Climate

The open EV charging network we need might finally be on the way

For years, electric vehicle charging has been a proprietary patchwork. But that could be about to change.

EV charging

Two big developments in the past year could finally shift the paradigm: the bipartisan infrastructure law’s passage, and legacy automakers doubling down on EVs.

Photo: dcbel /Unsplash

In the U.S., “the” electric vehicle charging network — analogous to that of the nation’s gas stations — does not exist. Instead, there is a series of networks that sometimes cooperate, sometimes compete. But if both market and political winds are to be trusted, a more harmonious network may be beginning to emerge.

At this time last year, it seemed like the country might be fated for a patchwork of multiple networks for the foreseeable future. The most noteworthy — Tesla’s Supercharger network, closed to anyone without a Tesla — was the largest fast-charging network, and Rivian announced in March 2021 that it would create two proprietary networks of its own (one fast and one slower). Third-party networks, like EVgo, were constructed like a club, offering members access to charging for a fee.

Meanwhile, Electrify America, which was established in 2017 as a result of a settlement agreement in the wake of Volkswagen’s Clean Air Act violations, was the nation’s largest public fast-charging network; it says it is on track to have more than 1,800 charging stations in the U.S. and Canada by 2026. (In 2019, EVgo and Electrify America announced an agreement to allow each other’s members to use any of the roughly 3,000 chargers from both companies.)

Until now, the benefits of adding chargers — a boon for potential EV owners, and in turn for the climate — have been complicated by the ad hoc way in which networks have been set up: Tesla started its own network before public options were really available, and Tesla owners consequently can use either Tesla chargers or any other open options that have since sprung up. While companies like Rivian have begun to build out their own networks, non-Tesla owners have far fewer options, and have relied on membership to third-party networks, or on Electrify America.

However, two big developments in the past year could finally shift the paradigm: the bipartisan infrastructure law’s passage, and legacy automakers doubling down on EVs.

The November passage of the infrastructure law includes $7.5 billion in federal funding toward the Biden administration’s goal of a nationwide network of 500,000 chargers. This pot of money is nowhere near enough to build out the entire network, but it will serve as seed funding and set the Biden administration on the path to meeting its goal of having zero-emissions vehicles make up 50% of all new vehicles sold in the U.S. by 2030.

Given that these funds will only be available for the construction of chargers that work for all EVs or ones made by at least more than one company, proprietary networks are ostensibly no longer de rigueur. According to one industry insider, there is active internal dialogue within EV companies about whether continued investment in proprietary networks makes sense, given the shifts in the market and growing public finance.

In February comments to the Federal Highway Administration, Tesla said it would be willing to partially open its Supercharger network to non-Tesla EVs in exchange for access to funds from the infrastructure bill. However, it also said it wants money to fund private chargers, according to the comments (which come in the wake of many hints over the years from CEO and founder Elon Musk that the company may open its network). Tesla didn't respond to requests for comment from Protocol.

Meanwhile, one of Rivian’s two networks known as “Waypoints” will be open to all, though its faster “Adventure Network” at national parks and other popular destinations will not be.

Anne Blair, director of policy for the Electrification Coalition, which advocates for policies that promote electrification, said that one of the main factors when it comes to getting people to purchase EVs is the reliability and visibility of charging infrastructure.

“So not only is [the infrastructure law] an impetus for some of these broader changes in how the charging stations operate, but also it’s a huge motivator in getting more vehicles on the road,” Blair said.

At the same time, the number of EVs on the road is also poised to jump significantly. The bipartisan infrastructure law came amid a flurry of announcements from most major automakers saying that they will produce only “electrified” cars by some specific date in the coming decades; for instance, GM plans to stop selling conventional gas-powered vehicles by 2035. And others announced electrified models of old standbys to be released in the coming years. Among them is Ford, which recently announced it will reorganize to prioritize its EV business; this includes an electric version of the F-150, the most popular vehicle in the country, among others.

This inexorable move toward EVs is a clear signal of coming demand for charging, and has catalyzed major investment in the last year, according to Dave Mullaney, a principal on RMI’s carbon-free mobility team.

“If the biggest automotive manufacturers in the country say ‘we’re building EVs’ and you are someone with a lot of capital, you immediately say ‘that’s an opportunity,’ and that’s exactly what happened,” said Mullaney.

The question of whether EV owners of the future will have a single, comprehensive public charging network depends on how this coming investment — both from the industry and from the government — is utilized.

Anne Smart, the vice president of Public Policy for ChargePoint, which operates a network of independently owned chargers but does not own the majority of the network’s stations, argued that investments that come as a result of the infrastructure law must prioritize the consistency of the charging experience if the network’s long-term sustainability is the goal.

“EV charging needs to be the same — with chargers of all different speeds, available everywhere Americans live, work, shop or play,” Smart said.

In Mullaney’s view, the infrastructure law will likely accelerate the investment in charging by investors who would otherwise be waiting around until EV ownership is high enough that demand is assured. If the government’s investment will allow investors to reduce the upfront costs of building charging infrastructure, it will mean more charging options, sooner, regardless of how quickly the coming EVs get on the road.

“The stations need to be there as the EVs arrive, not after, once you're sure the demand is there,” said Mullaney. “Otherwise, you end up with this chicken-and-egg problem.”

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