Last week, President Biden gathered executives of the three biggest US automakers—Ford, General Motors, and Stellantis (which makes Fiat-Chrysler vehicles)—at the White House. Biden got to gleefully drive an electric Jeep for the occasion. More important, the three companies jointly pledged that at least 40 percent, and as many as half, of vehicles they sell by the end of the decade would be zero-emission ones.
At the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, Congress was busy making that lofty goal easier to meet. A bipartisan infrastructure bill, the details of which are not final, would allocate $7.5 billion to bolstering the nation’s network of electric vehicle charging stations. It’s money badly needed, experts say, if the US wants to put a dent in its carbon emissions, and their increasingly horrifying effects on the planet. Twenty-nine percent of the country’s greenhouse gas emissions come from transportation, and more than half of those are from light-duty vehicles like passenger cars.
A bunch of things have to fall into place if the US is to hit the White House’s electric-vehicle goals by 2030. Last year, roughly 2 percent of cars sold in the US were electric, almost half of them in California, meaning sales will have to increase 20-fold. Even so, that would mean only about 10 to 11 percent of cars on the road in 2030 would be electric.
Sufficient charging infrastructure won’t be the only hurdle to reaching the goal. Automakers will have to come through on their promises to offer more EVs, at lower prices. Utilities will have to take on the extra burden of powering transportation at a price that people can afford. Americans will have to simply get accustomed to the idea of ditching the sort of cars they’ve always known.
But creating more charging stations, and especially more publicly accessible ones, is “the holy grail,” says Mike Nicholas, a senior researcher who studies electric vehicles at the International Council on Clean Transportation, a nonprofit research organization. A recent analysis by Nicholas and his colleagues estimates that the country will need 2.4 million public and workplace chargers by 2030 if it wants to meet its goals. Today, it has 216,000.
Biden initially asked for $15 billion, which the White House said would have provided 500,000 charging stations. Congress cut the proposal in half, meaning there’s estimated to be enough money for 250,000 fast chargers; if the money is used for less expensive chargers, it could finance more. Factoring in the charging stations that private industry might build, “it wouldn’t cover everything, but it’s a good start,” Nicholas says.
Here’s the funny thing: Most electric vehicles, especially at the beginning of the transition, will likely be charged at home, away from gas-station-like public fast chargers. That charging at home will be slower, probably taking all night to re-up the battery. For the two-thirds of Americans who live in single-family homes, with their own garages and driveways, that might be OK. They come home from work, plug in their car, and are ready to go the next day. This is especially true right now, when electric vehicle owners tend to be higher-income, better educated, have more than one vehicle, and live in single-family houses.
But research suggests people with great charging options at home feel nervous about the lack of public charging infrastructure, even if they don’t need it that often. Today’s most popular electric vehicles have a 250-mile range. What happens, potential owners ask, if they need to travel 300 miles in a day? What sort of chargers are there to support them then?
On one hand, this feels like a silly concern. The average daily commute is less than 40 miles round-trip, which an EV would handle easily. But drivers want to know that they won’t be stuck, especially if, for example, someone needs to get to the hospital and they forgot to plug the car in last night.
“Consumers knowing that those trips are possible, even if they don’t happen very often, will enable them to consider purchasing an electric vehicle,” says Eleftheria Kontou, a professor of civil and environmental engineering who studies electric vehicle operations at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.
Which is why the promise of federal money is enticing. A White House fact sheet indicates that the Feds are focused on building fast-charging stations near highways—a kind of replacement for the gas-station-anchored rest stops of today. Fast chargers, which can refill a vehicle’s battery in 20 minutes, compared with six to eight hours, are tens of thousands of dollars more expensive. The money will also be pointed towards “rural, disadvantaged, and hard-to-reach communities,” the White House says. In this case, money helps.
But the country also needs to focus on a more complicated issue—how to make charging viable for people who live in apartments or use on-street parking. A few years ago, Jeremy Michalek used a plug-in hybrid car for work. At the time, he lived in an apartment in Pittsburgh. If he wanted to charge his car at home, he had to snag the parking spot in front of his house, then snake a long extension cord up a flight and a half of stairs, to an outlet he could call his own. The thing created a tripping hazard on the sidewalk. Fortunately, he could mostly charge at work, at Carnegie Mellon University, where he studies electric vehicle policy as a professor.
Cities around the world are starting to experiment. In Amsterdam, the government installs on-street chargers by resident request. (A quarter of new cars registered in the Netherlands last year were either battery-electric or plug-in hybrids.) In London, at least 1,300 lampposts have been converted to chargers. In the US, charging stations used by mall shoppers and workers during the day are sometimes made available to those who live nearby at night.
Eventually, dense cities might need some sort of reservation program to ensure that residents’ cars are charged when they need them, says Kontou. It’s all going to require money, but also lots of meetings, she says. “There are so many groups that did not used to collaborate—the transportation groups, the energy groups, the environment groups, the electricity and power generation groups,” she says. “All need to come together to work this out.”