Why Wyoming won’t build Biden’s EV chargers

Source: By David Ferris, E&E News • Posted: Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Highway between Rock Springs and Rawlins, Wyo.

No one lives or works at this spot between Rock Springs and Rawlins, Wyo., where the Biden administration wants the state to build high-powered electric vehicle chargers. David Ferris/POLITICO’s E&E News

HALFWAY BETWEEN ROCK SPRINGS AND RAWLINS, Wyo. — Here, at a critical node in President Joe Biden’s plan for a national electric vehicle charging network, there is nothing.

No parking lot, no service station, no sign that anyone wants to set up shop here. Just some tire tracks in the snow by a barbed wire fence and the whoosh of vehicles speeding by on Interstate 80. This overwhelming vacancy is why Wyoming kicked up a dispute that could sap Americans’ confidence in a future EV charging network. Offered millions of federal dollars to build chargers at locations like this one, the state said no.

“Wyoming has no desire to establish infrastructure that will likely fail,” the state said in its plan for how to spend EV-charging dollars from the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law.

At the heart of the conflict are the federal government’s strict rules over how frequent high-power stations should be along the nation’s interstate highways. The Biden administration says that to assuage Americans’ doubts, the plugs should be installed every 50 highway miles, no matter how remote the site is.

Wyoming doubts whether EVs will come in sufficient numbers to justify the huge expense of building and maintaining a powerful charging station in the middle of forest or prairie — and it has lots of company among red-leaning Western states.

In comments to the federal government last year, Wyoming was joined by Idaho, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota in saying the program would be “hard to implement in rural states” if the Biden administration did “not implement the provisions with flexibility.”

“There are concerns in those big rural states,” said Jim McDonnell, who tracks state plans as director of engineering for the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials. “How much it’s going to cost, and to get electricity out to these far-flung locations.”

It’s hard to make the case for electric vehicles in any rural area, because people drive long distances and often pull trailers — two habits that drain an EV’s battery especially fast.

Wyoming stands out because it is just about as unsuited to EVs and EV drivers as it is possible to be.

The state endures bitterly cold winters — another battery killer — and has a proud tradition of saying no to federal priorities it doesn’t care for, like Medicaid expansion. It harbors suspicion of green technologies as the nation’s leading producer of coal. And with only about 500 people owning EVs in Wyoming, according to federal data, there aren’t many drivers pleading for charging stations.

And Wyoming’s elected officials are some of the most stalwart EV opponents in Washington, D.C. The state’s senior senator, John Barrasso (R), and its former sole member in the House of Representatives, Liz Cheney (R), were co-sponsors in 2021 of the “Eliminate Lavish Incentives to Electric (ELITE) Vehicles Act,” a failed effort to end the federal government’s consumer EV tax credits.

That said, Wyoming’s response was more interesting than a simple no.

The Cowboy State didn’t reject the federal money, exactly. It said it would build some stations on interstates but not others, and went on to make its own creative suggestion.

It asked the feds to instead fund chargers on the smaller highways that serve its tourist jewels, like Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park — routes that don’t fit into a formula but see a lot more Tesla traffic than the interstates do. The approach is supported by another arm of Biden’s government, the National Park Service.

In the end, the authorities in charge of the charging dollars said no. And so the perennial struggle between states and the federal government over the limits of federal power around entered the EV era.

What the feds want

At issue is the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure (NEVI) Formula Program. It comes from a pot of $7.5 billion EV infrastructure funding that Congress created in 2021.

It is starter money, a down payment on the half-million charging stations that Biden promised as a presidential candidate. Transportation is the biggest source of America’s carbon pollution, and Biden argues that the United States can’t zero out its emissions without an economywide move to electric vehicles.

Funds get disbursed by a formula to each state, and each state’s transportation department comes up with a plan for how to spend it. The federal government picks up 80 percent of the infrastructure costs, with the remainder coming from state or private sources.

But there’s a catch: No matter how the state might want to channel its portion, the Biden administration insists it must first build out deluxe charging stations on major highways.

Specifically, it has to build on what are called alternative fuel corridors. Those are routes that states have identified as their priorities for reducing emissions. Most states have chosen federal interstate routes, as they get the most traffic.

The 50-mile proviso is just one rule. The charging plaza must also be no more than a mile from the highway. And it is to be equipped with at least four charging stations, each capable of delivering 150 kilowatts of electricity, which is enough to mostly refill an EV’s battery in 20 to 40 minutes.

The Biden administration’s approach was created by the Joint Office of Energy and Transportation, a unique agency that sits between the federal departments of the same name and was created to deploy charging infrastructure. Its goal has been to instill confidence among new drivers that a charger is always nearby. It is the cornerstone of, as the office says on its website, “a convenient, reliable, affordable, and equitable public charging network.”

Weeds and wind

Wyoming’s partial refusal carries consequences for both road-tripping Americans and Wyomingites.

EV drivers on three major arteries — Interstates 80, 90, and 25 — will in parts of Wyoming have to struggle across charging deserts of 100 miles or more. EV batteries don’t yet provide the range of a gasoline tank, and the gaps could make a long trip harder.

Most of Wyoming’s existing fast chargers are run by Tesla Inc. They’re of limited use to the general public because they only serve Teslas.

“More folks will have to rely on Level 2” — slow — “charging overnight if they’re not going to be near a charging station,” said Leilani Gonzalez, policy director for the Zero Emission Transportation Association, a Washington, D.C., group that advocates for EV policies. “They might have to take alternate routes.’’

For its part, Wyoming could lose control of a jackpot.

The state’s portion of EV-infrastructure funding is $27 million, parceled out over five years. If the highway network isn’t built out first, the feds have warned, other projects that the state might want more might not be funded.

Wyoming officials seem to be at peace with that possibility.

In its plan, Wyoming declared it would spend zero of its own money to build any highway charging stations. It asked the Biden administration for 11 exceptions, or locations where it argued highway stations should not be required. Together, Wyoming’s moves signal the state’s deep skepticism that there’s enough homegrown interest or future EV drivers to turn charging into a viable business.

After looking at “economic, environmental, infrastructure, daily vehicle miles traveled (DVMT) data, and EV market penetration analysis,” the state’s plan said, it concluded that the federal requirements “would not allow any single NEVI-sized station to be profitable in Wyoming until the 2040s.”

Since the government’s funding lasts only five years, the state sees an unbridgeable gap between the end of federal aid and the beginning of profitability — especially at 50-mile intervals where the land is so empty that not even a gas station will venture there.

In some areas, the state’s analysis concluded, there wouldn’t be enough drivers to keep a station in business even if every Wyomingite went electric tomorrow. This lack of local drivers, combined with doubts about whether interstate travelers will use the stations, has local officials foreseeing a federal boondoggle.

As Luke Reiner, the director of the state’s transportation department, put it in an interview, the result of millions of dollars of taxpayer investment could be “a charger with weeds growing up around it and wind blowing through it.”

The big empty

Highway between Rock Springs and Rawlins, Wyo.
Land and sky: 50 miles out of Rock Springs, Wyo., where future electric drivers could use a recharge, there’s nothing but barbed wire and a cattle grate. | David Ferris/POLITICO’s E&E News

Underlying officials’ thinking, and stretching in every direction, is Wyoming’s extraordinary emptiness.

The U.S. census says the state last year had 581,000 residents, or roughly the population of Baltimore, but dusted over a landmass larger than Michigan. Such underpopulation makes the 50-mile rule difficult. One reason can be found on Interstate 80, the coast-to-coast highway that cuts across Wyoming’s south.

Oddly, the few towns to be found along the midsection of this route — Rock Springs, Rawlins, Laramie — are spaced at intervals of about 100 miles. That is twice as far as the 50-mile spacing the Biden administration wants for charging stations.

Why is the drive so long? It’s the legacy of another form of transportation.

Those towns grew up around stops on the Union Pacific railroad line. One hundred or so miles is how far a train could travel in the late 19th century before it needed its own kind of recharge. That is “how far a crew and their locomotive could go before rest and maintenance would be necessary,” said Randolph Ruiz, a senior adjunct professor at the California College of the Arts who is knowledgeable about settlement in the West.

Other states also had these 100-mile intervals and filled in the gaps over time with new cities. Not Wyoming. Today’s Interstate 80 is the same stark parade of bluffs and buttes it has been for centuries, picturesque in its cowboy charm but empty of people.

“The 50-mile rule makes a lot of sense on the Eastern Seaboard or California, where the space between stations is one giant city,” said Jesse Kirchmeier, a special projects manager at the Wyoming Department of Transportation who wrote the state’s plan.

But a charging station plopped 50 miles between the interstate’s towns, Kirchmeier expects, will fail without a commercial host that foresees enough customers and profit to build some amenities. Without them, both EV driver and the station could be forlorn.

“Tough to avoid vandals, graffiti, no bathroom,” he said. “No place to buy food.”

‘A weird dichotomy’

The surprising thing is that even in Wyoming, there are pockets of interest in EVs and the prospect of federal help to build plug centers.

“A weird dichotomy” is what Mike Yin calls it. He is one of only two members of the state Legislature who drive an EV. His district — and his blue Tesla Model S — are in Jackson, the skiing and rafting haven south of Grand Teton where nearly all the state’s EVs are registered.

When he drives his Tesla across the state to the capital in Cheyenne, “people joke if I need to have a diesel generator to carry around so I can charge the battery,” he said. “But there’s also interest because it goes very fast, and people wonder what it would be like to have a car like that.”

He added that the Ford F-150 Lightning, the electric version of America’s bestselling vehicle, has some of his fellow Wyomingites wondering if EVs could be for them.

Kirchmeier, the author of the state’s EV infrastructure plan, is “not anti-EV at all,” he said.

He thinks the federal government is right to be funding charging infrastructure — but sees the interstate as the wrong place.

The right places, he said, are the routes that serve the national parks. Yellowstone and Grand Teton, along with Devils Tower National Monument, account for the bulk of the state’s $4 billion of tourism revenue, according to the state tourism office. None of Wyoming’s interstates — the focus of federal EV charging funding — go directly to these parks.

The parks are served by a web of smaller U.S. highways that aren’t eligible.

The state’s study estimated that more electric miles are driven getting to the parks — mostly Teslas from states farther west like California, Oregon and Washington — than on all the interstates put together.

So the state recommended that the Joint Office of Energy and Transportation give EV infrastructure funding to “individuals / businesses that wish to host … stations near the park entrances or inside the parks themselves.”

That plan got an endorsement last summer from Michael Reynolds, the director of the National Park Service’s regional office that serves a big swath of the Intermountain West. “Residents and out-of-state travelers that embrace EV technology will be able to visit our national parks with confidence that the EV infrastructure in Wyoming is supportive,” he wrote.

How could it end?

The Joint Office in September rejected Wyoming’s national park plan. It also took a dim view of the state’s desire to avoid building certain stations, turning down eight of the state’s 11 requests.

Elsewhere, the feds and the state found themselves aligned.

For example, the state will gladly build at some interstate locations recommended by the Biden administration, as long as it forecasts EVs traveling there. Seven stations will be installed at an estimated cost of $12 million as part of the Wyoming Department of Transportation’s blueprint. On Interstate 25, between the small cities of Casper and Cheyenne, two stations will rise at Douglas and Wheatland. Another will come to Buffalo, where I-25 terminates at Interstate 90.

Along Interstate 90, the state will add stations at Sheridan, near the Montana state line, and near the South Dakota border at Sundance, site of the famous film festival. And on Interstate 80, it will put in charging plazas at Laramie and at Pine Bluffs.

The reasons that Wyoming doesn’t want to build other stations fall into two buckets. One objection relates to the feds’ no-more-than-a-mile-from-the-highway rule.

On Interstate 80, for example, the state refused to build a station in either Rawlins or Cheyenne. In both cases, there are stations nearby that fit the federal rules — but sit more than a mile from an offramp. Both are run by charging network Electrify America.

The other bucket has to do with the many locations that have nothing but cows and rocks for neighbors.

It is not clear how the standoff between Wyoming and federal funders will end. For now, everyone is being conciliatory.

The Joint Office said in a statement to E&E News that it’s “working closely with Wyoming and all States, Puerto Rico and DC to implement their approved year 1 EV charging plans that will begin the critical task of building our national EV charging network.”

And Reiner, the head of the Wyoming Department of Transportation, said that if the state’s assumptions are wrong, his department “will modify the plan.”

But if they remain at loggerheads, the Biden administration has a last resort.

According to the program’s rules, if a state declines to build charging infrastructure, the money is redirected to local cities and groups that work in the same area.

That approach grew from an Obama-era economic recovery aid package in 2009. Then as now, some states refused to take money to build federal projects, said Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg. He spoke on the topic at the Texas Tribune Festival in Austin last September. The 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law, he said, got around the possibility of refusals with some “elegant policy design.”

“If a state decides not to apply, instead of penalizing people who live in that state for their leaders’ choices, it’ll just revert to communities, mayors who might have some ideas on how to spend it,” Buttigieg said.

But it is uncertain whether anyone along Wyoming lonely interstates will take up that banner. The Biden administration might be hard pressed to find local allies in regions where almost no one lives. And with Wyoming officials having forsworn spending any state money to support federal goals, the only other candidate is the private sector. What charging network wants to pony up and build its plugs where only the buffalo roam?

“There’s really nothing out there,” said Jerimiah Rieman, the executive director of the Wyoming County Commissioners Association. And because of that, he added, “we know the private sector is not going to make that investment.”

Reporter Mike Lee contributed.