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With plans to eliminate the country’s carbon footprint by 2050, Joe Biden could easily be the greenest president in American history. But achieving such a flashy goal will involve plenty of work in much more mundane areas, like having enough spots to charge a rapidly growing fleet of electric vehicles.
Even with 1.8 million battery-powered cars already on US roads, there are only about 100,000 charging plugs for them at around 41,000 public station locations. That disparity makes it easy to see how range anxiety — or the fear of running out of juice without a charging spot nearby — is one of the biggest hurdles for consumer’s considering a clean car.
President Biden has pledged to build 500,000 new plugs over the next decade, in an effort to cut emissions from highways that are currently the single largest source of carbon emissions. To get there — and to reach a fully electric future — five experts and industry leaders say the country will need an aggressive infrastructure plan and an array of green policies to go along with it.
The number of EVs in the US may balloon to 35 million by 2030, requiring more than 2 million public chargers, The Brattle Group, an economics consulting firm, projects. With such a boom on the horizon, charging operators are excited about the prospect of a multibillion-dollar federal investment in charging infrastructure that could give a jolt to the EV transition that’s already underway.
“This industry is happening. The question is how much more quickly can it happen,” Jonathan Levy, chief commercial officer at the fast-charging firm EVgo, said in an interview. “What we’re really excited about is the Biden administration recognizing that this is going to happen the world over, and if the US wants to lead, there’s going to have to be more federal policy support to help make that happen.”
But Biden’s plan — and, ultimately, any congressional action — could take many shapes. Industry leaders and policy experts are divided on how best to make it happen.
A White House spokesperson declined to comment on the administration’s plans.
Making things happen quickly, something that isn’t the federal government’s strong suit, is a top priority for Drew Lipsher, head of strategy at the charging company Volta. After all, EVs made up less than 3% of all car sales in 2020.
“I think the single most important thing the government can focus on to meet the projected demand — speed,” he said in an interview. “The harder they make it, and the more that process slows things down, it’s only going to hurt the transition to electric mobility.”
Convincing millions of consumers to go electric will require a massive upfront investment to drastically scale charging access, Nick Nigro, founder of the transportation-focused consultancy Atlas Public Policy, told Insider. He wants Congress and the Biden administration to approach charging infrastructure the same way Tesla went about building its Supercharger network.
“[Tesla] made considerable investments early on to establish that no matter where you were in the United States, you’d be able to travel with your Tesla vehicle without concern over range or access to charging,” he said. “Now the federal government is in a position to look at all electric transportation with that same lens.”
Nigro recommends that the Departments of Transportation and Energy work together to dole out grants to vendors, potentially through existing channels like the State Energy Program.
Rebates that incentivize companies to build chargers, or for customers to buy them, are another option for spurring activity quickly.
Anne Smart, vice president of public policy at ChargePoint, a charging company that sells plugs to businesses, fleets, and for home use, is particularly excited about the expansion of consumer-side rebates. These can be rolled out quicker than grants, have proved effective at the state level, and let the market operate as usual, she said. Customers can choose whichever charger provider they’d like and get a few thousand dollars off of the sticker price.
According to Volta’s Lipsher, however, a rebate program for charging companies could actually hamper progress if it incentivizes firms to wait months and years for a rebate to be approved before starting construction
EVgo’s Levy, who has held positions at the Department of Energy and in the Obama White House, says there are risks to building too many charging stations too quickly. Charging infrastructure needs to stay just ahead of EV ownership and demand, not drastically outpace it, he says.
To make his point, Levy quotes hockey legend Wayne Gretzky’s famous adage about skating where the puck is going to be, not where it has been. For charging companies, “you want to skate just ahead of the puck. If we’re skating so far beyond the puck that we’re out of the arena, that’s a problem for the industry,” he said.
That’s because overbuilding can crater the economics of the charging business, he said, leading to large numbers of stations that are underutilized and unprofitable to operate.
It’s a mistake that’s been made in the past — with significant consequences. As part of the 2009 Recovery Act, the Department of Energy allocated $100 million in grants to a company named Ecotality to construct more than 10,000 charging stations. Four years later, Ecotality filed for bankruptcy. An audit from that year found that demand for EVs hadn’t grown as quickly as anticipated, and that the majority of the commercial charging stations Ecotality had built suffered from low usage.
To avoid similar pitfalls, government programs for clean energy could allow funds to be used not only for capital investment but also operating expenses in order to bridge the gap to profitability, Levy said.
Whatever funding model it chooses, experts say the government should be deliberate about where chargers go and what sort of technology is used. Fast chargers, for instance, aren’t necessary on urban and suburban streets where people tend to park for hours at a time. On the contrary, slower Level 2 plugs aren’t suited for rural areas or highway rest stops where people intend on only spending 45 minutes.
Then there’s the question of equity.
Targeting major transportation improvements toward minority communities is especially important, given that they bear the brunt of the country’s carbon emissions, Anne Shikany, an infrastructure-policy expert at the Natural Resources Defense Council told Insider. But investment shouldn’t come at the expense of community engagement.
“One thing that we’d like to see is a lot of consultation with communities before infrastructure goes in,” Shikany said. “Talking to communities and making sure that the stuff you want to provide matches their needs is incredibly important.”
Charging is just one piece of the puzzle of transitioning the country away from gas-powered cars. And charging companies hope that the new administration follows through on a host of other measures to boost demand for EVs.
Biden has also pledged to convert the entire federal government’s fleet — some 650,000 vehicles — to electric, and has promised that every US-made bus will be battery-powered by 2030. Charging companies hope that an expansion of the current zero-emission-vehicle tax credit is on the horizon, too.
Excitement aside, the charging firms Insider spoke with said they’re also prepared to go it alone if the White House doesn’t come through. The train has left the station, they said, and the EV boom is happening with or without the federal government’s backing.
“Policy is also mainly a tailwind the way we see it,” Levy said. “The EV future is now, and it’s here, and it’s happening regardless of anything else.”