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Medill News Service: Bipartisan efforts mount to expand EV infrastructure in rural America

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Reps. Abigail Spanberger and Tom Rice are trying to make it easier for rural residents to charge electric vehicles and farm equipment.

Spanberger, a Virginia Democrat, recently introduced legislation co-sponsored by South Carolina Republican Rice that would expand the Department of Agriculture’s Rural Energy for America Program by including funding for EV charging infrastructure. REAP provides financial assistance for producers and small businesses in rural communities.

“‘As industry is evolving very, very quickly, we should expect a massive need in the coming few years and so to be prepared for that is really my focus here.’”

— Rep. Abigail Spanberger

The current program, which supports businesses located in areas with populations of no more than 50,000 residents and agricultural producers, provides loans and grants for energy efficient upgrades and renewable energy systems. Gearing it toward EV charging would be new, although one winery in 2012 was able to use REAP funding to install a 5 kW solar array to support its electric vehicle charging.

“The whole purpose of this program is to leverage public dollars in a way that meaningfully impacts our rural communities,” Spanberger said in an interview. “We’ve seen it in other aspects of REAP utilization, so including EV charging for on-farm energy generation is an important part of that.”

The bill is designed to help agriculture producers purchase and install charging equipment for electric farm vehicles and equipment, but also would apply to anyone currently qualified for REAP funding and charging equipment for smaller-sized electric vehicles as well.

Read: A ‘Made in America’ EV tax credit — what car buyers need to know if Biden can advance a sliced-and-diced Build Back Better bill

“What we’re trying to do here is be proactive,” Spanberger said. “Certainly there’s not a massive need at this point in time. But as industry is evolving very, very quickly, we should expect a massive need in the coming few years and so to be prepared for that is really my focus here.”

‘Filling gaps’

The Spanberger-Rice legislation comes amid efforts by the Biden administration to use the allocated $7.5 billion from the bipartisan infrastructure law to create a national network of 500,000 EV chargers, with a “focus on filling gaps in rural, disadvantaged and hard-to-reach locations.”

Read: Kamala Harris targets 500,000 charging sites as Biden administration sticks to aggressive plan for EVs to replace 50% of auto sales

And: Billions of dollars in infrastructure bill for charging could supercharge electric vehicle adoption

Rural communities historically have had a low adoption rate of electric vehicles. According to the Environmental and Energy Study Institute, most rural areas have new electric vehicle registration rates of “between zero and half a percent,” or the equivalent of “fewer than five and, in many cases, zero registered EVs per 10,000 people in the majority of non-metro counties.”

However, Rivian’s RIVN, -13.67% R1T, Ford’s F, -8.60% F-150 Lightning, due on the market early in 2022, GM’s GM, -6.85% Silverado rival to Ford due in 2023, and similar electric pickup trucks will accelerate demand in rural areas, said Joel Levin, executive director of the nonprofit advocacy group Plug in America.

Read: Amazon and its fleet EV alliance caution GM, Toyota and others they’ll shop elsewhere if battery life, sedan demand not met

“Within the next year or two, there’s probably going to be a nice selection of trucks available which really changes the dynamic for rural areas,” Levin said in an interview, later adding, “You can’t ask farmers to drive a Chevy GM, -6.85% Bolt — not that the Bolt is a bad car — but it’s not appropriate for what they need.”

“‘Committing to investing in charging infrastructure in rural areas, which have often been passed by for EV charging infrastructure investment, helps to chip away at persistent EV adoption barriers.’”

— Rivian spokesperson

The Spanberger-Rice legislation was endorsed by Ford and similarly commended by Rivian in an emailed statement.

“Rivian is already working to install charging in rural areas, but achieving widespread adoption must involve public investments as well as private to achieve the full scope of environmental and economic benefits nationwide,” said James Chen, vice president of public policy at Rivian Automotive.

Read: Rivian CFO says the electric-vehicle maker will prioritize growth over profits after its public listing

In addition to electric pick-ups, Spanberger noted that she has heard “significant excitement about the possibility of being able to have a fully electric tractor,” and believes the bill would encourage farmers to use electric farm equipment.

“This sort of infrastructure is different from if you have an electric vehicle in your suburban house,” she said. “The on-farm infrastructure is substantially greater depending on what types of vehicles you would be charging and how often that charging would occur.”

Cost considerations

The upfront costs of installing charging infrastructure vary greatly depending on the existing circuitry and capacity needed.

According to Monarch Tractor CEO Praveen Penmetsa, a charger for the company’s fully autonomous and electric tractors costs roughly $400.

However, that does not factor in any other upfront costs of charging infrastructure, such as small farmers needing new circuitry, or larger farmers needing to upgrade their transformers in order to support a bigger fleet of vehicles.

Incentives play an important role in boosting the EV industry, experts say, and companies including Monarch Tractor have pushed state and federal agencies and legislators to invest in infrastructure and make the cost-benefit ratio more apparent to prospective customers.

Others, like Rivian, have worked to increase the prevalence of charging infrastructure, including in remote areas.

“Committing to investing in charging infrastructure in rural areas, which have often been passed by for EV charging infrastructure investment, helps to chip away at persistent EV adoption barriers,” a Rivian spokesperson said.

Read: The big challenge to Biden’s electric-vehicle pledge — not every state is on board

Relief from volatility

Max Baumhefner, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, agreed that incentives play a key role as the industry progresses toward price parity with traditional vehicles, but that EVs nonetheless currently can provide ample annual savings.

“For lower-income households, driving on electricity can provide much needed relief from the volatility of gas prices RB00, -2.53%, ” Baumhefner said. “And for farmers who already have to deal with the uncertainty of weather and the uncertainty of the price of fertilizer, making the switch to a reliably cheaper, cleaner domestic fuel would be a huge relief.”

Penmetsa voiced a similar opinion, noting that the return on investment of purchasing charging infrastructure comes quickly, often within one year.

“Even if they’re paying full tariff on the utility side, we’re looking at roughly $3,000-$4,000 a year in annual savings for the farmer, just from the diesel displacement to electric tractor,” he said. “That’s a big number, it adds up very quickly.”

Additionally, the cost of energy when charging overnight from utility companies is lower, which can create further savings.

“‘For farmers who already have to deal with the uncertainty of weather and the uncertainty of the price of fertilizer, making the switch to a reliably cheaper, cleaner domestic fuel would be a huge relief.’”

— Max Baumhefner of the Natural Resources Defense Council

While most industry professionals were in agreement that electrical infrastructure in rural areas could use improvements, the strain of heavy-duty electric vehicles coming onto the grid was less of a concern.

“A transformer is a transformer regardless of whether it’s in a suburb or a rural area,” Baumhefner said. “To the extent that populations are less dense, it could be in some ways easier to deal with the effects associated with clustering and specific neighborhoods and such.”

‘Fertile ground’

Penmetsa said that the demand for the Monarch Tractor will “act as an enabler for rural electrification to be accelerated,” adding that the ability to store energy within the Monarch batteries could also offset increased pressures on the grid.

“I think rural America’s fertile ground for electrification,” Baumhefner said. “For the last 40 years, driving on electricity has been the cost equivalent of driving on dollar a gallon gasoline and there’s no rural-metro divide when it comes to a desire to spend less money on fuel.”

The bill is still in the first stage of the legislative process and would have to make it through committee in order to be brought for a House floor vote. While only a small percentage of legislation is enacted by Congress each year, expanding both EV access and infrastructure has been a priority for a number of legislators — and the fact that it marks a bipartisan effort only helps its odds of leaving committee.

“I’m proud to co-lead this legislation which will help our 7th District farmers and agriculture producers,” co-sponsor Rice said in a press release. He noted that if the bill passes, “agriculture producers will have greater flexibility to use their grant funds to help electrify both light-duty vehicles and heavy-duty equipment such as pickup trucks, combines and tractors.”

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