Barriers Exist to Rural EV Adoption

Witnesses Tell House Ag Committee Rural America Not Ready for Electric Vehicles

Todd Neeley
By  Todd Neeley , DTN Staff Reporter
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Renewable Fuels Association President and CEO Geoff Cooper testified before the House Agriculture Committee during a hearing on electric vehicles in rural America. (DTN screenshot)

LINCOLN, Neb. (DTN) -- Though the Biden administration is going full speed ahead at expanding the use of electric vehicles, witnesses told the House Agriculture Committee on Wednesday that rural America in particular faces a number of barriers to overcome.

The committee held a four-hour hearing that featured witnesses from the auto industry, rural power interests and the ethanol industry, who painted a cloudy picture of just how rural areas will contribute to the Biden administration's goal of electric vehicles (EVs) making up 50% of all auto sales by 2030.

Mark Mills, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, outlined for the committee myriad barriers rural America will have to overcome to keep up with what eventually will be widespread adoption of EV technology.

"First, as great as new EVs are, they still can't meet the overall practical performance requirements, especially in rural areas," Mills said.

The conventional wisdom is that consumers' reluctance to embrace EVs, especially in rural areas, comes primarily from "range anxiety" as well as cost. The range anxiety can be solved with more charging stations. The costs can be fixed with subsidies that could soon become unnecessary because of expectations that batteries will become more affordable, Mills said.

Mills said most EVs on the market currently offer mileage ranges comparable to conventional cars.

New trucks on the market, for example, feature 400-mile-range batteries. There is some question as to whether farmers hauling heavy trailers in rural areas would see the same ranges.

A big problem for rural America is the length of time it takes to recharge EV batteries, he said.

"Instead of five minutes to fill up a pickup truck's tank, a standard level-two charger takes about 10 hours," Mills said. "The so-called supercharger can drop that to 40 minutes, but that's obviously still nearly 10 times longer than normal," Mills said. "So, providing the same consumer experience means installing at least 10-fold more electric pumps superchargers than exist as gas pumps and the superchargers cost twice as much as a gasoline pump."

Even if rural Americans opted for EVs in mass numbers, Mills said the infrastructure to support wide adoption would be significant.

"So that 20-fold higher infrastructure cost per consumer served, it's only part of the story," he said.

"Superchargers operate at about 10-fold higher power levels than standard chargers. So, the rural logistical distribution infrastructure will have to be upgraded radically. And it's an infrastructure that's already far more expensive per household than in urban areas."

Mills said there would be a number of "hidden costs" in rural areas including more power grid outages which are already 50% more frequent than in urban areas.

Rural residents now can ensure travel is possible during an outage by "spending a few $100 on enough gasoline storage capacity" to fill up a pickup truck's tank, he said.

"But if a grid outage happened, the homeowner would have to spend over $30,000 on a home-based battery storage system that could hold enough backup power to fill up just half of the pickup truck's battery," Mills said.

In addition, he said, "mass adoption" of EVs would "dramatically stress global supply chains" and lead to higher battery prices in the coming years.

"Studies have shown that they expect demand to increase from 400% to over 4,000% for the various critical minerals that are needed to build all the plant hardware, on average," he said.

"It's important to note that compared to a gasoline vehicle, an EV entails at least 1,000% increase in the overall tonnage of materials that are extracted from the earth to deliver the same lifetime miles. So, the growth in demand for materials will be far greater right now than the rate at which the world's miners are able to expand supply."

RENEWABLE FUELS VERSUS EVs

Geoff Cooper, president and CEO of the Renewable Fuels Association, said the EV push will have "important implications" for rural Americans.

Though the Biden administration has set aggressive goals to expanding EV adoption, many experts believe liquid fuels and combustion engines will be prevalent for decades to come.

As a result, Cooper said there's a need to decarbonize the transportation fuel supply immediately.

"We agree that electric vehicles will be an important part of that strategy, but given the time needed to transition the light-duty vehicle fleet, continued reliance on fossil fuels for electricity generation, the difficulty of electrifying medium and heavy-duty vehicles and other barriers, electric vehicles alone will not get our transportation sector to net-zero emissions by 2050," Cooper said.

Cooper said there are more than 267 million light-duty vehicles in the U.S. and just 2.3 million are battery electric or plug-in hybrid EVs.

"So, even with increased electric vehicle sales in the years ahead, it would take decades to turn over the fleet," he said.

"So, given these realities, other complementary solutions clearly will be needed to decarbonize transportation by mid-century. And that's where agriculture comes in. Through increased production and use of renewable fuels like ethanol, the agriculture sector offers an effective and immediate solution for decarbonizing all segments of the transportation sector."

CHARGING LEGISLATION INTRODUCED

Reps. Abigail Spanberger, D-Virginia, Tom Rice, R-South Carolina, on Wednesday introduced the Electric Vehicle Charging Infrastructure for Farmers Act.

The bill would allow USDA's Rural Energy for American Program funding to be used for installing EV charging infrastructure for light-duty, medium-duty and heavy-duty EV vehicles. That would include pickup trucks, combines and tractors.

The Biden administration last month also announced it would spend $5 billion to help spur the construction of 500,000 EV charging stations nationally.

EXPANDED EV PRODUCTION

David Strickland, vice president of global regulatory affairs at General Motors, said his company expects to launch more than 20 EV models in North America by 2025 "including options at every price point and for every lifestyle."

By 2025, he said, General Motors' EV assembly capacity will reach 20% and climb to 50% by 2030. In addition, Strickland said his company will be investing in expanded EV charging capability.

"Today charging deserts still exist in many rural and underserved areas that lack the critical EV charging infrastructure necessary for the more widespread adoption of EVs," he told the committee.

Last year General Motors announced it will invest nearly $750 million to expand home, workplace and public charging. General Motors also is developing a community charging program with more than 4,000 dealers across the country.

"This is significant, because nearly 90% of the U.S. population lives within 10 miles of a GM dealership," Strickland said.

"These charging stations will be available to all EV customers, not just those who purchase a GM EV."

Strickland said there needs to be more infrastructure investment along highway corridors, investment tax credits to incentivize companies to grow battery and EV manufacturing capacity, as well as consumer incentives to buy EVs.

DECARBONIZING FUELS

Rep. Cindy Axne, D-Iowa, said there needs to be a sense of urgency in decarbonizing fuels.

"The dire need for carbon reduction can't wait and be achieved when we have electric vehicles alone as the only option and we can't wait for this to get to scale," she said.

"We've got to capitalize on the carbon benefits possible today through the use of biofuels. Americans will continue to consume hundreds of billions of gallons of liquid fuel for years to come. So, if we're taking the climate crisis seriously, we have to replace as much of those gallons as possible with higher blends of biofuels."

Though many members of Congress have been calling for the Biden administration to expand the use of biofuels, Reuters reported on Wednesday that the administration may be considering additional cuts to the proposed Renewable Fuel Standard volumes for 2022 -- below the proposed 15 billion gallons of corn ethanol.

Trevor Walter, vice president of petroleum supply management at Sheetz, Inc., said fuel retailers across the country face a number of significant market challenges and barriers to fueling more EVs.

"For any solution to work, it must promote competitive market dynamics and work with consumers' existing behavior and the business infrastructure we have," he told the committee.

"At the moment, there are several impediments that make it challenging for fuel retailers to find a pathway to profitability with respect to EV charging."

Walter said the electricity market was not designed for and is incompatible with the retail fuel market.

"Foremost among these obstacles is the threat of regulated utilities making use of their status as monopolies to gain a competitive edge over private businesses," he said.

For example, Walter said regulated utilities are trying to convince utility commissions that they should "be able to charge all of their ratepayers -- regardless of income -- a higher dollar figure on their monthly electric bill in order to underwrite the utilities' investment in EV charging stations."

He said private companies do not have access to such a pool of risk-free capital.

"What's more, many regulated utilities want to bill EV charging station owners more money for electricity than their own cost to power their utility-owned chargers by adding extra tariffs or fees," Walter said.

Todd Neeley can be reached at todd.neeley@dtn.com

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