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Rural States Are Moving Ahead With EV Charging Infrastructure

The federal infrastructure package is making electric vehicle charging a reality — even in states with few registered EVs. In Montana, the need for this infrastructure is driven, in part, by tourism from other states.

A street view of downtown Livingston, Mont., with mountains in the background.
Livingston, Mont.
Rural states, often home to very few electric cars, seem to be moving forward with planning and developing electric vehicle charging infrastructure.

The momentum comes from the federal infrastructure package, as well as prior funding made available by the Volkswagen settlement, a gigantic package of fees and fines attached to the German automaker following the 2016 revelation that Volkswagen diesel engines were fraudulently bypassing pollution controls.

In Montana, there are only a handful of chargers along the some 2,000 miles of interstates and major highways. The state will receive nearly $43 million from the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Formula program, loosely known as NEVI, over a five-year period that began in 2022.

“I’m just excited that we established a plan in a state that is very much a blank canvas for EV adoption, and EV charging stations,” said Kyla Maki, an energy resource professional at the Montana Department of Environmental Quality.

Montana transportation officials worked with a consultant to better understand the electric vehicle market in the state, and what sort of strategy it should adopt moving forward. Much of the EV traffic in Montana comes from out-of-state vehicles in the form of tourism.

“We wanted to think about how do we support drivers coming from states where EV adoption is higher,” said Maki, speaking on a panel related to EV charging infrastructure development. The panel was organized by Forth, an electric vehicle policy and advocacy group based in Oregon.

It’s estimated that by 2030 roughly 100,000 EVs from out of state will be driving through Montana, which compares to only about 30,000 in-state EVs. The state dedicates no state funding toward incentives to purchase EVs or provide for charging, said Maki. By the end of 2021, only 1,650 EVs were registered there, according to the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE).

“It really is limited to the federal funding and the Volkswagen funding to some extent,” she remarked.

North Carolina, a state with about 25,200 EVs registered in the state at the end of 2021, according to the DOE, has a goal of having 1.25 million EVs registered in the state by 2030.

The Division of Air Quality at the North Carolina Department of Environmental Quality has been directed to propose a clean truck rule and examine the ZEV infrastructure needs for both medium- and heavy-duty vehicles, said Heather Hildebrandt, statewide initiatives group supervisor at North Carolina Department of Transportation.

The move is part of the state’s Clean Transportation Plan, a comprehensive strategy across multiple agencies. The state is receiving $109 million from the NEVI formula, a meaningful boost as the state plans for more charging infrastructure along major throughways, as well as investments in rural and other underserved areas.

“We have been very busy to lay the groundwork and make sure that we have a successful program in North Carolina,” said Hildebrandt, during the Forth panel.

The next couple of years will be focused on building out the NEVI corridors in North Carolina.

“We’re already thinking about what does the next step look like,” said Hildebrandt.

That next step will involve a needs assessment, which could illustrate the need for more hydrogen infrastructure, or more conventional EV charging, particularly as the state plans for developing infrastructure for trucks and buses.

“Medium and heavy duty is a whole lot more complicated than light duty, for sure. There’s a lot more things to consider,” said Hildebrandt.

Community-based charging will be focused around the many community colleges spread across the state, which can serve the added benefit of developing workforce training to support the evolving electric vehicle industry.

“There’s a lot of interest, surprisingly, from these more rural areas, with the carbon reduction program funding, in putting in electric charging,” said Hildebrandt.

States like California and Oregon are well on their way toward encouraging the adoption of EVs, and planning for the charging infrastructure. Oregon takes the approach of developing an entire ecosystem around the electrification of the transportation sector, thinking of charging needs for all vehicle types — whether it’s a tractor-trailer rig or an e-bike.

“We’re working toward more than just cars and trucks. But also electric micromobility, so bikes and scooters. And medium- and heavy-duty vehicles,” said Amanda Pietz, administrator for the Policy, Data and Analysis Division at the Oregon Department of Transportation.

Accommodating the new move toward electrification requires more than just installing chargers, said Pietz, other issues — like vehicle cost, data sharing and access equity — must also be addressed.

“And that’s really where partnerships come in. We must all understand the pieces of the puzzle, and how we fit it together,” she added.

Oregon DOT has taken the lead on developing charging infrastructure, while the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality has incentive programs to address vehicle cost, meanwhile the state’s Department of Energy collects data related to grid capacity, EV charging and EV adoption rates. The state is receiving $52.2 million from the NEVI program and has also dedicated $100 million for the next five years to help fund charging infrastructure.

The newly enacted Oregon Community Charging Rebates Program will address charging needs beyond the corridor charging to focus on areas where there are not enough electric vehicles to make it cost-effective to install charging infrastructure.

"That’s really where public investments can make a difference,” said Pietz.

The state program, to be launched in a few months, will pay up to 75 percent of costs for chargers, to be added in low-income and rural areas, multi-unit housing and other underserved communities.
Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.