This article is from the April 2023 RE Magazine special insert on electric vehicles.

A $5 billion, five-year federal program to create a national network of 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations will soon bring new demand for electricity to rural communities served by electric cooperatives.

The unprecedented investment brings both potential rewards and risks for co-ops as it begins to place DC fast chargers (Level 3) every 50 miles along interstate highways and other major traffic corridors throughout the nation.

The charging stations could boost co-ops’ revenue and encourage more consumer-members to drive EVs by reducing the fear that the vehicles will run out of power and strand them if they take a long road trip.

But the stations could also strain co-ops’ systems, especially if they’re located in places that don’t have sufficient electrical infrastructure to handle a minimum of four 150-kilowatt DC fast chargers per location. DC fast chargers are designed to fill an EV battery to 80% capacity in about a half-hour.

Related: Listen to an episode of "Along Those Lines" on powering electric school buses.

“Cooperatives are striving to meet changing demands in the long term, but it is advised that any company or government agency thinking about a large-scale EV deployment should get in touch with its local utility as soon as planning gets underway,” says Jennah Denney, NRECA’s EV strategy and solutions manager.

Darrick Moe, president and CEO of the Minnesota Rural Electric Association, says he believes it’s crucial for co-ops to get involved early in the planning process that each state must go through to decide where to place the charging stations.

Congress created the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure (NEVI) program in 2021 when it passed the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). Funding flows through the states, which will award grants to businesses to develop the charging stations.

Minnesota co-op leaders collaborated with state officials to develop a plan to place the chargers near the particular interstate highway exits that would minimize the make-ready costs required to handle the stations’ power needs.

Now, co-op leaders are in a good position to reach out to partner with convenience stores and other businesses that want to operate the stations. Those businesses need to factor in how much it will cost to bring electricity to the charging sites before they decide whether to compete for the federal grants, Moe says.

“The worst-case scenario would be that a business applies for the funds without talking to us,” Moe says. “Then they find out how much it’s going to cost and realize they can’t afford it. We don’t want to see them derailed. We want them to be successful.”

Co-op leaders in other states are also watching the funding process closely.

“So much is still unknown right now,” says Mike Smith, vice president of business and technology strategy at The Electric Cooperatives of South Carolina. “The sooner we can get involved in these discussions as co-ops, the better we can stake our claim.”

Beyond boosting demand for electricity, the charging stations could also play an important part in increasing EV market share among rural drivers, further increasing the load for electric co-ops.

“Early investments in EV charging infrastructure are likely to incentivize early EV adopters, and home and public charging programs and incentives provided by electric cooperatives make EVs more palatable to moderate and late adopters of EV technology,” Denney says.

A chief goal of the national EV charging network is to help alleviate range anxiety—the fear that the battery will run out of power before you reach your destination because there aren’t enough chargers along the way.

“When considering long-distance travel over stretches of road where EV charging stations can be few and far between, this worry is most prominent,” Denney says. “Although a typical commute won’t usually require public charging, range anxiety may still be a problem until members are introduced to electric vehicles and their ranges.”

A national EV charging network could eliminate the need for families to maintain a second, gasoline-fueled car for longer trips, says Brian Sloboda, director of utility research and policy at the National Rural Utilities Cooperative Finance Corp.

“Having these chargers every 50 miles along the major corridors of the United States is that insurance policy so people know they can use that EV as the primary family vehicle,” he says. “It will get you to grandma’s house or to the national park on that family vacation. It will get you wherever you want to go.”