The Biden administration’s electric vehicle charging standards are set to create a national charging network that’s reliable, accessible and, ideally, fast. The prospect of easing range anxiety could make the EV-curious take the plunge.
But for all the fanfare about the administration’s vision of a 500,000-strong network of fast chargers blanketing the country from coast to coast, the plan to make that a reality is running up against, well, reality. The administration has $7.5 billion set aside to build out a charging network courtesy of the bipartisan infrastructure bill.
“There are two ways to look at this $7.5 billion for EV charging,” Sara Baldwin, the director of Electrification Policy at Energy Innovation, told Protocol. “It is a historic investment in the EV charging network in America. We've never seen this amount of money dedicated [to charging].”
But Baldwin pointed to the paradox at play with this, as well as nearly every other climate investment and policy: It’s not enough. The $7.5 billion is great as a down payment, but a speedy, standardized charging network that spans the U.S. is going to cost a lot more.
An analysis by Energy Innovation along with researchers at GridLab and the University of California, Berkeley, that came out well before the charging standards were released this week found that the country needs to invest $6.5 billion in charging infrastructure annually for the next 30 years.
The scenario the team modeled had the U.S. on track for 100% light-duty EV sales by 2030, which is much more aggressive than the Biden administration’s target of 50% by that date. Still, modeling by Atlas Public Policy, an EV policy research group, found that public EV fast chargers would require $39 billion in funding over this decade to keep the U.S. on track to get to 100% EV sales by 2035. That’s still more aggressive than the Biden administration’s EV sales target, though it’s much closer to what most research indicates is needed to keep on a net zero emissions pathway.
Not all funding for charging needs to come from the federal government, of course. But it’s an important catalyst to leverage more private and state-level investments. (That’s something the bipartisan infrastructure law cash is supposed to do.)
If there’s one area where the charging standards could be a huge boon, it’s in helping bring costs for charging infrastructure down. Baldwin pointed out that standards for things like LED lights have helped make what was once a niche and expensive — and frankly not the best — technology affordable to the masses both upfront and over time. Ditto for other appliances and cars, which now get much better gas mileage and pollute far less to boot. If the charging standards follow a similar path, then it could help stretch investments further.
Ultimately, more widespread charging could make range anxiety a thing of the past. And having a network where you get the same thing from state to state, much like the current network of gas stations, could further allay any would-be EV owners’ concerns of waiting hours to get some juice.
But building out a charging network without also making EVs more accessible to everyone will be a huge missed opportunity. Baldwin said revamping EV tax credits to be both more generous than the current $7,500 and not phase out at 200,000 vehicles per manufacturer would be key to ensuring any charging network actually has users.
“It would be silly to wait for an EV incentive once infrastructure is in place, because you're going to run into a situation where the infrastructure is all built out and there are not enough cars to use it,” she said. “So there's this economic disincentive for both private investments as well as public investments. On the flip side to that, if you have a great incentive, and a bunch of people are buying EVs, and they don't have a charging infrastructure to support their road trips and their daily use? Then that's also going to hinder adoption. They really need to happen in parallel.”
The version of the Build Back Better Act passed by the House last year had both more money for charging and more generous EV incentives. It died in the Senate, however, thanks to Sen. Joe Manchin saying he couldn’t vote for it. (So did 50 Republican senators.) Manchin has said he’s open to working on a narrower version of the bill, but he’s explicitly said that more EV tax credits are “ludicrous.” So it may be that we end up with good standards for charging and more money to build out the network, but a policy that’s key to unlocking the EV future might still be missing.