'The toughest stretch': Rural Colorado and the push to electrify roadways

Jan. 25, 2023, 7 a.m. ·

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The EV fast charging station in Julesburg, Colorado. (Rae Solomon, KUNC)

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If you’re traveling west from Nebraska on I-76, the first opportunity to stop for a fill up in Colorado will be Julesburg, a small town in rural northeastern corner of the state.

The Wagon Wheel Conoco is on the south side of the highway and serves as a place where travelers can top off their tanks and then head inside to use the bathroom. Some stop to browse the curiosities in the gift shop where they can find an impressive collection of western wear, handicrafts and children’s toys.

If you happen to be driving an electric car, the Wagon Wheel Conoco has got you covered, too. Drive right past the gas pumps and pull around to the back of the gift shop where you’ll find the electric fast charging station. It’s the big gray box glowing LED green in the snow.

Jason Fleming did just that when he stopped off at the Julesburg Conoco with his wife, Abby Barclay, and their two dogs, to fill up on an early leg of a 1,200-mile road trip. ”We're coming from Boulder, Colorado, going to Jackson, Michigan,” Fleming explained, fiddling with his credit card at the charging station.

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Jason Fleming and Abby Barclay, of Jackson, MI, with their electric Kia Niro at the EV fast charging station in Julesburg, CO. (Rae Solomon, KUNC)

The Julesburg fast charger is a unique piece of technology. The big gray box houses a battery. Rather than charging cars directly from the grid, the grid charges the internal station battery. Then, the battery charges the car. It’s an innovative system that prevents big hits to the grid when a car charges.

Even better, a unit like this is much easier to install and requires less infrastructure than a typical direct current fast charger.

And, as far as EV chargers go, it is fast. It can give Barclay and Fleming a full charge in about 30 minutes.

Julesburg isn’t necessarily where you’d expect to find high tech EV charging technology. It’s not what you’d call a high adoption area. In fact, only one electric car is registered in all of Sedgwick County, where Julesburg is the county seat.

Nonetheless, Colorado has ambitious goals to rapidly increase the number of EVs on the road from about 69,000 now, to nearly 1 million by the end of the decade with the hope of reaching 100% adoption by the year 2050.

Before all those electric cars can hit the roadways, we’ll need a way to charge them and rural fast charging stations, like the one in Julesburg are a key part of that plan.

“This one’s pretty critical, cause there's barely any chargers in this stretch,” Fleming commented as he connected the charger to the port on the front of his electric Kia Niro. “Actually, this is the toughest stretch for us.”

Fleming was talking about the stretch of I76 that goes from Fort Morgan, Colorado where they stopped at an Electrify America station, to Ogallala, Nebraska, where he said he planned to stop again. That’s a good 130 miles. Between those two points, this station in Julesburg is the only spot for public fast charging.

“This is kind of a good top off point,” Fleming’s wife, Abby Barclay explained. “This isn't like an ideal stopping place. But it gets the job done.”

The average range for electric vehicles on the road today is 260 miles on a single charge. But cold weather can cut that short. Fleming and Barclay were facing temperatures in the 20’s. It was a tough call to make, but they decided to play it safe.

“We were trying to get to Ogallala, but it's kind of borderline whether we could make it from Fort Morgan. So, we stopped here,” Fleming said.

Range anxiety

It’s called range anxiety: the fear that an electric vehicle battery doesn’t have enough juice to make it to the next charging point. And it’s why national and state plans call for fast-charging stations every fifty miles along the highway.

Matt Mines is a senior program manager with the Colorado Energy Office who oversees infrastructure grant programs. He says Colorado’s EV charging infrastructure strategy prioritizes certain routes for electrification. There’s a scenic byways initiative specifically intended to encourage tourism among the EV set.

The state and federal government have also identified so-called alternative fuel corridors, including I76, which runs through Julesburg. “That's where we will first be investing in fast charging infrastructure along the major corridors,” Mines explained.

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The open road on I-76 in Northeastern Colorado. Cold weather can significantly reduce electric vehicle ranges. (Rae Solomon)

Rural charging doesn't pencil out

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Tad Huser of Highline Electric shows off his company's EV fast charging station in Julesburg, CO. (Rae Solomon, KUNC)

Tad Huser is Member Services Manager with Highline Electric, the distribution company that serves this area and opened this fast charger here back in August. “They have to be there,” Huser said, explaining why his company installed the device here. “They have to be there, if we want the electric vehicles to succeed.”

Huser says this charger averages just about one charge a day. “That’s pretty heavy. A lot heavier than we expected.” Their average charge is about 35 kilowatt-hours.

Highline charges 25 cents per kilowatt-hour, which if you do the math, means that so far, the charger brings in only about $8 or $9 a day.

“If you want it to pencil out, it would be it would be a very poor investment,” Huser conceded. But he says his company gets something more important than revenue out of the deal: they get data.

“We wanted to get in the charging because we provide the power and we want to understand the behaviors,” he explained. “Highway 76 is super busy. If we could serve some charging demand on this stretch, it [would be] a great way for us to figure out how many people are going to use it and how they use it and prepare ourselves for when a lot more people are using electric vehicles to travel long distances.”

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Grain Elevator in Julesburg, Colorado. (Rae Solomon, KUNC)

Just passing through

Highline Electric is well aware that the locals in their area have not warmed to electric cars – at least not yet.

“We're not going to be a high adoption area,” Huser said. “But where we live is going to be the thoroughfare for a lot of people that have adopted. These are people using an interstate to travel. So, this is not necessarily a benefit to locals, but it's there if they need it”

No doubt, the locals have been slow to warm up to electric vehicles.

Doug Stone has lived in Julesburg his entire life. He works in the giftshop at the Wagon Wheel Conoco in Julesburg, just a few dozen yards away from the fast-charging station outside in the parking lot. But he doesn’t know a single person who actually owns an EV.

“I don’t think they’re going to work out here. But that’s my opinion,” Stone said. “They’re expensive, they’re inconvenient, because everything affects the range.”

People here also tend to be skeptical about climate change. On top of that, there is skepticism about electric vehicles being a solution to climate change. “They’re not going to save the environment,” Stone scoffed.

Highline Electric gets its energy from Tri-State, which is rapidly moving to decarbonize its energy mix, in line with the state’s Greenhouse Gas Emissions Reduction Roadmap.

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The Julesburg EV fast charging station. (Rae Solomon, KUNC)

Electrification depends on rural areas

Ria Kontou is an assistant professor in the civil and environmental engineering department at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign who researches electrification of the transportation system. She warns that EV infrastructure strategies must take the countryside into account.

“We need to have charging infrastructure in the rural areas,” Kontou said. “Public fast charging infrastructure makes a difference in rural locations because it helps complete intercity trips.”

Kontou’s point is that while electric vehicles have become pretty commonplace for local, daily driving, long EV road trips are a new frontier. That’s because the charging infrastructure that makes them possible is still emerging in rural places like Julesburg.

In addition to making those intercity trips possible, there could be a side benefit to all these new rural charging stations: Encouraging confidence in the locals. “It's a matter of visibility,” Kontou said. “A station in this region could, at some point, help the residents be more confident that if they adopt an electric vehicle, there's a location there that they could use.”

But old habits can die hard in rural areas. So, for now, the fast charger in this Julesburg parking lot remains a beacon for travelers like Jason Fleming and Abby Barclay. Travelers, that is, who are just passing through.

This story comes from KUNC, an NPR-member station in Greeley, Colorado.