More electric car charging stations needed to juice EV sales: Is Biden's 500,000 proposal on target?
If the gas shortages tied to the Colonial Pipeline's cyberattack have taught us anything, it's how quickly things can go haywire when we fear our access to fuel has been lost.
So, anyone who has ever run low on gas without knowing whether there's a gas station nearby knows what it’s like to drive an electric car that’s low on battery power. After all, do you know where your closest charging station is?
That condition – known as range anxiety – could soon be eradicated. President Joe Biden is proposing a massive investment in electric car charging stations that would make it much easier to "fill up" on electricity.
Without more chargers, the popularity of electric vehicles – which have been welcomed as a way to help mitigate climate change but represent only about 1 in 50 vehicles sold in 2020 – may remain limited.
While automakers like General Motors, Honda and Volvo say they aim to phase out gas engines in the next 10 to 20 years, a lack of public electric car charging stations is widely viewed as a threat to those plans.
Adding local charging stations is the No. 1 factor that would drive more Americans to buy EVs, according to a February survey of car owners by car-buying site CarGurus. About 65% of respondents said additional stations would help convince them to take the plunge.
Biden's proposal calls for 500,000 new charging stations, a more than tenfold increase of the current number that would go a long way toward easing the concerns of Americans who aren’t ready to embrace electric cars. Each station typically offers several to a dozen or more plugs.
Drivers such as Brittany Idleburg say more stations will speed up America’s transition from gas cars to electric vehicles.
The Atlanta-based blogger bought a Tesla Model S electric sedan in 2017 and enjoys using the automaker’s more than 25,000 global Tesla-only Supercharger ports, but she acknowledged that more stations open to the public will go a long way.
“I was really excited when I heard what Biden’s plan was,” Idleburg said. “Tesla is nice, but it is necessary to have others. You’ve got to have the cars coming out, and you’ve got to have the stations being built almost simultaneously.”
Still, even EV proponents caution that the proposed investment – part of Biden’s broader infrastructure proposal – is lacking in details and could go awry if it’s not strategically designed to ensure ease of use and well-placed locations.
“The EV market is growing – it’s growing very rapidly,” said Aaron Fisher, CEO of EVPassport, a hardware-software maker that allows drivers to charge their vehicles without signing up for an account. “But if you solve these problems, it could be growing even faster.”
To be sure, about 80% of electric vehicle charging takes place at home, at work or a combination of the two, according to the Electric Drive Transportation Association.
But only about 4 in 10 Americans have garages, said Michelle Krebs, executive analyst at car-buying site Autotrader. And even for them, having a garage isn’t necessarily enough.
“Some of those so-called garages are sheds,” Krebs said. “I have a 1946 garage – I’d have to upgrade wiring to get a charger into mine. So yes, a lot of people will charge at home – but not everybody.”
When Idleburg and her husband moved to Atlanta, they specifically sought out an apartment complex where they could have an electric vehicle.
“I moved here because they had charging stations,” she said. “We bought our spot so we can always charge.”
Motorists know that “98% of the time, I'll be charging at home, but that one time that I get stranded and there's not a charging station is a big, big deal,” said Madison Gross, director of consumer insights for CarGurus. “It might be unlikely to happen, but the pain, if it does happen, is quite substantial.”
Automakers say that more stations will bring more EVs.
Mercedes-Benz CEO Ola Källenius endorsed Biden’s proposal, saying that his company could accelerate plans to eliminate carbon emissions from its vehicles by 2040 if infrastructure makes EVs more doable for the average consumer.
“We need a wide network of public charging infrastructure so that you have the same convenience factor ultimately that we have been used to for a hundred-years-plus on the combustion side,” Källenius told reporters on a conference call.
Here's what you need to know about electric car charging:
How many electric car charging stations do we need?
No one knows for sure, but probably a lot more charging stations than gas stations, because it takes a lot longer to fill up on electricity than it does on gas, at least for now.
The U.S. has more than 150,000 fuel stations, most of them with several, a dozen or more pumps, according to the Association for Convenience & Fuel Retailing.
That compares with more than 48,000 charging stations equipped with over 115,000 outlets, according to the U.S. Department of Energy's Alternative Fuels Data Center.
But it's not an apples-to-apples type of comparison.
It takes only a few minutes to fill up on gas. It takes much longer to fill up on electricity.
For now, charging times vary widely depending on the vehicle and voltage rates. The average EV can get a complete fill-up in anywhere from 30 minutes on the speediest available "fast" charger to a couple of days on a standard plug, according to Kelley Blue Book.
But the U.S. has only about 4,300 are fast-chargers, according to a recent report by consultancy KMPG.
On the most common type of publicly available charging station, known as Level 2, it takes up to 12 hours for a Tesla Model 3 to recharge, 11 hours for a Nissan Leaf to "refill" and 10 hours for an Audi E-Tron to replenish its battery, according to Kelley Blue Book.
The longest-range vehicles now get about 300 miles of range, though longer-range cars are in the works, such as a version of the Lucid Air electric sedan that will offer more than 500 miles on a single charge.
How much will it cost to build 500,000 stations?
The Biden administration hasn’t provided an estimate for how much 500,000 chargers would cost.
But it would take about $2 billion “just to equip homes and workplaces with enough chargers to meet anticipated 2025 needs in 100 top metro areas – and many times that to replicate the current U.S. gasoline distribution network,” according to the KPMG report.
And there’s a significant risk that those dollars could be spent in the wrong places.
“It is as complex as hell,” said Gary Silberg, a KPMG partner who consults with auto companies. “When you really get down to the nitty-gritty of placing bets, you better be thoughtful, you better be strategic.”
Sales data shows that EV sales are particularly popular in coastal cities like San Francisco, New York and Washington, D.C., where home charging is often impractical or unavailable due to a lack of garages.
“People have to park on the street,” Krebs said. “We have to be really creative about where (charging stations) go."
But some say the best place to put charging stations is in places where EVs are not currently popular to provide people an incentive to make the switch from gas.
It’s a classic chicken-or-egg dichotomy, but in this case, it’s increasingly clear that many Americans simply won’t buy EVs unless charging stations are widely available.
“If we’re looking to hockey-stick the market to grow vehicle adoption, infrastructure needs to grow along with it in a complementary way,” said Genevieve Cullen, president of the Electric Drive Transportation Association.
Can our gas-powered culture change?
America’s car culture is viewed by many automotive analysts as a hindrance to the spread of electric vehicles. Americans like the idea that they can hop in a car, hit the road and drive anywhere for any reason with no planning.
While few people ever do that sort of trip, the freedom to do so remains alluring.
“We expect things instantaneously,” Silberg said. “People are not going to want to sit there and wait much longer at all than they would for gasoline. Until we get close to that, you’re going to have reluctance.”
To be sure, most people can get away with charging exclusively at home. And many states and utilities have incentives in place for Americans to install chargers in their garage, offsetting a cost that can run into the thousands.
But even for people who can charge at home, they’ll often want to top off their tank, so to speak, when out and about.
“How many times do you go plug your phone in even when it’s not empty?” Cullen said. “People like to do that.”
Will automakers deliver the goods?
Automakers have gotten EV religion – and the devotion seems to have picked up since Biden was elected, a period during which GM, Volvo, Jaguar and Honda have all announced plans to kill gas vehicles.
But Biden’s proposal reflects “a realization that there’s a certain level of infrastructure investment that needs to happen before electric vehicles are broadly adopted by the public,” said Garrett Nelson, a CFRA Research stock analyst who tracks automakers.
At the moment, there are about 50 models available for sale with a plug of some sort, according to the Electric Drive Transportation Association. But that figure is expected to double in about two years, as pickups like the Tesla Cybertruck, vans like the Volkswagen ID.Buzz and cars like Mercedes-Benz EQS come onto the market.
“Maximizing the convenience for consumers is absolutely at the top of everybody’s mind,” Cullen said.
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