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Electric cars in Wyoming are in need of chargers, but will local businesses bite?

A cartoon futuristic city stands in the background. In front of it is a bison grazing on the plains and a white car with the logo of Wind River Internet on the side. A cartoon dog sits in the passenger seat and Patrick Lawson stands in front of it.
Artist: Josiah Colbert
Northern Arapaho tribal member Patrick Lawson works for Wild River Internet laying fiberoptic internet on the Wind River Reservation. In his down time he started Wild West EV installing electric vehicle chargers in central Wyoming.

On a Wyoming highway, a sound close to what you might hear on the Jetsons is coming from a small car. Patrick Lawson, a Northern Arapaho tribal member, changed the sound with a couple clicks on a screen to an ice cream truck. He smiled and explained that these cars are silent but you can make them sound like almost anything.

"I'm a big enthusiast of electric vehicles. And my family started a company putting in charging stations," he said behind the wheel.

He started Wild West EV, a company that's installing electric car changers in central Wyoming. He said part of the reason people in Wyoming are so hesitant about buying electric cars is that there are very few charging stations.

"We're trying to fill in all the gaps because the big companies that are putting in charging stations are putting them along the interstates. And we live in the middle of the state, where the interstates just kind of go along the edges of the state mostly," said Lawson.

The chargers he's installed in central Wyoming are some of the slower ones. But he's optimistic about the federal funding dollars that are coming into the state.

"What the state's trying to put in are these DC, level three fast chargers," said Lawson. "So you're talking about charging a car in less than a half an hour, and some of the newest cars that are coming out in less than 10 minutes."This money is from the new Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that President Biden signed late last year. Wyoming received $25 million of that money, and the state is in charge of distributing but no state money will go to maintaining or installing these chargers. The state wants local businesses to take up the opportunity.

The National Electric Vehicles Infrastructure Program (NEVI) funding wants to put electric chargers every 50 miles. But Luke Reiner, the director of the Wyoming Department of Transportation (WYDOT), said that might be economically impossible. That's because you could be in the middle of nowhere after driving 50 miles where there's no infrastructure.

The thing is, installing an electric car charger is expensive and it's questionable whether enough people are driving electric cars to sustain those chargers in the state.

"You just got to make sure that, you know, just hope enough people come through that you can, work to pay the bills, to keep it operational, but the first step is money to actually install the station," he said.

The federal money will foot the bill for up to 80 percent of the cost to install a station and keep the business afloat for the first five years. But then the business would need to put the rest of the money in. That's still a lot of money.

But still, Reiner said it can be a good business opportunity for Wyomingites, and there is other money available to those interested in installing electric car chargers. Such as the Volkswagen Settlement money and other discretionary grants.

"Our goal here is to make sure that this money gets into the hands of businesses and so you let free enterprise really take the lead on this," he said.

So, WYDOT has been going across the state to get the opinions of local Wyomingites. Business owners have had a lot of questions on if a remote charging station could even stay open and would be worth the initial investment.

One of those business owners is Mike Bailey. He owns a chain of local gas stations and a tire shop in central Wyoming and he was the President of the National Petroleum Marketers Association in 2016.

Bailey said he's thinking of installing electric car chargers at his gas stations but the price tag of installation is too steep even with the federal help.

"So, even if they pay for 80 percent of that, that's still $100,000, that you've got to show that you could make that return on your investment over time," he said.

Whether Bailey decides to take this business opportunity or not, bigger companies are moving in. Electrify America, a national EV LLC, is already planning on installing superchargers in the state.

"And I'm not saying they can't do it. But I think it will be more successful for Wyoming if we get local people involved in the process. Because we've got a vested interest in things working here," said Bailey.

Not many locals have electric vehicles. The state says there are around 500 registered in Wyoming compared to 47,000 electric vehicles registered in Colorado and 2,700 in Idaho.

Bailey said the lack of electric cars in Wyoming isn't really what worries him, it's more about whether electric vehicle owners will travel through the state, and he thinks there's a class element to the discussion.

"Obviously, the guy that's working on Main Street at Taco John's serving food, probably not the guy that's owning the Tesla, it's probably the higher end economic group. And they are the ones that travel more," he said.

Patrick Lawson with Wild West EV has talked to Mike Bailey about installing chargers at his gas stations in central Wyoming. He understands Bailey's concerns.

"I definitely see that Wyoming is going to be one of the laggards behind just because it's just harder for us to change in our ways," Lawson said.

Currently, tourism is the second biggest economic driver for Wyoming. So, Lawson said while there is risk in installing chargers if you build them, they will come.

Taylar Dawn Stagner is a central Wyoming rural and tribal reporter for Wyoming Public Radio. She has degrees in American Studies, a discipline that interrogates the history and culture of America. She was a Native American Journalist Association Fellow in 2019, and won an Edward R. Murrow Award for her Modern West podcast episode about drag queens in rural spaces in 2021. Stagner is Arapaho and Shoshone.

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