Growing up in rural America, my first vehicle–like many of my friends–was a truck. Like many before me, moving to a city meant trading in the truck for the more practical and efficient city-friendly model. However, when I make it back to my hometown in Nacogdoches County, Texas, I happily trade in my keys for the farm truck.
I recently had the opportunity to take a couple rides in the new Ford F150 Lightning, the fully electric cousin of the Ford F150 and best selling car in the US for 40 straight years, at Singing Waters Vineyard in Comfort, Texas. While Tokyo Drifting around corners on the purpose-built baja dirt track and rock crawling up some very steep jeep trails was very cool, the utility of the electric truck itself–including more power than their gas cousins, the ability to remotely charge tools and power equipment, and the ability to fuel at home–is even more impressive. I’ll be honest, I want one! (Ford is not paying me to say that!)
The pickup runs deep in the American psyche for both cultural and practical reasons. Trucks are handy to have and perform tasks, such as hauling tools or towing equipment better than most others. Their body-on-frame construction allows for larger oversized tire clearance and, if only in perception, the ability to go where most most vehicles can’t.
At the same time, the transportation sector is the largest source of CO2 emissions in the US. Getting the country’s 276 million cars to run on electricity could go a long way in reducing their environmental impacts and our continued reliance on foreign energy supplies from countries like Russia.
The first round of rural electrification came when The Rural Electrification Act of 1936 provided low cost federal loans to electric cooperatives to build the infrastructure that delivered electricity to millions of rural Americans. Electricity access vastly increased the quality of life and productivity of the communities it came to. While electricity might have been new and unfamiliar to those around during rural electrification 1.0, the next wave could show up as something much more recognizable: the trusty pickup truck.
In 2021, about 607,000 electric vehicles (EVs) were sold in the US. These vehicles account for about 10% of global EV sales, but only about 4% of all new US car sales. Of the mass produced EVs sold in the US in 2021, only about 1,000 were trucks, most if not all made by the EV startup Rivian. The first truly mass produced electric truck, the Ford F150 Lightning, rolled off the assembly line on March 26, 2022 and the initial run of 150,000 sold out before the first one was even finished.
The rural and urban divide
Americans drive about 3 trillion miles per year, consuming about 160 billion gallons of fuel (current value: about $1 trillion) in the process. Converting all of those miles to electricity would require about 1 trillion additional kilowatt-hours of electricity, which is about 20% more than all wind, solar, hydroelectric and biomass plants produced together in 2021. Supporting that much new electricity consumption would require building lots more power plants and the wires and poles to support them.
Not all miles driven are equally distributed across the continent. In Texas, about 15% of the population lives in rural areas, but those same rural areas account for about 31% of vehicle miles traveled. The numbers are similar across the entire US, where about 70% of the 4.1 million miles of public access roads are in rural areas.
Thus, while the electrification of transportation will require most of this new electricity to be consumed in urban areas, rural areas could see a higher increase in electricity use per capita because that population drives more miles, which could add stress to parts of the grid that are already spread thin.
Getting power to the four wheels
While the electricity that fuels an EV in the city or the country will be the same, the systems that deliver them are often very different. Electric cooperatives, which provide electricity to over 55% of the US by land mass, often differ from urban utilities in that they generally serve more rural areas and have to run more infrastructure over longer distances to serve their customers.
While urban electric utilities might serve many dozens of electric meters per mile of power line, rural utilities often serve just a handful. Thus, upgrading infrastructure to support the electrification of transportation could cost more per customer in rural areas with fewer people to spread the costs over. This could present some challenges for rural utilities and cooperatives that could see a massive increase in EVs when electric trucks become more available.
By definition, rural areas are less dense which means that the transformers and service conductors are designed to provide electric service for known loads but does not allow for electric growth. – Bill Hetherington, CEO Bandera Electric Cooperative, Bandera, TX
Mr. Hetherington also noted that because rural electric cooperatives are generally member-owned “[they] are more community based and focused.” Thus, they might have some unique strengths when it comes to deploying the infrastructure needed to reduce rural range anxiety, such as strategically-placed public EV chargers.
Time to charge
Most electric vehicle charging is likely to happen at home, particularly in rural areas where public charging stations are fewer and farther between. While it is possible to charge an EV with a regular electric plug, many EV drivers will likely opt to install a faster (Level 2) charger that can fuel the car about six times quicker; these chargers use about the same amount of power as a large air conditioner. The long-range F150 Lightning can charge even faster, pulling up to 19.2 kW for its 80 amp dual charging system, which is about how much power 3-4 homes draw on average. Residential electric distribution lines are often sized for a certain number of homes, each with an assumed average power consumption, so multiple EVs charging at the same time on a given circuit could present a problem for the utility.
According to Bandera Electric Cooperative’s (BEC) own internal EV grid impact forecasts, without some kind of load management, portions of their distribution system will need substantial upgrading by 2030.
Some utilities, such as BEC, are looking to incentivize EV drivers to charge at night when infrastructure is under less stress via special, cheaper EV rates during certain hours. As EVs become more widespread, one way that car companies could help would be to make such charging patterns the default setting for when a car is parked at home. Research has shown that users rarely override the default settings in other devices, such as smart thermostats.
The major car brand’s move into electric pickup trucks is a powerful statement on the future of EVs. Pickups take up five spots—including the top three—in the top ten list of the most popular cars in America. Better charging and supporting infrastructure, particularly in rural areas, could go a long way in making sure our love for the truck also means good stewardship for the planet. The era of the electric truck is just beginning, and now the question of the next decade will be if the grid can keep up.
Note: The author of this piece has an active consulting relationship with Bandera Electric Cooperative.