Is Central Montana ready for electric vehicles?

Deb Hill
Tuesday, January 11, 2022
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Snowy Mountain Motors sales consultant Nik Scebba is in training for sales of all-electric vehicles. The dealership will likely carry the Ford F150-EV truck, Lightning, later this year, and will be installing a charging station. Photo by Matthew Strissel

Suddenly, or so it seems, the news is full of stories on electric vehicles. Last week Reuters news agency reported sales of all-electric vehicles jumped 83% in the last year, and sales of hybrid vehicles (those with electric and gas power) now make up 5% of all new vehicles sold in the U.S. 

Earlier this month, General Motors said it plans to produce nothing but electric vehicles by 2035. In December the Montana Department of Commerce announced grants to increase the number of electric vehicle charging stations around the state. NorthWestern Energy has begun the process of changing around 30% of its fleet over to electric. 

It certainly feels like the electric vehicle concept has reached a tipping point, but what does that mean here in rural Central Montana?

“The first thing is, we don’t want people scared that they are going to lose their ICE [internal combustion engine] vehicles,” said Nik Scebba, sales consultant with Snowy Mountain Motors. “No one is coming to take them away. Electric vehicles are good for certain types of uses, such as people who mostly drive around town, but there is still no electric replacement for the kinds of vehicles we see a lot of here – the 1-ton and larger trucks. The electric vehicle market right now is driven by demand for sedans, small SUVs and small pickups.”

Scebba, along with others at Snowy Mountain Motors, has been training to sell and service electric vehicles. He explained there are three categories of all-electric vehicles available, depending on the type of battery.

“Type 1 can be charged with 120 volt house current, but it takes about 12 hours for a full charge,” Scebba said. “Type 2 is an upgrade, and charges in four hours on a 220 volt current. DC is a fast charge, that only takes 30 to 40 minutes.”


How far can you go?

One of the main hurdles for electric vehicle owners traveling through or living in Central Montana is a lack of charging stations.

But one, at least, will be installed here before the end of 2022.

“Snowy Mountain Motors will have a Ford charging station out front sometime this year,” Scebba said.

In part this is a result of being a certified Ford dealership.

“The 100% electric Ford F150 Lightning truck is out this year,” Scebba said. “It has an estimated range of up to 300 miles per charge. Our charging station will be a service for Ford drivers traveling through Lewistown, but it will also be a charging station Lewistown customers can use.”

Just as checking the amount of gas left in the tank becomes second nature to drivers of gas-powered vehicles, checking the amount of battery charge left is normal for EV drivers. Most vehicles provide drivers a prediction of how much longer they can go on the current charge and show where the closest charging station is.

“The biggest pushback I get [from potential buyers] is the range is calculated for an unloaded vehicle. How far you can go with a full load isn’t something we have estimates for,” Scebba said, adding that as soon as he can get hold of one of the electric 150s he will test it out himself.

However, Scebba also thinks the range limitations may be overcome soon.

“There are advancements being made almost daily with electric vehicles,” he said. 

For example, Scebba said, Ford is working on a charging station that would take only five minutes. An article in Forbes magazine last fall said Chevrolet intends to produce an all-electric version of the popular Silverado pickup by 2023 or 2024, with an estimated range of 400 miles. Much may improve in the next year or two.


Change is in the air

Last month the Department of Commerce announced funding for charging stations from the state’s settlement with Volkswagen. The grants were targeted to “key” travel corridors, mostly those near Glacier and Yellowstone National Parks. Town Pump and Northwestern Energy were among the recipients.

Bill McGladdery, director of corporate communications for Town Pump, said the VW funds will be used to install 15 additional charging stations at Town Pump locations across the state.

“Once those are completed, we will see what the demand is,” McGladdery said. “We just opened our first charging location in Whitefish last week. Sometimes it can take as long as 20 minutes to fully charge a vehicle, so we usually set the charging stations on the side of a property. It’s quite an extensive amount of work to put one in, and we are watching demand to see where more are needed.”

“Northwestern is installing the charging stations at the Town Pump locations,” said Jo Dee Black, public relations specialist with Northwestern Energy. “We are also planning to replace 20% of our own medium and heavy duty vehicles, 30% of our bucket trucks and all our forklifts with electric vehicles by 2030. One of our division managers has replaced all of his sedan fleet with the Nissan Volt. It’s working great for him, as he does mostly highway driving.”

However, not everyone is jumping on the electric vehicle bandwagon, at least not yet.

“I’m taking a ‘wait and see’ approach,” said Brandon Cowen, owner of Courtesy Motors. “We did some training when the hybrids first came out, but I haven’t seen any fully electric vehicles here yet. I think it’s short sighted of some of the automakers to go all-electric, when there could be something even better in the future, like hydrogen cell technology. But right now we’re just watching to see where things go in Central Montana.”