President Biden has announced a number of measures to accelerate , including a plan to deploy 500,000 new public charging stations across the US by 2030. However, as long-time followers of the EV scene understand, building a national charging infrastructure that really helps to drive EV adoption will need to involve much more than just allocating funds to roll out a certain number of chargers.
Some of us remember the first wave of public charging deployment in the early 2010s, when local governments all over the country used federal subsidies to install chargers where it was cheapest and easiest to install them—not where they would really be useful to drivers. To be fair, EV owners were thin on the roads in those days, and there was little or no data available to guide local officials’ deployment plans.
Fast-forward to 2021, and there’s plenty of real-world information about charging habits, dozens of studies, and plenty of informed predictions about where and how public charging needs to be deployed. Tesla and Electrify America, among others, have devoted a lot of money and brainpower to establishing best practices for siting and operating charging stations.
The plan to deploy 500,000 chargers represents at least a five-fold increase in the nation’s existing infrastructure (according to the DOE, there are currently around 90,000 individual chargers at 28,000 charging stations, including some 908 Tesla Supercharger stations). According to calculations by BloombergNEF, Biden’s plan will probably cost north of $5 billion, and will provide roughly 57% of the country’s charging needs by 2030. The massive infrastructure upgrade could spark the sale of as many as 25 million electric vehicles.
A recent Bloomberg video takes a look at the administration’s infrastructure plans and how they may unfold.
Above: Discussion surrounding Biden's plan to install 500,000 electric vehicle chargers by 2030 (YouTube: Bloomberg Quicktake: Now)
“It’s spot-on with what the market needs,” said Cathy Zoi, CEO of national charging network EVgo. “The sweet spot is to actually accelerate the electrification of our transportation, and this can bring that forward by three to five years.”
According to research from BloombergNEF, the ideal ratio of public chargers would be about 40 to 50 for every EV on the road. Currently, the ration is about 20 to 1, so public charging infrastructure in the US is arguably a little ahead of the EV market.
That might be news to drivers in EV-rich regions such as California. In a recent article in Mashable, Sasha Lekach writes that public charging capacity in the Golden State, which has around 800,000 plug-in vehicles and nearly 70,000 public chargers, is “already way behind demand.” As many an electric commuter will tell you, finding an available plug is by no means easy, especially on the highway. Half a million chargers sounds like a good interim goal, but many believe it won’t be enough.
Furthermore, as we noted at the beginning of this article, it’s not just about the number of plugs. Building out an effective and efficient national infrastructure will be an extremely complex undertaking. “In principle, the 500k goal is easy to explain—it fits on a postcard—but it’s as complicated as any major construction program in the US at the moment,” Nick Nigro, founder of transportation consultancy Atlas Public Policy, told Bloomberg. “It’s not just ‘Let’s build the electric vehicle charging site of the future and then copycat it all over the country.’”
The current conventional wisdom is that around 80 percent of charging takes place at home, and that the most important sites for public chargers are on the highways, to enable long-distance travel, and in dense city centers, where many residents don’t have assigned parking spaces where they could install their own chargers. However, as the EV scene evolves, other scenarios may emerge. “The ways people use their cars are diverse,” Electric Drive Transportation Association President Genevieve Cullen told Mashable. “There need to be diverse charging options to meet them.”
Anne Smart, VP of Public Policy at charging network ChargePoint, added that the pandemic showed the need for a greater variety of charging locations. “As home became both a residence and workplace, we saw an increase in residential charging coupled with significant increases in interest for multi-family properties, as property owners explore ways to offer charging as an amenity for residents.”
A recent study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, published in Nature Energy, found that installing more charging stations on streets, in addition to the usual locations at parking garages and shopping malls, could encourage more people to buy EVs. The researchers found that drivers were more open to going electric when they realized that they could charge a little at a time while running their errands around town.
Many questions remain about the infrastructure plan—who will be building and maintaining the 500,000 new chargers? What will the pricing structure look like? To what extent will state and local governments, and local utilities, be involved? Fortunately, there’s every reason to expect that the new administration will be guided by the data, and the recommendations of experts. The announcement of the ambitious plan is just the beginning, but it’s a critical first step into the future.