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Down the road from Kansas City, a small Missouri town charges ahead on electric vehicles

An electric vehicle charger sits in the foreground of a gas station in Columbia. Despite improvements to electric vehicles and infrastructure, some hurdles to EV adoption remain in Missouri — especially rural areas.
Connor Griffin
/
Missouri Business Alert
An electric vehicle charger sits in the foreground of a gas station in Columbia. Despite improvements to electric vehicles and infrastructure, some hurdles to EV adoption remain in Missouri — especially rural areas.

About 35 miles southeast of Kansas City, the town of Pleasant Hill has become one of the smallest in Missouri to offer an electric vehicle charging location to the public.

Today’s electric vehicles, especially those on the higher end, can drive more than 300 miles on a full charge, rivaling the range of even some gas-powered vehicles. The cost of fully charging an electric car is far lower than topping off a gas tank.

But for many Missourians, electric vehicles still don’t feel like a viable option.

Missouri has 2,640 charging stations, according to PlugShare, which tracks charging locations across the country. But most of these locations are in urban areas: Out of all those stations, 2,287 are in Kansas City, St. Louis or Springfield. That can leave rural Missourians discouraged from purchasing electric vehicles.

Without the infrastructure in place to support ownership of electric vehicles, Missouri will have trouble escaping the climate-crushing clutches of gas dependency. Transportation is the largest contributor of greenhouse gases in the U.S., according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

So, what would it take to build out the charging infrastructure necessary to make electric vehicles viable for everyone in Missouri?

Xianbiao Hu, a professor of civil, architectural and environmental engineering at Missouri S&T, along with Ph.D. student Chris Yang Song, worked on a project earlier this year that used a machine-learning algorithm to determine the best places to have charging stations in the Kansas City area. Hu said the method could be easily translated to another city, even one far less urban than Kansas City.

The answer? Streetlights.

“If you look around, the streetlights are everywhere,” Hu said. “As long as there is a streetlight, and as long as the voltage on that streetlight is appropriate, we can work with the city to install, to retrofit the streetlights and use them as charging stations.”

There are lots of streetlights in Kansas City, where Hu’s project is based. But there are also lots of streetlights in just about any place where people are driving cars; that’s what makes the idea so versatile. But making electric vehicles prevalent in Missouri also means convincing the public that they’re no less convenient and affordable than gasoline vehicles.

“I think it takes a lot of efforts from everyone to make this a reality,” Hu said.

Why one small Missouri town made the leap

Pleasant Hill, home to about 9,000 people, is located about 35 miles southeast of downtown Kansas City. It hosts the Cass County Fair and boasts Civil War historical sites, a 120-year-old opera house and plenty of nature areas. It’s also one of the smallest towns in Missouri to offer an electric vehicle charging location to the public.

“I think we’re ahead of the times by having one,” said Shelby Teufel, city administrator of Pleasant Hill. “I think the demand for it will continue to increase over time.”

It wasn’t the city’s idea to have the chargers installed. Rather, Kansas City Power & Light — since rebranded as Evergy in a merger with Westar — was working with city officials in the region to get more charging stations in place. The Mid-America Regional Council reached out to Pleasant Hill’s city manager in 2015 to gauge interest in the program, and the rest is history.

Installation didn’t cost the city a dime, Teufel said, but since the chargers didn’t have a working payment system in place yet, the city agreed to pay for all electricity consumption from the new chargers for the first year of operation. That meant free charging for EV drivers, at least in the beginning.

“They’re located in our downtown area, and at the time we were really focused on a lot of revitalization,” Teufel said. “We wanted to make sure that anybody who was coming here had the ability to charge up while they were shopping and doing anything else.”

A Level 2 Blink charging station in the parking lot of a Columbia Gerbes, one of 26 public charging locations in the city.
Connor Griffin
A Level 2 Blink charging station in the parking lot of a Columbia Gerbes, one of 26 public charging locations in the city.

Pleasant Hill isn’t the only small Missouri town that has devoted resources to downtown revitalization efforts in recent years, and electric vehicle chargers could become a part of that trend as they become more and more symbolic of a forward-looking city.

The location consists of three stations with two plugs each, providing six total chargers. The chargers are connected to the grid, which was already powered by KCP&L. Teufel said that made for a “relatively seamless” installation.

Pleasant Hill’s proximity to Kansas City gave it a unique opportunity to implement electric vehicle charging infrastructure, but that isn’t the case everywhere. Data show that small towns are not exactly jumping at the chance to install these chargers, and without convenient opportunities like that of Pleasant Hill, additional small town installations could dwindle.

The state of EV technology

“Batteries keep getting better,” according to Bloomberg’s annual electric vehicle outlook report, which notes that average battery energy density is increasing by 7% every year. A battery’s energy density is the amount of energy it can hold as a proportion of its weight.

The time it takes to charge an electric vehicle’s battery is also getting shorter, according to the report. Charging times vary depending on the battery and the level of charger used.

As of 2020, over 80% of public charging ports in the U.S. were Level 2, according to the Department of Energy. Level 2 chargers are common for home and workplace charging, and can provide a vehicle between 10 and 20 miles of range for every hour of charging.

More than 15% of public U.S. charging ports in 2020 were the highest level, commonly referred to as direct-current fast charging. These can provide between 60 and 80 miles of range with only 20 minutes of charging.

The country’s biggest auto manufacturers have also made commitments to the future of electric. General Motors aims to produce only electric vehicles by 2035, expanding its electric offerings and investing $27 billion over the next five years, according to the automaker.

Ford’s EV commitment — cue President Joe Biden saying “this sucker’s quick” after bolting off in the all-electric F-150 Lightning — consists of more than $30 billion in investments by 2025 and a promise to be 40% electric by 2030, the company said in May.

Columbia has a variety of EV charging stations, like this one on the city’s south side. Such stations are less common in smaller towns across the state.
Connor Griffin
Columbia has a variety of EV charging stations, like this one on the city’s south side. Such stations are less common in smaller towns across the state.

Cost to Missouri motorists

A gallon of gas in Missouri went for an average of $2.76 back in March, the last time the Department of Energy surveyed. Missouri’s average “eGallon” — the department’s way of measuring the cost of powering an EV with the electric equivalent of a gallon of gas — was priced far lower, at 85 cents.

Drivers in other states experience a similar difference; the U.S. averages for a gallon of gas and an eGallon were $2.85 and $1.16, respectively.

Many electric vehicles also qualify for a federal tax credit of up to $7,500, depending on the vehicle and its engine. However, that credit can only be claimed by the original owner of the vehicle, and Edmunds expects these credits to slowly phase out as EVs become both cheaper and more mainstream.

Some states also offer incentives to drivers of electric vehicles, but not Missouri — that is unless you count not having to endure an emissions test as an incentive. In other states, like Colorado and Louisiana, EV incentives come in the form of a tax credit. Arizona offers reduced licensing taxes and an exemption from use taxes for alternative fuel vehicles, and New Jersey offers a similar exemption for zero-emission vehicles.

New legislation could change all of this, of course, should the Biden administration’s sweeping infrastructure bill and its emphatic embrace of EVs pass. Funding from the bill could also be used to combat charging location inequality, a problem found to be prevalent in highly-electric California, according to Reuters.

However, critics worry that the $7.5 billion set aside in the bill to expand charging infrastructure nationally wouldn’t be enough, the New York Times reports.

Ameren, the St. Louis-based utility, offers incentives of up to $500,000 to Missouri businesses looking to install chargers, and the Alternative Fuel Infrastructure Tax Credit currently exists at the federal level to incentivize more charger installation.

The coal problem

Despite the environmental benefits of driving an electric versus gas-powered car, the electricity used to charge an EV still has to come from somewhere. If a charging station is connected to the grid — as most are — it is relying on whatever energy source powers the grid. In Missouri, that’s usually coal.

Missouri is second only to Texas in the amount of coal it burns to generate electricity, with coal making up 70% of Missouri’s net electricity generation in 2020, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Pleasant Hill’s chargers, for example, are powered by the grid, which is operated by Evergy. While the utility has a goal of carbon neutrality by 2045, it currently is only about 50% emissions-free overall, meaning any EV charged via Evergy’s grid isn’t fully “green.” With so much of Missouri’s electricity production coming from a fossil fuel like coal, driving an electric vehicle still creates a carbon footprint.

However, an MIT study found that electric vehicles “run on the present U.S.-average grid electricity” still produce only 55% of the emissions that a comparable gas-powered vehicle does. Even on a fossil-fueled grid like Missouri’s, the efficiency of EVs still makes them better for the environment.

If Missouri continues weaning itself off of fossil fuels for electricity production, the grid will become greener, making electric vehicles all the more healthy for the environment.

“Our end goal is really to promote green energy and reduce gasoline dependency,” Hu said. “It’s really everyone’s responsibility.”

This story was originally published on Missouri Business Alert.

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