Keene, New Hampshire.

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