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Electric vehicles gaining ground in Ohio despite infrastructure gaps

Ruth Milligan electric vehicle EV tow truck 1.jpg
Ruth Milligan
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Ruth Milligan's electric vehicle ran out of juice in Findlay, Ohio, on her way to take her daughter to college in Michigan in August.

Charging an electric vehicle in central Ohio is relatively easy. Columbus has hundreds of charging stations sprinkled around the city, but travel farther afield and charging options quickly vanish.

Longtime Clintonville resident Ruth Milligan found that out the hard way when, in August, she drove her daughter to college at Michigan State University in the family's Volkswagen ID.4.

“I had done all sorts of mapping and planning and shipped some stuff in advance," Milligan said.

Much of her planning revolved around how much the car was able to hold, she explained. But weight wasn't an issue so much as drag.

With luggage on the roof and a bike strapped to the back, wind resistance was depleting her car's battery faster than anticipated. She realized they were not going to make it to their planned stop for the night in Toledo.

"We found ourselves at a Mexican restaurant in the middle of Findlay, Ohio saying, 'How are we going to imagine getting to East Lansing?' and the first thing we had to do was imagine not using this car to get there," she said.

Milligan's story illustrates the inequitable distribution of charging stations across the state.

The U.S. Department of Energy shows more than 1,400 station locations in Ohio, clustered mainly near urban centers.

But state officials say the road ahead is increasingly gas-free, and Ohio needs to get ready.

“Auto manufacturers have signaled and indicated that they are going to shift to electrified vehicles pretty quickly in the next five to 10 years," said Preeti Choudhary, executive director of DriveOhio.

DriveOhio recently began accepting proposals for companies to build and operate EV fast-charging stations throughout the state.

"These fast chargers could charge a battery and an electric vehicle battery in 20 to 40 minutes versus Level Two chargers that would take anywhere from four to eight hours to receive the same charge. So they have significantly higher power," she said.

Right now, Ohio only has 13 fast-charging stations that meet national standards such as being a mile from an interstate exit and having at least four charging ports.

Choudhary said plans call for Ohio to add 30 more locations by 2025, located every 50 miles along interstates and state routes.

“We want to make sure that everyone has reliable, safe access to fast chargers," she said.

EVs continue to gain popularity in the state. It's not just early adopters buying EVs, but an increasing number of gearheads as well, said Zach Doran, president of the Ohio Automobile Dealers Association.

“The performance in these cars and trucks is incredible," Doran said. "They're super fast. They have a ton of torque. They're fun to drive. And so I think folks are getting more willing to look at them," he said.

Still, some are skeptical that Ohio is ready to transition to electric vehicles.

Brian Rothenberg has eight years of experience with public relations in the automotive industry.

"On the one hand, you have to prepare for the future, and these are the future of vehicles. But on the other hand, it's one of the rare instances where the demand has to start meeting the expectations at some point," Rothenberg said.

Battery life needs to improve for EVs to really become viable, Rothenberg said. He also worries that, even with state investment, there won't be enough chargers in some areas.

“If you live in an apartment, or you're in the inner city, where are you going to plug in your vehicle? How long will it take to charge? These are all things that have to be worked on," he said.

He's also concerned about auto workers making a fair wage.

“There's over 240 parts that go into a combustible engine, and all those jobs making those parts have a lot less parts to make when you're going to a battery-operated vehicle. So will those jobs pay the same way that auto jobs are?" he said.

However, state and industry leaders say Ohio is ready to make the switch to EVs.

"[Ohio auto dealers] are very much engaged in this process. They're all buying special tools and equipment and doing training with their technicians to get ready to sell and service these vehicles and answer consumers' questions," Doran said.

EV owner Ruth Milligan said hers is a cautionary tale, but one she hopes does not discourage any would-be EV buyers.

“We'll continue to take this car to Michigan, but without a roof top or a bike rack,” she said.

Matthew Rand is a reporter for 89.7 NPR News. Rand served as an interim producer during the pandemic for WOSU’s All Sides with Ann Fisher.