This story was originally published by Stateline, an initiative of The Pew Charitable Trusts.
The Lakota named the Badlands, calling the sharp, stark canyons and buttes “mako sica.” Centuries later, French-Canadian trappers and traders likewise chronicled “les mauvaises terres a traveser” or “bad lands to travel across.”
Interstate 94 has tamed the former Dakota Territory, turning the journey into a 75-mph blur of chasms and color, but it remains inhospitable to those driving electric vehicles. Across western North Dakota, there are far more oil pump jacks than charging stations. Bison outnumber EVs.
Change is coming, albeit slower than in the rest of the country. With the notable exception of Minnesota’s Twin Cities, the shift to EVs across the Upper Midwest and Great Plains lags compared with other regions nationwide.
Concerns over range and the effects of sub-zero weather on battery life are higher on the vast northern prairies, areas of which have the fewest charging stations in the country. Political debates over ethanol, emission standards and market forces also envelop the region.
For EV advocates, the numbers foretell a long road ahead.
The most recent federal data on EV adoption rates shows that North Dakota (roughly 400 vehicles), Wyoming (500) and South Dakota (700) have the fewest EV registrations in the nation. The Dakotas, Iowa and Nebraska are among the states with the lowest per capita ownership and market share of EVs.
Charging stations, seen as a key piece of widespread electrification, are scarce in the region as well, with North Dakota and South Dakota having the lowest number of stations in the contiguous United States.
More stations are on the way. The infrastructure law President Joe Biden signed in 2021 mandated that states develop plans for a charging network to qualify for federal funds. North Dakota, for example, has proposed stations every 50 miles along Interstates 94 and 29.
For Destiny Wolf, a former nurse turned fossil preparator, in Dickinson, North Dakota, every charging station is welcome. Wolf and her husband, Craig Wolf, own two of the 18 EVs in Stark County, which has a population of 33,000 over 1,300 square miles, an area larger than Rhode Island.
Wolf loves her Teslas and advocates for electric vehicles, but she acknowledges the challenges in her area.
While the region benefits from the lowest electric rates in the nation, making the EVs even more cost effective than they are in California, other factors outweigh the savings. Travel times grow as cold weather drains battery life, requiring additional carefully plotted charging stops along the state’s sparsely equipped network.
It wasn’t until the past few months that EV drivers could traverse the state with access to fast chargers, Wolf said. For families with children in sports or other activities, “It’s not unheard of to drive 600 miles over a weekend to some rural community,” she said.
The number of EVs with ranges of 300 miles or more nearly tripled in 2022, growing from five to 14, the U.S. Department of Energy reported. But in North Dakota, that’s barely a one-way trip from Dickinson to Fargo.
The Wolfs keep a third vehicle, a 2015 Toyota Sienna, as a gas-powered backup.
Beyond the concerns over practicality, larger issues loom. North Dakota and other states in the region are top-10 producers of ethanol, a corn-based fuel that is blended with gasoline. Because as much as 40% of U.S. corn is used for ethanol, the states fear more EVs will have the ripple effects of a drop in ethanol demand on their agriculture economies.
Automakers, EV proponents say, offer fewer models in the region, giving buyers fewer options if they wish to go electric. Tesla, for example, has no showrooms along the northern tier between the Twin Cities and Boise, Idaho.
The rural-urban and red-blue divides in the region also enter the debate over the push toward EVs.
“It’s been kind of … unfortunate that electric cars have become caught up to some extent in kind of the partisan divide and the culture wars,” said Marc Geller, a board member and spokesperson for the Electric Vehicle Association, which promotes EVs.
But Minnesota, North Dakota’s eastern neighbor, is an outlier in the region.
In 2021, Minnesota became the only Midwestern state to adopt California’s stricter emission standards, including its mandate that auto dealers offer more zero-emission vehicles.
In Minnesota, more than 83% of the state’s 15,000-plus electric vehicles were registered in the seven-county Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area in 2021, the most recent year for nationwide data. The charging network in Minnesota dwarfs its neighbors, with 594 stations statewide, ranging from tiny southern farming communities such as Sherburn (population 1,032) to a Tesla Supercharger at a remote north woods lodge along the Canadian border.
Yet Minnesota still struggles with its electric vehicle future.
Minnesota’s “clean cars” plan is set to take effect in 2024. But in August, California upped the ante: It approved new rules requiring all new cars sold in the state to be either electric or hydrogen powered by 2035. Minnesota and other states must choose whether to follow those more stringent auto sales rules or observe federal standards, which don’t include a zero-emissions deadline. The Minnesota Pollution Control Agency has until 2026 to decide whether the state should follow California again.
Opposition to the original California standards united auto dealers, farmers and conservative politicians. The new rules will be even a tougher sell.
“If I have to stock electric and low-emission vehicles, it will reduce my capacity to stock the trucks and SUVs my customers want,” wrote Steve Whitaker, owner of car dealership Whitaker Buick GMC in Forest Lake, Minnesota, in a seven-page public comment filing. “Reducing my stock of SUVs and trucks to take the required electric vehicles will put my business in a tenuous financial position.”
EV proponents contend the adoption of EVs in the region is hindered because dealers limit the models available.
According to the Sierra Club, Minnesota dealers offer only about half of the available EV models. “Clean Cars MN will help get Minnesota and neighboring Upper Midwest states out of the EV desert. There’s no reluctance, there’s a lack of consumer choice,” the Sierra Club said in a statement to Stateline.
Farm organizations, especially corn growers, argue the move to electric vehicles will depress crop prices by reducing the demand for ethanol-blended fuels. Industry groups, such as the Renewable Fuel Association, argue that biofuels can be more climate friendly than electric. Minnesota is the nation’s fifth-leading producer of ethanol.
Across the region, difficult political decisions lie ahead as sales accelerate and states build out their EV policies.
Some incentivize EV ownership with state rebates or tax credits, on top of those offered by the federal government. Kansas, for example, gives a $2,500 tax credit to EV buyers. In Minnesota, the Democratic-controlled legislature is considering $2,500 rebates for EV purchases. It also offers some EV buyers a one-time toll pass credit. In the Dakotas, Iowa and Nebraska, meanwhile, incentives favor development of the ethanol/biofuels industry over boosting EV sales.
The differences also arise in how states will use their shares of the $7.5 billion in federal funds set aside for charging infrastructure. Idaho, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota and Wyoming — all large, rural states with long stretches of remote highways — joined in a comment to federal regulators, noting the difficulties complying with the requirements, E&E News reported.
Wyoming drew a line in the high prairie sand, offering its own plan for placing charging stations in tourism areas outside the federal guidelines that prioritize interstates. “The State will not proceed if our plan is not approved,” it said.
For Geller, of the Electric Vehicle Association, education is vital as state policies evolve. Technology is rapidly addressing the range and weather-related issues that rural, northern auto buyers cite as their chief concerns about EVs. At-home chargers, he said, are often underplayed in the discussion and make rural ownership more practical, often allowing owners to charge at non-peak overnight rates. The more people drive EVs, the more they benefit, Geller said.
But even in the region’s urban areas, there’s caution about following California too closely.
“I think we need to get to a point first where Minnesotans have the choices to buy electric vehicle options and also that we have the infrastructure to support those choices,” state Rep. Jamie Long, a Democrat from an affluent Minneapolis district, told MinnPost. “I think in the next few years, that’s where I want my focus to be, is getting options for Minnesotans for new vehicle purchases.”
In North Dakota, where 15 of the state’s 53 counties do not have even one electric vehicle registered, Wolf wants the market to drive EV development, pushing car makers to respond to consumer needs.
Living near the oil-rich Bakken, she’s also a proponent of a stable oil market and U.S. energy independence. EVs are part of the picture, she said, but mandates are not the answer.
“The infrastructure isn’t here … the government is trying to put the cart before the horse,” the two-Tesla owner said. The couple puts more than 20,000 miles per year on their EVs and “maybe” 3,000-5,000 miles on the gas-powered minivan.
“I love my car, but I’m a proponent of the free market.”