When I was growing up, whenever the conversation turned to cars (as it often did with boys growing up in rural Virginia), the big debate was whether you were on the Ford side or the Chevy side.
I remember this as a big point of contention in fifth grade.
These days the big argument is between those who back gas-powered cars and those who prefer electric vehicles.
It’s fascinating to me that this has become politicized, although I suppose most everything today becomes politicized.
Donald Trump was recently in Michigan where he told his audience that electric vehicles are “going to decimate your jobs and it’s going to decimate more than anybody else, the state of Michigan.”
There’s some truth in that but, like many things that Trump says, there’s a lot of context missing.
Electric vehicles do, indeed, require fewer workers than conventional vehicles do, partly because they involve a lot fewer parts. However, some studies show that if the United States is successful in “reshoring” a lot of that EV supply chain, then the total number of U.S.-based auto-related jobs will actually increase.
Electric vehicles do, indeed, threaten Michigan’s dominance of the U.S. automaking industry but that dominance has already been threatened for years by conventional gas-powered vehicles, as automakers build factories in the non-unionized South. Put another way, Michigan’s grip on the auto industry is in jeopardy no matter what power source cars use. One of the many ironies of the growing electric vehicle industry is how electric vehicles are considered a liberal notion but it’s mostly conservative states that are benefiting from their construction, particularly Georgia, where Republican Gov. Brian Kemp has emerged as perhaps the nation’s top champion of attracting EV-related companies. It’s the rise of that Southern EV belt that made Michigan so keen to lure the Ford electric vehicle battery plant that Gov. Glenn Youngkin turned away from Pittsylvania County because he didn’t like Ford’s reliance on Chinese technology.
Politically, I get what Trump is trying to do — Michigan is a swing state, many of the Southern states where big EV plants are underway aren’t, so states such as Tennessee and Kentucky can be taken for granted. Georgia, though, is also a swing state — and what’s good for Michigan here may not be good for Georgia. At some level, they’re in competition for the same jobs. Trump is betting that Michigan cares more about the threat of losing auto jobs than Georgia does about acquiring them. This is what makes politics so fascinating.
I also get why Republicans are against any kind of mandates — aside from being more favorably disposed to fossil fuels than Democrats are, Republicans traditionally haven’t been keen on mandates that muck around in the marketplace. However, here’s a case where political rhetoric diverges from economic reality: The free market may force you to have an electric vehicle long before the government does.
Here’s a roundup of some recent headlines:
Ford’s electric future looks bright as the automaker doubles down on batteries and cuts costs
GM doubles down on EVs, forecasts rapid production expansion
Volkswagen doubles down on EV spending to catch Tesla
You notice two trends here: Automakers are investing big in electric vehicles and headline writers love the phrase “doubles down.”
What we have going on here is an economic transition similar to what we’ve seen other industries go through, just with more politics involved — record companies have given way to streaming services, printed newspapers are giving way to online news sites, typewriters have been replaced by laptops and printers. Trump may not like that transition from gas cars to electric cars, and Republicans in general may not want to use government to hasten it the way Democrats do, but short of banning electric vehicles altogether, there seems little they can do. Automakers are going to build more electric vehicles regardless; they’re investing too much money to do otherwise. The free market is not necessarily one person, one vote: If Ford and GM and Volkswagen and all the others decide they’re going to go big with production, it may not matter which energy source I prefer. I might prefer to listen to my music on an eight-track tape deck, but good luck finding anything other than an old Jethro Tull eight-track at a yard sale.
All of that is by way of background to set the stage for this question: How practical are electric vehicles? More to the point, how easy will it be to recharge an electric car? Let’s set aside the question of how long it takes to recharge an EV; technology may speed up charging times that are now measured in tedious hours. Instead, let’s look simply at how widely available charging stations are.
There are multiple sites purporting to show charging stations, and I know you’ll be shocked to find that some of them disagree.
The official federal government site maintained by the Department of Energy doesn’t mention the sites in Jonesville and Pennington Gap that the crowd-sourced map Plugshare does. But then Plugshare doesn’t mention the site in Hot Springs that the Department of Energy does. I’ll be generous: As rapidly as charging stations are coming online, I’m sure it must be hard to keep track of them all. Neither site, for instance, mentions the three new charging stations recently installed in Uptown Martinsville.
Here’s the big picture:
- There appear to be charging stations in all but 20 of Virginia’s 133 counties and cities. Given the obvious discrepancies between those two maps, the figure might be a little lower.
- You’ll notice from the official government map that rural North Carolina seems to have more EV charging stations than parts of rural Virginia.
- The biggest gaps in Virginia are in the westernmost counties of Southwest Virginia and parts of Southside, with isolated locations here and there. I’m not surprised that Highland County doesn’t have a charging station. Highland is the least-populated county in Virginia with 2,232 people; it’s hard enough to find a gas station there. I am surprised that Greene County isn’t listed as having any; it’s just north of Charlottesville, which is an EV hotspot. On the other hand, I’m surprised to learn that Lee County, Virginia’s westernmost county, has two charging stations. A review on Plugshare praises the one at the Pennington Gap town hall as “great, easy access … and free!”
However, if you’re out of juice in Buchanan County, Dickenson County, Russell County or Scott County, you’re apparently out of luck. Ditto Amelia County, Charlotte County, Dinwiddie County, Greensville County, Lunenburg County, Prince George County and Surry County in Southside.
- If you’re driving on Interstate 81, you can find a charging station in every locality in Virginia you’re going through. The biggest gap is the 29 miles between Abingdon and Marion, followed by 27 miles between Christiansburg and Salem, 27 miles between Brugh’s Mill in Botetourt County and Natural Bridge and 27 miles between Staunton and Harrisonburg.
- If you’re driving on Interstate 64, the gaps aren’t in the western part of the state, where you might expect them, but between Zion Crossroads and Richmond. That’s a gap of 42 miles, bigger than any gap you’ll find on I-81. Of course, it’s also hard to find a gas station on that stretch of road. East of Richmond, there’s a 20-mile gap between Richmond and Providence Forge and a 21-mile gap from Providence Forge to Williamsburg.
- On Interstate 95, there are just two charging stations between Petersburg and the North Carolina state line, in Stony Creek and Emporia. The biggest gap there is the 23 miles between those two communities.
The challenge with many of these charging stations is simply finding them. They are not nearly as ubiquitous as gas stations, of course. Many of the ones listed on either the Department of Energy site or the Plugshare site aren’t in easily accessible commercial locations, the way Sheetz manages to find itself on high-traffic street corners. According to Plugshare, the only charging stations in Franklin County are in Rocky Mount — at two bed-and-breakfasts, where they are only available to guests. If you’re not staying there, then there’s a 40-mile gap between the charging stations in Roanoke County and Bassett in Henry County. Likewise, the only charging station listed in Giles County is at the Inn at Riverbend in Pearisburg. The only charging station in Grayson County is at the Creeper Trail Campground in Whitetop. The only charging station in Carroll County is at the Fancy Gap Cabins. And, of course, that one charging station in Bath County is at the Omni Homestead. (And charging stations come in different varieties, based on whether they are fast-chargers or not).
The presence of charging stations at campgrounds and bed-and-breakfasts and hotels is telling: That’s where the tourists are, and where communities want tourists to be. That’s why last year Del. Terry Kilgore, R-Scott County, pushed for the state to spend $15 million “to establish a grant program to expand Electric Vehicle infrastructure in rural and underserved localities in the Commonwealth.” That didn’t go through, but economics remain the same: If conservative, rural areas want to cash in more on tourism, they will need more charging stations, even if the locals hold out against all these automakers that are, ahem, doubling down on EV production.