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Electric car drivers are growing in the Midwest, now chargers need to keep up

A white Tesla car is plugged into a charging port at an electric vehicle charging station with four ports.
Elizabeth Rembert
Harvest Public Media
A white Tesla car charges at an electric vehicle charging station in Lincoln, Nebraska. This station is one of the state's 169 charging locations, according to a count by the Alternative Fuels Data Center.

As more drivers buy electric vehicles across the Midwest, utility companies work to establish a charging network.

Keeping an electric vehicle charged can be a challenge. Even for the editor-in-chief of a website focused on electric vehicles.

Just consider the range anxiety of Bill Moore. He was scheduled to talk about the cars at the Nebraska Wind & Solar conference. The 12-volt auxiliary battery on his Nissan Leaf had gone dead. He’d thought, well, he could manage the drive in his backup, an all-electric Fiat 500e.

“Unfortunately, Bill had to get a hold of us at about 11 o'clock this morning,” panel moderator and Lincoln Electric System manager Scott Benson said. “It dawned on him, ‘I don’t have enough range to get to Lincoln with that car.’”

Growing numbers of people face the same problem.

Purchases of electric vehicles in Nebraska grew more than 1,700% in the past 10 years by one count. The state’s power agencies are investing in charging stations to keep those cars and trucks fully charged.

Officials want powerful public chargers to be no more than 75 miles apart to reassure drivers that they won’t find themselves stranded. Nebraska Public Power district, the state’s largest electric utility, installed five public-use stations in the past year and plans to install nine more within the next year.

The utility is willing to pay up to half of the expenses for businesses to install a charger, and will also cut checks for private chargers in homes.

“We know that in five to 10 years, almost everywhere is going to need some sort of electric vehicle charging station,” NPPD sustainable strategies consultant Chad Pinkelman said.

It’s a common goal throughout the Midwest for utilities and electric vehicle advocates. Charging availability is the number one concern of potential buyers, and some advocates say the region is essential to the future of electric driving.

“Given that so much auto production happens in this region, it’s hard to imagine electric vehicle adoption being successful without converting the car buyers in this market,” Charles Griffith, the director of the climate and energy program at the environmental non-profit group The Ecology Center.

The Midwest has been behind in providing those systems.

Since most people rely on plugging their vehicles overnight at home, public chargers get used less. That lowers the profitability for businesses installing chargers and underlines utilities’ role. They can use the revenue they make by selling electricity at private chargers to install public stations.

“Public chargers are the extra infrastructure that motivate people to buy a car in the first place,” Griffith said. “Utilities need to reinvest the money they’ve made from private chargers to help electric drivers travel to more places.”

Elizabeth Rembert reports on agriculture out of Nebraska for Harvest Public Media.
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