Rural Reimagined

May 14, 2024

The Power of Collaborative Electrification in Appalachia. By Faith Martin

There is no place in the world like Appalachia.

Rolling mountains. Vibrant rhododendrons. Scenic waterfalls.

Appalachia is magic.

A Region in Distress

Travelers to Appalachia visit to witness the natural wealth of the region – more than just the increase in elevation will take your breath away. After experiencing the signature blue mountaintops, some may even briefly consider abandoning city-life for a simpler way of living.

But life in Appalachia is not as easygoing nor as simple as a trip down the Blue Ridge Parkway might trick you to believe. Appalachia is among one of the most economically-distressed regions in the country. Out of 423 counties in Appalachia, 43% are designated as either “distressed” or “at-risk” based on unemployment rate, per capita market income, and poverty rate indicators ( Appalachian Regional Commission, Classifying Economic Distress, n.d .).

Economic wellbeing in Appalachia has improved significantly over the years, largely due to targeted investments from the Appalachian Regional Commission and other federal, state, and local funding sources. However, the region still fails to compare to national socioeconomic indicators, and additionally faces lack of economic growth coupled with a substance abuse crisis ( Appalachian Regional Commission, About, n.d. ).

Now, as electric vehicle (EV) use is projected to rapidly increase, Appalachia is again at-risk of being left behind. By 2030, the U.S. Department of Energy predicts between 30-42 million EVs will be on the road ( U.S. Department of Energy, n.d. ). In Virginia, state legislators have passed ambitious regulations for EVs. Effective as of January 2024, the Clean Car Law will require all new cars sold after 2035 to be fully electric. Currently, only 10% of new car sales in Virginia are electric ( Hafner, 2024 ). Infrastructure nationwide is insufficient to support an EV takeover, let alone in rural, economically stressed Appalachia. EV predictions estimate 28 million chargers are needed to support the transition ( National Renewable Energy Laboratory, 2023 ).

Enter Rural Reimagined. Working to dually address economic distress and the EV transition, the project draws on stakeholders from all sectors by engaging local governments, NGOs, EV and EVSE manufacturers, utilities, colleges and universities, and most importantly, Appalachian residents. Despite varying motivations, their expertise culminates in a project that embodies what it means to be sustainable – a greener, more prosperous Appalachia where residents, businesses, and the environment can come out on top.


Reimagining Rural Life

Funded by the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Rural Reimagined was born – and aptly named – to reimagine what it means to be rural. With little to no EV infrastructure in Appalachia, the opportunities to experience EVs are slim for rural communities. Rural Reimagined, however, is committed to electrifying Appalachia. The project aims to lay the groundwork for an inclusive EV network, generate green economic growth for distressed Appalachian communities, supply affordable EV mobility, and enhance knowledge of EVs through outreach, education, and workforce development ( Rural Reimagined, Home, 2024 ).

Rural Reimagined gets EVs directly into the hands of Appalachian residents, allowing participants to borrow an EV for up to 2 weeks at no cost. Requirements vary slightly across states, but in general, participants must meet the following criteria:

  • Valid driver’s license
  • Clean driving record
  • Proof of vehicle insurance
  • Resident of Appalachian region

Participants have a variety of EVs to select for test-drive. Chevrolet Bolts, Ford F-150 Lightnings, Volkswagen ID.4s, Ford Mustang Mach-Es, Nissan Leafs, and a passenger transit van are among the choices for Rural Reimagined. In total, the program is set to deploy 30 EVs across the region, with 27 either in use, reserved, or ordered ( Chen, 2023 ).

In addition to EV test-driving, Rural Reimagined facilitates EV charger installation. The project intends to install 200 charging stations across Appalachia, with plans for 55 in West Virginia, 54 in Kentucky, 52 in Tennessee, 32 in Ohio, and 25 in Virginia ( Rural Reimagined, EVSE Info, 2024 ).

Selected host sites receive the charging equipment at no cost, but are responsible for costs of installation. ChargePoint and EVmatch are Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment (EVSE) suppliers, providing Level-2 Chargers and a limited supply of DC Fast Chargers for the program ( Rural Reimagined, EVSE Info, 2024 ).

Concluding in 2025, the DOE funding totals $4,012,930, with an additional $4,013,156 provided by project partners ( Tennessee Technological University, n.d. ). Through these strategic partnerships, Rural Reimagined hopes to achieve its ambitious goals in which electrification is the future of Appalachia.


Cross-Sector Collaboration

Rural Reimagined succeeds through the collaboration of multiple stakeholders. Across 5 states, 60 partners participate in the program with collaborators hailing from all sectors: local governments, colleges and universities, EVSE suppliers, utilities, non-profits, and more support the cause of electrifying Appalachia ( Rural Reimagined, Project Overview, 2024 ).

Dr. Pingen Chen of Tennessee Tech University spearheads the project, while Clean Fuel Coalitions in Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, Virginia, and West Virginia handle facilitation in their respective states. The partnership between Dr. Chen and the Clean Fuel Coalitions arose under grant guidelines, however, the union could not be more strategic. Clean Fuel Coalitions are NGOs sponsored by the DOE with the goal to improve environmental quality, enhance economic prosperity, and establish energy security by reducing reliance on petroleum fuels ( U.S. Department of Energy, National Network of Local Coalitions, n.d. ).

Virginia

In Virginia, the program is not open to individual residents, but rather local governments. The Towns of Wytheville, Saltville, Haysi, Grundy, and Pennington Gap, the City of Lynchburg, and Albemarle County have all participated in the program ( Matthew Wade, Interview, April 22, 2024 ).

Although Virginia Clean Cities and their Clean Fuel Coalition counterparts are working to advance a cleaner, greener environment, local governments have the added benefit of economic stimulus. As the Appalachian region transitions from an industrial economy to a tourist economy, EV expansion brings incentives to travelers looking for available charging. According to Matthew Wade, Virginia Clean Cities Deputy Director, an EV network may create attractions for rural towns and address depopulation concerns. For that reason, Virginia Clean Cities has found eager participation from local governments looking to collaborate for electrification ( Matthew Wade, Interview, April 22, 2024 ).

Developing an expansive EV network, however, is more than just peaking government interest in EVs. Rural Reimagined deliberately engages the private sector to harness resources that would not be available without collaboration. Among those partnerships are EVSE suppliers EVmatch and ChargePoint who supply charging equipment for the program. While not an official partner of Rural Reimagined, Virginia’s electric utility provider, Dominion Energy, also assists in installation of equipment and offers incentives state-wide for EV charging installation. Additionally, some local businesses have jumped on the opportunity of reduced cost EV chargers.  Rocky Mount Burger Co . in Rocky Mount, Virginia is currently undergoing EV charger installation through participation in Rural Reimagined ( Matthew Wade, Interview, April 22, 2024 ).

What appears to be a mere chance to test-drive EVs, is far deeper, far more collaborative, and far more impactful not only for Appalachia, but for the future of electrification in rural communities across the U.S. By engaging in cross-sector collaboration, Rural Reimagined can harness the strengths of all stakeholders, and better yet, achieve a more holistic approach to electrification that could not be achieved by one actor alone.


Start to Finish

Rural Reimagined understands establishing a comprehensive EV network takes more than just test-drives. Outside of test-drives, the project conducts concerted outreach and education to build trust, leverage cross-sector resources, and prepare the region for long-term implementation of EVs. With little exposure to EVs in Appalachia, the project builds awareness through a combination of media, EV demonstration events, and workforce development.

The project covers electrification from start to finish – partners each have their duties, with some focused on charging network installation and others in workforce development.

Outreach

For Virginia Clean Cities, media coverage has proved an invaluable asset for spreading the word. Participating governments are asked to share feedback on the program, with many providing rave reviews. Pennington Gap Town Manager Keith Harless praised Rural Reimagined to Powell Valley News after test-driving a Chevrolet Bolt. Harless commented on lower fuel costs, driving range, and ease of charging, later emphasizing the opportunities for Pennington Gap by electrifying, stating, “The innovation is coming and this is an avenue to help us prepare and be ready for it” ( Powell Valley News, 2023 ).

Rural Reimagined additionally conducts in-person outreach across the region, meeting residents face to face for introductions to EVs. As of June 2023, the program participated in 27 EV events, reaching 973 residents with 60 total rides and test drives ( Chen, 2023 ) While the program has generally been well-received, Wade of Virginia Clean Cities notes that EVs are still relatively new to Appalachia, meaning many still doubt how an EV may fit their lifestyle. Outreach events provide a nonpartisan, low-pressure environment for residents to learn more about EVs, which for many, is their first experience with an EV ( Matthew Wade, Interview, April 22, 2024 ).

Leveraging Partner Resources

As subject matter experts, Clean Fuel Coalitions are excellent facilitators for the program who can harness extensive knowledge on electrification. But Clean Fuel Coalitions cannot do it all – the funds simply do not exist, nor do they have adequate resources for widespread implementation. Thus, collaboration and strategic leveraging of partner resources must occur.

Local governments are participants in Virginia, but they dually assist with project implementation. Wade notes that local governments are essential in the EV charger permitting process and provide valuable feedback on sites for installation ( Matthew Wade, Interview, April 22, 2024 ).

As with many programs, funding is one of the largest hurdles. Rural Reimagined does not buy EVs for participants, nor do they cover the cost of EV charger installation. So if participants have continued interest in EVs, they must find the funds to purchase equipment, which for rural governments can be a large ask. Installing a Level-2 Charger can run anywhere from $2,000 – $8,000, with DC Fast Charger installation reaching as much as $25,000 ( Rural Reimagined, EVSE Info, 2024 ). Fortunately, Wade acknowledges there are a variety of grants, incentives, and tax-breaks that can assist with gaps in funding. For example, local governments can receive a 30% tax credit towards EV installation ( Matthew Wade, Interview, April 22, 2024) . Other incentives include an Electric Vehicle Charging Station Deployment Grant from the Virginia Department of Energy, Green Job Tax Credits, a Commercial Electric Vehicle Charging Rebate from Dominion Energy, and a host of other both public and private opportunities ( Virginia Clean Cities, 2024 ). Leveraging both partner and outside resources therefore allows the mission of Rural Reimagined to continue beyond the scope of the project.

Workforce Development

Recruiting participants, building the network, and educating the region would still not be enough without a plan to ensure long-term sustainability. Under the guidance of Dr. Chen, Tennessee Tech University is developing EV-focused coursework in partnership with both Nissan and Volkswagen for curriculum input. The University currently offers a  vehicle engineering  program, and is part of an EV workforce training group along with WVU, NAFTC, and five community colleges ( Chen, 2023 ).

Many of the participating rural communities are jumping at the additional job growth opportunities of electrification. Wade of Virginia Clean Cities has found local colleges and technical schools are interested in developing programming ( Matthew Wade, Interview, April 22, 2024 ). Harless, after Pennington Gap’s participation, visited the Lee County Career and Technical Center to encourage interest in EVs ( Powell Valley News, 2023 ). Since Appalachia struggles with unemployment and high poverty rates, residents can receive a direct benefit through jobs brought to the region in the EV transition. Furthermore, Rural Reimagined’s focus on economic outcomes and job growth has empowered rural communities who may have otherwise been resistant to electrification.


Charging for the Future

Allowing people to see, touch, sit in, drive, and experience electric vehicles – Rural Reimagined is making electrification tangible and real for a region who may have never considered it.

Matthew Wade: Deputy Director Virginia Clean Cities

As Wade appropriately stated, Rural Reimagined is impactful simply through the EV awareness brought to the Appalachian region. Even with 60 project partners, an expansive, inclusive EV network cannot be built overnight. The groundwork must first occur by meeting Appalachians face-to-face to build trust in electrification.

And trust Rural Reimagined is building. After participating in the program, the Town of Wytheville developed a “Wytheville Charged” webpage. The site provides a comprehensive overview of EVs, including information on incentives, locating EV chargers, and even the importance of EV infrastructure. The Town of Wytheville is also one of four localities in Virginia that has completed an EV charger installation ( Matthew Wade, Interview, April 22, 2024 ).

In Virginia, the Town of Saltville also unveiled a new EV charging station. Saltville is located 8 miles from the interstate, but now has the only EV charging station within 80 miles. The station is the first location in Smyth County with a public EV charging station. In an interview with Smyth County News and Messenger, Town Manager Brian Martin expressed hope that charging will draw people downtown to explore local amenities ( Burchette, 2023 ). As visitors stop to charge, they may explore retailers, restaurants, or just enjoy the scenery, but they are more likely to spend money and stimulate an economy that is currently in distress.

By June 2023, the project had already achieved several benchmarks such as establishing an EV fleet for the test-drive program, identifying 37 charging station sites, participating in 27 outreach events, and generating EV training materials for workforce development ( Chen, 2023 ).  With the project running through late 2025, efforts will continue to install charging stations and introduce Appalachia to EVs. Virginia’s Ford F-150 Lighting has 9,000 miles logged from participants, and the interest is still growing ( Matthew Wade, Interview, April 22, 2024 ).

Even with great success, Rural Reimagined is only the beginning for Appalachia. Wade emphasized there is still tremendous work to be done for the region. While the project has been received with open minds and eager participation, the infrastructure in rural areas is still lacking, and many still must get on board with a switch to EVs. Political leadership, culture, and program messaging can also influence whether a community is open to an EV transition ( Matthew Wade, Interview, April 22, 2024 ). For future success and widespread implementation, actors in the region must continue approaching electrification from a nonpartisan, educational perspective. Additionally, engaging cross-sector stakeholders can showcase the mutual benefits possible when working towards a more sustainable Appalachia.


Mile by mile, Rural Reimagined is changing the future for Appalachia. Single EV chargers or an EV test-drive will not electrify Appalachia or revolutionize transportation for the region. However, the program is changing hearts, opening minds, and above all, unifying the region towards a common goal. Moreover, Rural Reimagined confirms the power in working together to make a sustainable future – each actor performs an essential role in which all must participate to succeed. Charging installation, regional education, workforce development, and for Appalachian residents, openly embracing an EV transition, are not nearly as impactful if done alone. Instead, tackling electrification from each sector is laying the groundwork for a sustainable, long-term EV transition. Only through regional collaboration, a shared vision, and hope for a better future is Rural Reimagined truly reimagining what it means to be rural.


Link to the original story – https://arcg.is/1vTfXu1

References

Appalachian Regional Commission. (n.d.). About the Appalachian Region. Retrieved from  https://www.arc.gov/about-the-appalachian-region/ 

Appalachian Regional Commission. (n.d.). Classifying economic distress in Appalachian counties. Retrieved from  https://www.arc.gov/classifying-economic-distress-in-appalachian-counties/ 

Burchette, Linda. (2023). Saltville installs county’s first public EV station. Smyth County News and Messenger. Retrieved from  https://swvatoday.com/news/community/smyth-county/article_849908ca-87bf-11ee-8e74-2fee7d4ef4b8.html 

Chen, P. (2023). Rural Reimagined: Building an EV Ecosystem and Green Economy for Transforming Lives in Economically Distressed Appalachia [PDF]. Tennessee Technological University. Retrieved from  https://www1.eere.energy.gov/vehiclesandfuels/downloads/2023_AMR/TI146_Chen_2023_o%20-%20Pingen%20Chen.pdf 

Hafner, Katherine (2024). Clean cars law now in effect in Virginia. Here’s what that means. WHRO. Retrieved from  https://whro.org/news/local-news/45732-clean-cars-law-now-in-effect-in-virginia-here-s-what-that-means 

National Renewable Energy Laboratory. (2023). Building the 2030 National Charging Network. NREL.gov. Retrieved from  https://www.nrel.gov/news/program/2023/building-the-2030-national-charging-network.html 

Personal Communication Contact: Bruce Vlk, Electric Vehicle Program Manager and Communications Director of Virginia Clean Cities. Office: 434-277-3418.  bvlk@vacleancities.org 

Personal Communication Contact: Matthew Wade, Deputy Director of Virginia Clean Cities. Office: (540) 568-4051.  mwade@vacleancities.org 

Powell Valley News. (2023). Town Manager Fully Charged About Electric Vehicle. Rural Reimagined. Retrieved from  https://rural-reimagined.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/03/Powell-Valley-News_2023-03-01_1826-Article-EV-Car.pdf 

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U.S. Department of Energy. (n.d.). A National Network of Local Coalitions. Clean Cities and Communities. Retrieved from  https://cleancities.energy.gov/coalitions/#:~:text=Coalitions%20designated%20by%20the%20U.S.,coalition%20contacts%20to%20learn%20more .

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Virginia Clean Cities. (2024). Laws and incentives. Retrieved from  https://vacleancities.org/laws-and-incentives/#