Can EVs find allies in rural America? Look at North Dakota

By David Ferris | 10/16/2019 08:01 AM EDT

DICKINSON, N.D. — North Dakota is a hostile environment for electric vehicles in just about every way. Nonetheless, they’re getting the attention of some powerful institutions.

A reporting trip through one of America’s most rural states – along the southern edge of North Dakota’s Bakken oil formation – revealed state and local plans around the future use of electric vehicles.

A reporting trip through one of America’s most rural states – along the southern edge of North Dakota’s Bakken oil formation – revealed state and local plans around the future use of electric vehicles. David Ferris/E&E News

DICKINSON, N.D. — If any Ford dealer in the country felt at liberty to ignore electric cars, that person would probably be Adam Nelson.

The general manager of Red Rock Ford in Dickinson, N.D., on the southern edge of the Bakken oil patch, he sells almost nothing but trucks. And not just trucks but big trucks — F-250s and F-350s that can carry a load of hay for hundreds of miles in the snow. Oil companies like Hess Corp. are customers as well as regular people who haul nothing at all. They just like ’em big.

But Nelson is not ignoring electric cars.


"I’ve been thinking about this a lot recently," he said in an interview in his showroom last week.

EVs don’t travel far, don’t carry much and don’t do well in the cold — the reverse of what North Dakotans want. But a reporting trip across one of America’s most rural states revealed that they are nonetheless gaining interest among key players, including power companies, auto dealers, fossil fuel lobbyists, school districts and the overwhelmingly Republican Legislature.

EV interest is just now stirring, and efforts are disconnected. They exist in, as local Sierra Club activist Ed Gruchalla put it, "a general sea of ignorance."

But the fact that they are the subject of planning and advocacy in a state that is a leading producer of coal and oil, and whose rangelands and deep winters are poorly suited to electric batteries, means they may be closer than people think.

For Nelson, the topic is on his mind because of an intriguing offer that has been extended from Ford Motor Co.

Nelson’s side of the deal: install two electric vehicle chargers, one of which he’d put out front for customers and the other for service in the back. He would need to buy rubber-grip pliers and wrenches and a special lift to manage the heavy battery. He’d need to send technicians to special training in Minneapolis or Denver.

In exchange for this investment — about $23,000 at the most — he would get delivery of three of Ford’s new all-electric SUVs, which are due next year, branded as Mustangs.

"I do feel like we need to get up the curve, because it’s coming down the pike," mused Nelson, who has sandy blond hair and wore a blue checkered shirt.

It’s not that his truck-loving customers are clamoring for them. The topic of EVs rarely comes up, but he’s been getting more queries since Ford issued a teaser video showing a black electric F-150 prototype towing a million pounds of rail cars (Energywire, July 25).

Nelson himself is curious about EVs. He’d love to try a Tesla, and he’s heard of quick acceleration in the new electric Mustangs.

Nelson thinks that, while most of his customers would have no interest, a few could sell at a decent margin to wealthy sports car aficionados.

Just a start.

Too far

Ford outlet. Photo credit: David Ferris/E&E News
Red Rock Ford in Dickinson, N.D., sells almost nothing but F-150s and the hulking F-250s and F-350s. The dealer could be selling an all-electric Ford SUV before the end of 2020. | David Ferris/E&E News

The difficulties of owning an EV are worst in North Dakota but common on any country mile. Today’s EVs max out at about 300 miles of battery range. That’s not enough in places with commutes to daunt the typical city dweller.

"In Dickinson, we’re 100 miles to Target," said Destiny Wolf, a local Tesla owner who’s become an EV activist.

The only big box store, in this city of about 22,000, is Walmart. To go anywhere else is to travel past exit after exit along Interstate 94 with signs that say, "NO SERVICES," including gas stations or electrical outlets. "That’s mind blowing to a lot of people," said Wolf. "But we make EVs work where we’re at, and we do it through a network of owners."

There are only 144 EVs registered in the state, of which about 100 are Teslas. None is a truck.

That is a drop in the oil pan compared with the 1.1 million vehicles registered with the state Department of Transportation. According to Experian, which compiles vehicle data, 40% of the state’s vehicle fleet are full-size pickup trucks or SUVs.

Only Wyoming has a greater portion. Other states that top the truck list have lots of farmers and hunters, like Montana, South Dakota, Alaska and Louisiana.

To get across North Dakota in a Tesla requires an overnight stay. That’s not just a factor of both distance and the nearly nonexistent charging network. In a state of 70,000 square miles, there are only about 55 charging stations listed on the charger locator app PlugShare. A third are in one city, Fargo, and many of the rest are just a plug at an RV park.

North Dakota is also the only state without a single fast-charging station, though soon Tesla Inc. will open its first Supercharger station in Dickinson. Until then, filling a Tesla battery takes up to 12 hours.

Rural rigors

If this sounds like a scenario found only in North Dakota, it isn’t.

For most of America’s rural areas — from bayous of Louisiana and the cotton fields of Texas, from the mountain passes of Idaho to the deserts of Nevada — EV chargers are too far apart for easy fueling. Often travel is only feasible if driving a Tesla, which has its own nationwide charging network.

Other car brands, forbidden from Tesla’s chargers, must resort to general-use fast chargers, which can mostly fill a battery in an hour or so. These can be found along major interstates, but not all of them.

The solution in North Dakota, when traveling a good distance, is to bivouac in the home of another Tesla owner.

"You go into their house," Wolf said, "and they introduce you to their family, and they ask you what you want on your pizza, and watch the evening news with them, and you charge until you’re ready to get going."

Back at home in Dickinson, the reception to a Tesla can be outright hostile.

Wolf said the sight of her electric ride often inspires drivers of diesel trucks to "coal roll" her. The truck, modified to remove its air scrubbers, hits the accelerator and envelops the zero-emissions car in black, sooty smoke. Wolf supposes it’s guys from the oil patch, threatened by what EVs mean for their livelihoods.

Too windy, too cold

Dickinson is on the state’s west side. Bill Brooks, a Tesla driver who lives in Fargo, is in the east. He is preoccupied with another set of challenges.

Asked how long it takes to get from Fargo to Dickinson in an EV — a distance of 292 miles that a regular car can cover in less than five hours, including gas stops — Brooks launched into a disquisition on topics that would never cross a regular driver’s mind.

There’s the westerly headwinds of the Great Plains, which reduce battery range, unless it’s a crosswind, which can be worse. He suggested it’s helpful to find a big tractor-trailer to follow, which breaks the wind. But it has to be going the right speed.

"I’m struggling to answer your question," Brooks finally said of the drive time. "Do you like air conditioning? ‘Cause that’s something you’re going to have to think about. Do you want the radio? You’ll have to think about that."

Which is to say nothing of the cold.

Winters in North Dakota are legendary for their frigidness. Cold, especially deep cold, can also cut deeply into a car battery’s range. Battery makers have not yet solved the cold problem, and carmakers have not been able to accurately estimate how cold affects range.

Brooks claimed that his Tesla "is the best thing I’ve driven in the snow, ever," because of its stability and traction, as long as the snow isn’t too deep.

Many who aren’t yet on the EV bandwagon worry that the range issue is a matter less of inconvenience than of safety.

"When you are on the road here, and temperatures can get down to 30-35 below zero, and a wind chill of 60 to 65 below zero, the last thing you want to do is be in a vehicle that goes wheeooooo," said David Rust, the head of the state Senate’s Transportation Committee, making the sound of an electric motor winding down.

Legislative road test

Rust was involved when the topic of EVs made a rare appearance in the state Legislature. It turned on a controversial question: Should EV owners pay a road-use fee?

In North Dakota, as in most states, a lot of road maintenance comes from a fuel tax, which EVs obviously don’t pay. The tax is 23 cents a gallon. According to Linda Sitz, the strategic innovation manager of the state Department of Transportation, that tax sent $104 million to the DOT last year.

Such EV registration fees have become a flashpoint in state capitols across the country.

According to a survey by Consumer Reports, 26 states either have or are considering EV registration fees. In 18 of those states, the fees are higher than what’s paid by regular cars. The report noted that conservative-leaning states, often those with few EVs to start with, had the highest fees (Energywire, Sept. 12).

In North Dakota, a state senator from Grand Forks proposed an annual registration fee for EVs of $240. Tesla owners, at least the few there are, were outraged. The proposal was before the Senate Transportation Committee. Of its six members, five were Republicans.

The head was Rust, who represents the northwestern corner of the state. This area is the heart of the Bakken formation, one of the most productive oil regions of the country.

Rust said in an interview he had no constituents who own EVs, had no friends who have EVs and had never been in an EV, with one exception.

"Uh … golf cart?" he said.

The committee ended up cutting the initial proposed fee in half to $120 a year for all-electric cars, based on an estimate of how many miles EVs travel a year. It also instituted a $50 fee for plug-in electric hybrids and $20 for electric motorcycles.

That $150 fee is 86% more than what the driver of an internal combustion engine car pays, according to Consumer Reports — quite high, but lower than actual or proposed fees in states including Texas, Arizona, Mississippi, Minnesota and Wyoming.

The fee was met by Tesla advocates with a grudging acceptance. "We were all about paying our fair share, for sure," Wolf said.

The same bill also set up a special legislative committee that will, in the next legislative session in 2021, look at how to establish a public-private charging network across the state. It will get input from utilities and private charging companies.

And then, in a development that took even the Tesla owners off guard, the Legislature went on to approve a special $50 parking fine that benefits EVs.

The fine is slapped on a car parked at a charging station that isn’t charging. This is a maddening phenomenon for EV drivers, who have a term for this — ICEing, which stands for "internal combustion engine." (Sometimes the culprit is an electric car that is parked but not charging.)

"The easiest thing would have been to say, ‘Oh, we don’t care, go ahead and block it,’" said Rust, the Transportation Committee chairman, about the parking fine. He himself expressed some interest in electric Porsches because they go so fast.

But he added, "We felt that if there are charging stations, that no one should be blocking them for any reason."

Few and far between

Another crucial link in rural states like North Dakota is the power companies. Will they lend their support to charging stations, even if the distances are great and almost no EVs exist?

One utility to do so is Otter Tail Power Co., which serves much of eastern North Dakota along with parts of Minnesota and South Dakota.

The utility is highly rural. The average population in its service area, roughly the size of Wisconsin, is 400 people. Next year and the year after, the utility wants to sprinkle 22 chargers across it. Other rural utilities, especially co-ops in states like Georgia and North Carolina, are considering the same kind of networks.

While 22 charging stations aren’t many across such a vastness, the stations would be placed so that 90% of customers would be within 30 miles of one, said Greg Anderson, who manages the program for Otter Tail.

"We believe if we don’t do it, nobody will do it," said Jason Grenier, the utility’s head of market planning.

In truth, the impetus didn’t come from North Dakota but from its more liberal neighbor of Minnesota, where Otter Tail is based. That state required all investor-owned utilities like Otter Tail to craft a plan to reduce their carbon emissions and to make a special tariff to encourage EV adoption.

Part of the job is luring private charging developers onto the frozen prairie. To date, not a single commercial station exists in Otter Tail territory.

"We are looking to create a market that others can participate in," said Anderson.

Along with that will come an incentive for homeowners: a $400 rebate to put a charger in the garage, with the requirement that it be built so that the utility can sometimes manage its energy use to benefit the grid.

Similar programs are underway at a few of North Dakota’s smaller homegrown utilities, such as Cass County Electric Cooperative, whose grid spans 10 counties in southeastern North Dakota. It has installed about 20 chargers at no cost in the garages of customers, who sign up for a special nighttime charging rate.

The first electric bus

But the co-op’s vice president of energy services, Paul Matthys, is more excited to talk about North Dakota’s first electric bus.

Electric buses are catching on around the country, typically in urban and suburban districts. One of Cass’ bigger commercial customers is West Fargo Public Schools. Recently, the district needed to replace two older diesel-powered school buses. The district wanted an electric bus, which would cost $315,000, almost three times the cost of a new diesel model. Matthys took on the job of finding the money.

He rounded up $15,000 from Cass and $70,000 from a federal grant via the state Department of Commerce.

"I think it was a huge milestone in getting more electric buses on the system in North Dakota," Matthys said. "It’s always the first one that is hardest to get."

Several other local school districts have expressed interest, he added.

The bus started on its rounds at the beginning of school last month. The utility and the school district are monitoring how much it costs to operate per mile compared with diesel buses — and how it performs in the brutal winter.

An unlikely friend

Jason Bohrer. Photo credit: David Ferris/E&E News
Jason Bohrer, the president and CEO of the Lignite Energy Council, pops open the door of a Tesla. | David Ferris/E&E News

The EV in North Dakota has an ally that it may not find in other heavily rural states — a powerful coal lobby.

North Dakota has the world’s largest deposits of lignite, a soft, brownish-black type of coal. It is dug up in surface mines and fed to the state’s five coal-powered power plants, which last year produced 66% of the state’s electricity.

The Lignite Energy Council is the advocacy group for the state’s coal mines and the power companies that burn it. Its members emit, by the group’s own calculations, 30 million tons of carbon dioxide a year.

Yet in the last two years, the council has also become a zealous promoter of zero-emissions electric cars. No other fossil fuel lobby, in any state, has yet done the same.

"These things are coming," said Jason Bohrer, the group’s president and CEO, at an interview in his office, one block from the Capitol grounds in the state capital of Bismarck. "Let’s be part of the solution instead of saying these won’t work in North Dakota."

The lobbying group has opened its pocketbook, kicking in $5,000 to launch a charging station in Bismarck and $3,500 for another in Dickinson. The coal group also gave $40,000 to West Fargo Public Schools to buy its electric bus.

And, most prominently in the public eye, it leased a Tesla Model X that it brings to state fairs and to groups of school kids. The message, Bohrer said: "Coal is important to North Dakota’s economy" (Energywire, Oct. 8).

The council is also becoming an EV lobbyist. Last month, it brought together legislators, EV drivers and utilities for a first-ever meeting focused on electric cars, attended by Bismarck Mayor Steve Bakken and Dan Ruby, head of the state Assembly’s Transportation Committee.

The Lignite Energy Council’s motive for bolstering EVs is in response to the state’s burgeoning wind industry.

Wind power — the same force that slows down Brooks’ Tesla when he drives west — made up 26% of North Dakota’s electricity last year. It blows strongest at night, when electricity demand is at its lowest. That erodes demand for coal and makes its power plants less economical.

The coal group thinks that by supporting EVs, which mostly charge at night, it can grow nighttime electricity demand and ensure a future for coal power.

"People have the idea that [EVs] must be powered by solar and it must be powered by wind," said Steve Van Dyke, the group’s spokesman, "and that’s just not the case."

It remains to be seen whether future EVs, like Nelson’s Ford Mustang, will manage in subzero temperatures. It’s unknown if a powerful EV lobby will form or whether an electric truck will capture the imagination of ranchers.

But in a state that prides itself on the pioneers who founded it, the hardy bands of Tesla owners consider themselves heirs to the legacy. "Like back in the day, if you have a wagon train across the country," said Brooks, "you have people who need to support each other."