The ‘hardest stretch’: rural Colorado and the quest for road electrification

If you’re driving west from Nebraska on I76, your first gas stop in Colorado will be Julesburg, a small town in the rural northeast of the state.

Conoco’s Wagon Wheel is located on the south side of the highway and serves as a place where travelers can refill their tanks and then head inside to use the bathroom. Some stop to browse the curios in the gift shop, where you can find an impressive collection of Western clothing, handicrafts and children’s toys.

If you drive an electric vehicle, Conoco’s Wagon Wheel has you covered, too. Drive right past the gas pumps and turn towards the back of the gift shop where you will find an electric fast charging station. It’s a big gray box that glows with a green LED on the snow.

Jason Fleming did just that when he stopped at a Julesburg Conoco with his wife, Abby Barkley, and two dogs to restock on the first leg of a 1,200-mile road trip. “We’re going from Boulder, Colorado to Jackson, Michigan,” Fleming explained, fiddling with his credit card at the charging station.

The Julesburg fast charger is a unique technology. The big gray box contains the battery. Instead of charging cars directly from the grid, the grid charges the station’s internal battery. The battery then charges the vehicle. This is an innovative system that prevents strong shocks to the network when the car is charging.

Even better, such a unit is much easier to install and requires less infrastructure than a conventional DC fast charger.

And as for electric car chargers, they are 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 zone. In fact, there is only one electric vehicle registered in all of Sedgwick County, of which Julesburg is the county seat.

Still, Colorado has ambitious goals to rapidly increase the number of electric vehicles on the road from about 69,000 now to nearly 1 million by the end of the decade, with hopes of reaching 100% adoption by 2050.

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Jason Fleming and Abby Barkley of Jackson, Michigan, with their electric Kia Niro at an EV fast charging station in Julesburg, Colorado.

Before all these electric cars hit the road, 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.

“It’s very important because there are almost no chargers in this area,” Fleming commented as he plugged the charger into a port on the front of his electric Kia Niro. “Actually, it’s the hardest stretch for us.”

Fleming was talking about the stretch of I76 that runs 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 these two points, this Julesburg station is the only public fast charging location.

“It’s kind of a nice high,” explained Fleming’s wife, Abby Barclay. “It’s not an ideal place to stop. But it does the job.”

The average range of electric vehicles on a single charge today is 260 miles. But cold weather can cut that short. Fleming and Barclay faced temperatures in the 20s. It was difficult to do, but they decided to play it safe.

“We’ve been trying to get to Ogallala, but that’s kind of the limit of whether we can get there from Fort Morgan. So we stopped at that,” Fleming said.

Anxiety range

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

Matt Mines is a senior program manager at the Colorado Office of Energy, overseeing infrastructure grant programs. He says Colorado’s EV charging infrastructure strategy prioritizes certain routes for electrification. There is a scenic bypass initiative specifically designed to encourage car-based tourism.

The state and federal governments have also identified so-called alternative fuel corridors, including I76, which runs through Julesberg. “Here, we will first invest in fast charging infrastructure along the main corridors,” Mines explained.

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The road is open on I-76 in northeast Colorado. Cold weather can significantly reduce the range of electric vehicles

There are no tariffs in rural areas

Ted Heuser is the member services manager for Highline Electric, a distribution company that serves the area and opened this fast charger 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 electric cars to succeed.”

Heuser says this charger charges about once a day on average. “It’s quite difficult. Much harder than we expected.” Their average charge is about 35 kilowatt-hours.

Highline charges 25 cents per kilowatt hour, which, when you do the math, means the charger is only bringing in about $8 or $9 a day so far.

“If you want to spell it out, it’s going to be a very bad investment,” Hooser admitted. But he says his company is getting something more important than revenue from the deal: They’re getting data.

“We wanted to get into charging because we provide energy and we want to understand the behavior,” he explained. “Highway 76 is very busy. If we could meet some of the charging demand at this site, that is [would be] it’s a great way for us to find out how many people are going to use it and how they’re using it, and to prepare for many more people using electric vehicles for long-distance travel.”


A grain elevator in Julesburg, Colorado

Just passing by

Highline Electric is well aware that locals in their region haven’t warmed to electric vehicles – at least not yet.

“We’re not going to be a high-adoption district,” Heuser said. “But where we live will be a thoroughfare for many people who have adopted children. These are people who use interstate roads for travel. So it’s not necessarily a benefit to local people, but it’s there when they need it.”

Undoubtedly, local residents are in no hurry to warm up to electric cars.

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

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

People here are also skeptical about climate change. In addition, there is skepticism that electric cars are the solution to climate change. “They’re not going to save the environment,” Stone scoffed.

Highline Electric gets its power from Tri-State, which is moving quickly to decarbonize its energy mix in line with the state’s roadmap for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

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Julesburg Electric Vehicle Fast Charging Station

Electrification depends on rural areas

Rio Contu is an assistant professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, researching the electrification of the transportation system. She warns that electric vehicle infrastructure strategies must take rural areas into account.

“Rural areas need charging infrastructure,” Kontov said. “Public fast-charging infrastructure is important in rural areas because it helps make long-distance trips possible.”

Contu believes that while electric vehicles have become quite commonplace for everyday driving, long journeys in electric vehicles have become the new frontier. That’s because the charging infrastructure that makes them possible is still emerging in rural areas like Julesburg.

In addition to making these long-distance trips possible, all these new rural charging stations could have an additional benefit: boosting the confidence of local residents. “It’s a matter of visibility,” Kontau said. “A station in this region could at some point help residents feel more confident that if they adopt an electric vehicle, there will be a place for them to use.”

But in rural areas, old habits die hard. 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, those who are just passing through.

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Electric vehicle fast charging station in Julesburg, Colorado

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