A Second Way To Make EV Charging Succeed In Rural Areas (Part 2)

In Part 1, I had us use imaginary time travel to visit a time and place in the 20th century where there wasn’t electricity. While there was a good federal plan to bring electricity to the ranch, they hadn’t gotten to my great-great uncle yet. But using the best technology he had at his disposal at the time, he came up with some electricity around a decade before the grid came to the ranch.

While 99% of farms have had electricity since 1960, that doesn’t mean there’s a bunch of it or that there aren’t still places where it’s not available. In some places, there’s power, but only a relatively small trickle. That has been enough for the needs of people living and working in the area, so it didn’t matter. Now, with electric vehicles and the need to electrify things like heating, they’re going to need more juice. On top of that, there are a few places where many of us have been with no power, but that’s been fine because we’re just passing through on the highway.

With political challenges preventing a New Deal type of solution to the issue (government spending), we are going to need to do what my great-great uncle did: come up with other sources of power or methods of using it to take care of needs . What’s really nice is that renewable energy and storage technology has improved greatly since 1950, so we have even better options than he did to get electricity and use it as needed, no matter the time of day.

A Few Places Where The Grid Is Weak or Non-Existent

I know some readers will be skeptical that there isn’t a problem here. As I’ve pointed out, the grid really can handle EVs and will be fine, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be challenges ahead to make it work. Yes, what I’m about to point out are edge cases, but that doesn’t mean they don’t matter.

The first example is only one of several I pointed out in this article about towing with EVs.

Suppose you pick up the top-tier Cybertruck. It’s got a HUGE battery like the Hummer EV, but it’s a much lighter vehicle and supposed to be able to go 500 miles with people riding in it. So, it should make a great tow vehicle. Just cut the range in half when towing, right? So 250 miles is more than enough to get to the next Supercharger, right?

But on a trip from Denver to Los Angeles, your infotainment system tells you something that you don’t want to hear: you’re going to need to slow down when you’re passing through Utah. After the Green River Supercharger, you’ve got a big climb ahead of you, and there are not charging stations until Beaver. No big deal, right? Just slow down and take in the scenery on the rare occasion you’re towing that way.

But, the above screenshot from ABRP only shows what would happen with a modest trailer. If you want to use the whole capacity of the Cybertruck and tow something like a triple axle fifth-wheel for work or play, you’re either going to have to have a slow way down or find another route with more chargers. But then again, as good as the Supercharger network is, it’s still growing. Certainly they’re going to put in another station, right?

So you pick up Google Maps and say, “Jennifer is worried about nothing. Surely there’s some small town along I-70 that Tesla could put a Supercharger in at!” But, then you see that most of this stretch of highway is so barren and rocky that all but the hardiest of plant life doesn’t want it. Plus, it’s a very steep drive right where there’s no civilization:

Wikipedia puts it this way:

“Unlike most Interstate Highways, much of I-70 in Utah was not constructed parallel to or on top of an existing US Route. Portions of I-70 were constructed in areas where previously there were no paved roads. Because it was built over an entirely new route, I-70 has many features that are unique in the Interstate Highway System. For example, the 110 miles (180 km) between Green River and Salina makes up the longest distance anywhere in the Interstate Highway System with no motorist services.”

If you want to build anything along this route to give drivers extra juice, it’s quite literally going to be the only thing you’re running a wire to. So, there’s going to be nobody to share the cost of it with unless you can talk Uncle Sam into pitching in for it. It’s possible that someone will foot the bill for this (which would be considerable), but it’s not bad to discuss alternatives.

This isn’t the only place that’s like this, and it’s not the most extreme. I did a whole article series on Alaska’s issues. There are big stretches elsewhere in the southwest with gaps in charging because they’re hard to reach, such as the North Rim of the Grand Canyon or Carlsbad Caverns National Park.

So, yes, this is a real issue and it’s something that we need to think about.

Ways To Fix This Issue

When there’s a small town that only gets a trickle of power, there’s no real need to upgrade the lines. Adding battery storage that charges up when the grid is off-peak would give people passing through a chance to take advantage of that reservoir of electricity that’s been building up. If there’s too much traffic, the lines may still need upgraded to a small town or local generation could be used to supplement it, but the wires or solar arrays wouldn’t need to be sized to provide the power to charge four EVs at 350 kW , so money could still be saved with this approach. Problem solved.

The obvious thing when there’s no power at all, which basically just copies of what my great-great uncle did, is to generate your own electricity. The lazy and fast way would be to use diesel generators to power Level 3 charging stations (this happens sometimes). This wouldn’t be a huge deal, because most EVs can charge up at the edge of the gap and make it over. The few EVs that would be towing and not make it over would burn a little bit of diesel and then go back to being clean again, and the other option was for them to burn diesel for the whole trip. In Alaska, where sunlight isn’t always available, this may be the only option for now.

The better way, but that would take more of an initial investment, is to use solar and/or wind power to charge battery packs and give people charging access. This is a good option, but it needs to be refined a bit to keep it from having an astronomical pricetag and having a bunch of spare capacity that almost never gets used. The charging stations really need to be geared toward getting people to the next one and not geared toward people getting a full charge. This would mean the solar and battery packs could be smaller.

But, to keep people from being lazy, the price of the charge needs to reflect the extra effort and cost of putting an off-grid charger in. Infotainment systems need to warn drivers that this station is expensive and to avoid it unless there’s no other way. That way, the occasional user can get what they need from it while everyone else does the smart thing and goes on to the next one.

Efficiency

One final thing we need to think about is not needing so much energy in the first place. For example, if you drive an Aptera starting next year, you would need far fewer charging stations because you only use 1/3 the energy of a typical EV. In rural areas with good sunlight, you might not have to charge the car at all for most trips.

However, we can’t be stupid and assume a two-seater car that looks like a wingless airplane will fit everyone’s needs. People will need and want other things, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for efficiency. On-vehicle solar has its place, even if it doesn’t contribute much. We also need to keep pushing the manufacturers to continue working on making electric trucks more efficient instead of just slamming bigger and bigger batteries in them. We also shouldn’t discourage the use of slower charging when it fits the situation, which would help reduce the load in areas without much spare capacity.

All in all, we need to keep in mind that we have all of the tools to do the job here. We just need to do it.

Featured image: Moonset over the Very Large Array in New Mexico. NRAO/AUI/NSF Jeff Hellerman CC-BY 3.0 License.


 


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