BISMARCK — When it comes to ownership in the country's growing fleet of electric cars, North Dakota ranks among the very last in the U.S.
Home to just 266 registered fully electric vehicles, according to the state's Department of Transportation, North Dakota's tally is the lowest of any state. Fewer fully electric and plug-in hybrids have been registered here in the last 10 years than in any other state, according to the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, and last year, electric cars accounted for a smaller sliver of total vehicle sales in North Dakota than in all but one other state, according to an analysis by Loren McDonald of the electric vehicle data center EVAdoption.
This may come as little surprise: The nation's second-leading oil producer can also get bitterly cold — a hindrance to the range of electric cars — and its thinly spread cities and towns pose an immediate challenge to EV drivers whose travel is limited by the distance between critical recharge stations.
But a spike in the number of charging stations over the last year may have marked a turning point for EV accessibility in North Dakota. The state has already seen a bump in its electric car census over the same span: The Department of Transportation reports that 100 new electric vehicles have been registered in North Dakota since last May, an increase of more than 60%.
Some other parts of the country have embraced the transition toward electric vehicles as a climate priority. Last fall, California Democrat Gov. Gavin Newsom announced a goal to ban the sale of traditional gas-powered vehicles within 15 years. Major corporations have made similarly aggressive pledges. This year, Ford Motors, known for its gas guzzling pickup trucks, announced a $22 billion investment in electric vehicles by 2025, and Amazon has already begun the rollout of 100,000 electric delivery vans, a total it aims to reach by the end of the decade.
But while Democrat-controlled states like California have looked to encourage EV adoption, in some cases with dramatic political pushes and financial incentives, some Republicans in North Dakota see the other side of the coin: Widespread adoption of electric cars could come with a dent to state tax revenues.
“We’ve got to come to grips with the growing electric vehicle fleet,” said Dickinson Republican Rep. Vicky Steiner, who sponsored a bill this legislative session aimed at increasing the state's annual electric vehicle fee from $120 to $200. “North Dakota is not an island, and we are influenced by what’s happening on the West and East coasts, even if we don’t like it.”
While drivers of gas-powered vehicles in North Dakota pay a 23 cent per gallon tax at the pump every time they fill up, the state's small share of EV drivers can recharge their vehicles tax free. To make sure all drivers are paying into the state fund for maintenance of roads, North Dakota instituted a flat, annual electric vehicle fee in 2019. Steiner's proposal to bump it up this year fell short.
Steiner noted that the long-term solution may be a total reworking of the state's vehicle taxation, scrapping the gas tax entirely to find ways to charge all vehicles by miles driven. Either way, she said, the state will need to figure out the EV tax question soon, since course corrections further down the road could be harder to make.
"I’m not gonna let EVs fleece our gas-driving public," Steiner said. "I want fairness."
But some advocates for EV adoption have pushed against the higher fee, arguing that North Dakota should treat the batter-powered vehicles no differently from traditional cars if it wants to keep pace with other states in the region.
North Dakota's recent spike in electric charging stations has come largely thanks to a federal settlement with Volkswagen that sent transportation funding to states. More than a million dollars out of the Volkswagen settlement went toward the installation of new charging stations around North Dakota.
Robert Moffitt, coordinator for the alternative fuels advocacy group North Dakota Clean Cities, noted that a year ago an electric car couldn’t drive from Fargo to the Montana border along I-94 in a day’s trip. There wasn't a single EV fast charging station anywhere in the state, meaning that all of the available outlets required hours to get a car from empty to full. Thanks to the Volkswagen settlement, the state will soon have 16 of the more efficient fast chargers.
Still, not all electric vehicle owners in North Dakota see the results of the VW settlement as a major stride in EV accessibility in the state. Brian Kopp, an electric vehicle advocate in Dickinson who has driven a Tesla since 2014, noted that even the fast chargers are still significantly slower than the proprietary chargers available only to Tesla owners.
Today, nearly three quarters of the electric cars registered in North Dakota are Teslas, according to the Department of Transportation, and Kopp said he’s not sure that other manufacturers will see significant growth in the state until they can match Tesla's recharge times.
McDonald with EVAdoption noted that a separate barrier to electrification in North Dakota could fall soon. No manufacturer has produced a commercially available electric pickup truck yet, a significant snag for truck-dominated North Dakota, but McDonald argued that models debuting over the next year could mark a "sea change" for blue collar states.
Some other advocates said North Dakota could goose EV adoption along by taking a more active role in the market and infrastructure going forward.
Democratic Sen. Merrill Piepkorn, of Fargo, said he wants to see North Dakota join some other states in offering rebates to new electric vehicle owners, as well as an investment of state dollars into more charging infrastructure. Steve Salwei, director of transportation programs at the state Department of Transportation, said the department has considered state incentives for new charging stations, though it has no plans in place to pursue them.
“We’re never going to look like California in terms of numbers, but we can still look better than Montana or Wyoming if we try,” said Moffitt, who has advocated against high EV fees and called for electrification of parts of the state vehicle fleet. And though Moffitt said his organization hasn’t taken a position on state incentives, he noted that that tactic has boosted the market in other parts of the country.
“It’s really, if you build it they will come,” he said.
A previous version of this story incorrectly represented the position of Robert Moffitt of North Dakota Clean Cities on the state's annual EV fee. He has opposed high annual fees for electric car drivers but has not called for an elimination of the fee.
Readers can reach Forum reporter Adam Willis, a Report for America corps member, at email@example.com.