As Iowa’s demand for electric cars, trucks soars, more EV charging stations are coming

Source: By Philip Joens, Des Monies Register • Posted: Tuesday, March 7, 2023

  • Electric vehicles are registered in every Iowa county, no matter how rural, data shows
  • They still are just a small segment of total vehicle registrations, but they’ve tripled in number in three years
  • Dealers say they can’t keep electric vehicles in stock
  • The state has received $51 million from the federal government to ensure there are charging stations every 50 miles along interstate highways
  • Dealers expect that more affordable SUV models in coming years will help expand the market

Electric vehicles are starting to take root in Iowa.

In a state where the marriage of the internal combustion engine and agriculture has built one of the world’s most mechanized farm economies, and where people still use pickup trucks for transporting hay bales rather than for urban commuting, battery-electric and plug-in hybrid vehicles may seem out of place. But there are at least three EVs registered in each county in Iowa, even the most rural, according to the Iowa Department of Transportation’s latest registration figures.

And their numbers are growing fast. Sales of electric vehicles tripled in Iowa over the last three years, with 10,712 registered as of Dec. 31, and dealers say residents want to buy more of them than they can keep in stock. In the state’s bigger cities, it’s easy to spot all-electric Tesla sedans and even futuristic Rivian pickup trucks.

EVs still make up less than three-tenths of 1% of the 4 million vehicles registered in Iowa last year, a distinctly challenging landscape when it comes to President Joe Biden’s stated goal that electric vehicles make up 50% of U.S. auto sales by 2030.

“While it is growing at a pretty good clip, it’s still a very small percentage of the overall vehicle fleet in Iowa,” said Stuart Anderson, director of the Iowa Department of Transportation’s Transportation Development Division.

But it’s not just Biden who has made the rapid electrification of the U.S. vehicle fleet a goal. Ford is heavily invested in electric models, including the Lightning version of its market-leading F-150 pickup. Chevrolet intends to catch up with a Silverado electric pickup for the 2024 model year. So does RAM, and Volkswagen plans to launch an electric pickup under the Scout name in 2026 for the American market. General Motors’ Buick division aims to be all electric by 2030. Honda is partnering with GM to advance its electric model lines. Toyota is investing billions to build a battery plant for EVs in North Carolina and says it Lexus luxury marque will be all-electric by 2030. Winnebago has unveiled an all-electric concept RV. Even Jeep, a brand rooted in an engineering concept dating from World War II, has announced it will have an electric version of every model by 2025.

More:Sick of paying for gas? Here’s what to look for when shopping for your first electric car

The EV industry leader, Tesla, became the top U.S. luxury car producer in 2022, selling more than 400,000 vehicles. Now, it’s preparing to launch electric semi-trailer trucks.

Though Iowa EV dealers say they’re struggling to meet demand, they plan to make electric vehicles a focal point of the March 10-12 All-Iowa Auto Show at the Iowa Events Center, staged by the USA Today Network, of which the Des Moines Register is a member. Dealers say they’re looking to attract customers in coming years when the cars and the infrastructure to serve them become more widespread.

Dealers: Demand for electric vehicles in Iowa outstrips supply

Doug DeYarman owns a Ford dealership in Indianola and the Chevrolet, GMC, Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep and RAM dealership in Knoxville. He said automakers ship more electric cars to coastal states than they do to the Midwest, and pandemic-caused supply-chain issues have tightened inventory, but electric vehicle electric vehicle sales are brisk.

Ford’s Mustang Mach-E electric crossover, introduced in model year 2021, is popular among his customers, he said. Just don’t look for rows of them parked on the lot at DeYarman Ford.

“Everything is coming in pre-sold,” he said. “But of the ones we’ve put out, the cars had fantastic reviews. In fact I had one guy trade his in for another new one.”

Tim Manning, general manager at Bob Brown Chevrolet in Urbandale, said his dealership currently can’t get Chevy’s EV, the Bolt. And he anticipates even more demand later this year when the automaker plans to introduce electric versions of its Blazer and Equinox SUVs and the Silverado.

“We just can’t get our hands on them,” Manning said. “There is serious demand out there.”

What about range anxiety?

There are several reasons for the high demand. Electric vehicles, with fewer moving parts than gas and diesel models, are comparatively simpler and easier to maintain (not to mention potentially cheaper for automakers to build). They also have legendary acceleration, a property of torque-happy electric motors. They are considered more environmentally friendly. And, of course, they cost less to fuel.

But that last factor may also be the biggest obstacle to ownership: the problem of keeping electric vehicles charged, which translates into so-called range anxiety.

Manning said most electric vehicle buyers at Bob Brown Chevrolet over the last few years have been suburban commuters. That’s a characteristic reflected in the fact that Polk, Johnson and Linn counties, the cores of the Des Moines, Iowa City and Cedar Rapids metros, respectively, account for close to half of the electric vehicle registrations in the state.

Iowa’s existing charging networks work fine for commuters, Manning and Anderson said. Up to 90% of EV charging happens at home, Anderson said.

“My brother-in-law bought one from me,” Manning said. “A school teacher, 10-mile commute round-trip. It’s generally somebody that is using our interstate system in a 30-mile radius.”

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, Iowa has 215 public Level 2 charging stations, like the type used to charge vehicles at home. But these 240-volt chargers can add only 25 miles of range per hour and can take eight to 10 hours to fully charge a car.

Usually, owners “aren’t traveling 250 miles to and from work,” DeYarman said. “So you don’t have to charge it at work, but when you get back home you have to plug it in.”

Long-distance travelers have a tougher time getting around the state, Anderson said. There are currently 82 DC Fast electric charging stations ― Level 3 chargers ― in Iowa, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Sixteen of those DC Fast chargers can be used only by Tesla owners. They typically can charge a car to 80% capacity in 90 minutes, DeYarman said.

Some Level 3 chargers can be found on rural highways, like the DC Fast chargers at a Fareway store off U.S. Highway 18 in Sheldon, at a Casey’s off Iowa Highway 2 in Clarinda and at a Hy-Vee Dollar Fresh location off U.S. Highway 65 in Hampton. But they are far from abundant in some parts of the state, especially the southwest quadrant, a Department of Energy map shows.

Venturing farther afield requires some research and planning.

“An electric vehicle owner that is making a long-distance trip right now will not be able to just hop in the car,” Anderson said. “They’re going to have to do some legwork. But certainly the resources are out there to tell people where these chargers are at, what ports they use, how many watts do they have.”

Iowa investing more than $50 million in EV charging stations

More charging stations are on the way, especially along Iowa’s interstate highway corridors. In October, the state received $51.4 million in federal funding from the 2021 federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, more commonly known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, as part of the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Formula Program, or NEVI for short. Under its auspices, Iowa promises to place four DC Fast chargers every 50 miles on Interstates 29, 80, 35 and 380.

The Iowa DOT will disburse the money in grants as the funds come in over five fiscal years. Two years of NEVI funding, or about $20 million, will be disbursed in the first round, Anderson said. That should be enough to build the charging infrastructure to federal standards, he said.

In addition, there already are a handful of NEVI-compliant sites on the interstates, freeing up some of the funds to be used in other parts of Iowa, he said.

“We’re excited to get through this first round and get the interstate built out so we can start hitting these other corridors like the U.S. 20 and U.S. 30 and U.S. 71 across the state that serve not only interstate traffic, but traffic that is doing regional trips across Iowa and the Midwest,” Anderson said.

Private businesses are doing their part to build the network, DeYarman said. For example, every Ford dealership that plans to sell electric vehicles must add DC Fast chargers. Convenience store chains including Casey’s and Kum & Go also are investing, and even KOA campgrounds are beginning to offer charging stations for guests.

“As we build going forward, I think that’s what you’re going to see is more and more capability for charging at different areas,” DeYarman said.

EVs at lower prices are expected to enter the car market

Dealerships also are adding to their EV infrastructure with specialized servicing equipment. Manning’s dealership has purchased hoists and forklifts needed to service electric car battery packs, which can weigh as much as 700 pounds.

But the real key will be offering EVs at more affordable prices, Manning said. Ford’s F-150 Lightning has been a hit, and Chevrolet’s electric Silverado also is expected to receive a warm reception. But fully tricked out versions of both trucks can cost about $100,000.

Manning instead is looking to two electric SUVs that Chevrolet will introduce later this year to expand the market. The electric versions of Chevrolet’s Equinox will have a starting price around $30,000 and its Blazer will start around $45,000, according to Car and Driver magazine.

“The price point at which these vehicles are going to be entering the market are going to be very, very appetizing to the customer,” Manning said. Unlike the compact Bolt, “It’s not just a small passenger car. You’re moving into these five-passenger vehicles, and being an SUV in our part of the world makes more sense.”

Anderson said he thinks that the state will continue to see large increases in the number of electric vehicles on Iowa’s roads as more manufacturers make EVs in price ranges “accessible by a broader segment of the population.”

People in cities and rural areas are starting to warm up to electric cars as they learn more about them, DeYarman said. A handful of manufacturers, like GM’s Buick division and Volvo, have announced plans to make only electric cars soon.

General Motors and Ford plan to keep making internal combustion engines, Manning and DeYarman said.

“We still plan on selling the internal combustion engine, and we plan on the EVs being part of our mix,” DeYarman said. “But as people get used to them, there’s going to be that percentage that say, ‘This works for me,’ whether it’s rural Iowa or someone in the metro.”

Electric vehicle technology has come a long way in the 30 years since GM debuted its EV1 in the 1990s. Available only on lease in limited markets, the EV1 could barely get 100 miles per charge with its lead-acid battery.

Now, GM is working on an Ultium battery it says will deliver range of at least 300 miles in every application, and Tesla says it is aiming to boost its vehicles’ range to 600 miles. Manning predicted that one day soon, electric vehicles may get 500 or 800 miles per charge, more than most cars get from a full tank of gas.

“It’s going to happen,” Manning said. “Once the ball gets moving it’s going to happen quick.”

Philip Joens covers retail, real estate and RAGBRAI for the Des Moines Register. He can be reached at 515-284-8184, or on Twitter @Philip_Joens.