Electric cars are ready for longer commutes of rural Kansas, if drivers can stand the sticker shock

By Brian Grimmett
Kansas News Service
An electric vehicle plugs in to a Level 2 charging station in Olathe.

WICHITA — Electric cars and trucks might prove a perfect fit for rural Kansas.

“They’re better vehicles. They’re more reliable. They’re less costly. They’ll save people money,” said Peter Zalzal, an attorney with the Environmental Defense Fund. “They’ll clean up the air and they’ll help to address climate change.”

While the building of charging stations has come mostly in urban areas, Zalzal said rural areas have built-in advantages — along with some hurdles that urban areas don’t.

Most people in rural areas live in single-family homes. That gives them easier access to electricity in a garage or carport to charge overnight than someone living in an apartment complex or high-rise.

He said people in rural areas also on average drive longer distances than their urban counterparts. That actually makes a plug-in car more attractive.

“The more you drive these vehicles,” Zalzal said, “the more you would have spent on gas and the more economic savings you’re getting.”

Electric cars cheaper to charge than gas-fueled ones

It’s far cheaper to charge an electric vehicle than to fill it with gasoline. The U.S. Department of Energy estimates fuel and maintenance savings as much as $3,500 a year.

Many people still cite range anxiety — the fear of running on empty with no convenient way to power up — for reluctance about switching from gas-powered to volt-driven.

But the industry has moved beyond vehicles with a 90-mile range per charge. Almost every new model being announced by a major manufacturer will provide more than 225 miles of range on a single charge. And several new models provide as many as 400 miles.

“That is enough now for you to do quite a bit in one day,” said Maria Cecilia Pinto de Moura, a research analyst for the Union of Concerned Scientists. “So you can just do your errands and come back home and charge at night.”

And then there’s the larger societal benefit of curbing greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change.

“The transportation sector is the largest source of greenhouse gases in the country and we have an opportunity to eliminate that pollution, and do it rapidly,” Zalzal said.

In 2020, there were just more than 3,000 fully electric vehicles registered in the state of Kansas. That’s only about 0.2% of all vehicles registered in the state. In Oklahoma there are about 3,400 registered EVs, in Missouri just over 6,000, and in Colorado, which has strict vehicle air quality standards and EV incentives, there are nearly 25,000.

Yet rural areas also come with obstacles that might slow any trend toward electric vehicles.

Rural areas typically have an older population and lower incomes. People in rural areas also keep their cars for longer. Research shows that around 40% of cars in some rural areas are 10 years old or more.

Upfront costs limit who buys electric cars

Until the cost of new electric vehicles goes down or a used market develops, the upfront cost means only wealthier drivers can afford them.

But the auto industry hopes electric pickup trucks could offer a breakthrough. And the coming all-electric Ford F-150 will give more people exposure to the potential benefits of EV ownership.

The F-150 is the most-sold vehicle of all-time. And light-duty trucks as a whole make up one in every five vehicles sold in the U.S.

“So switching those light trucks from gasoline to electricity has a real potential to elevate the visibility of EVs,” de Moura said.

Electric charging infrastructure also remains a huge challenge, especially in rural Kansas. Most charging will happen at home at night.

But if you want people to pass through or stop in your rural town on longer drives, you’ll need DC fast-charging stations. At the moment, there’s not a single DC fast charging station in all of southwestern Kansas. (A network of slower-charging stations, where it takes several hours to completely charge most EVs, does make it possible to drive practically anywhere in the state.)

“I don’t see (EVs) being able to be adopted until we can overcome that barrier,” said Heidi Kolbeck-Urlacher, a policy specialist at the Center for Rural Affairs.

The Biden administration says getting funding for billions in EV infrastructure is a high priority. Kansas leaders are also looking at using money the state received from the Volkswagen emissions scandal settlement to expand rural EV infrastructure.

“The way that transportation is moving,” Kolbeck-Urlacher said, “you’re going to see more of these opportunities to be able to travel farther and have that reliable access to charging stations.”

Brian Grimmett reports on the environment, energy and natural resources for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service.