America’s electric vehicle boom is about to begin. Does the United States have the power to charge for it? | Electric, hybrid and low-emission cars

Speaking to a line of the latest electric vehicles (EVs) at the North American International Auto Show this month, President Joe Biden said, “The great American road trip is going to be fully electrified.

Most vehicles on the road are still gas guzzlers, but Washington is betting big on change, hoping major federal investment will help meet the White House’s goal of 50% of new cars being electric by 2030 But there are obstacles – specifically when it comes to charging them all. “Range anxiety,” or how far one can travel before needing to charge, is consistently cited as a major deterrent to potential EV buyers.

An electric vehicle charging station is on display during the unveiling of a series of zero-emission heavy-duty trucks on September 13. Photography: Caroline Brehman/EPA

The auto industry recently surpassed the 5% market share mark for electric vehicles – a watershed moment, analysts say, before rapid growth. New policies at the national and local levels could very well spur this growth: the Cut Inflation Act, which was passed this summer, offers tax credits of $4,000 for the purchase of a vehicle used electric vehicle and up to $7,500 for certain new vehicles. In August, California, the country’s largest state and economy, announced rules banning all new gas-powered cars by 2035. New York plans to follow.

So now the race is on to provide chargers to power all these new electric vehicles.

The goal of administering 500,000 public charging stations by 2030 is a far cry from the current number of nearly 50,000, according to the Department of Energy’s estimate. And these new chargers will need to be fast – what’s called level 2 or 3 charging – and functional in order to create a truly reliable system. Today, many are not.

Last week, the White House approved plans for all 50 states, plus Washington DC and Puerto Rico, to install chargers along highways, releasing $1.5 billion in federal funding for the purpose. The money comes from the landmark infrastructure bill passed last year, which invests $7.5 billion in total for electric vehicle charging.

But how much of that money will be spent will largely be determined at the local level. “It’s a difference between policy and practice,” said Drew Lipsher, chief development officer at Volta, an electric vehicle charging provider. “Now that the federal government has these policies, the question becomes, OK, how is this actually implemented?” The practice, he said, is up to states and municipalities.

As demand for EVs grows, an increasing number of cities are adopting EV charging construction policies. In July, the city of Columbus past an “Electric Vehicle Readiness” ordinance, which will require new parking structures to house charging stations proportional to the total number of parking spaces, including at least one ADA-accessible. Honolulu and Atlanta have adopted similar measures.

A major challenge is to create a distribution model that can meet a diversity of needs.

Currently, most electric vehicle owners charge their cars at home with an integrated unit, which governments can help subsidize. But for apartment dwellers or those living in multi-family homes, it’s less feasible. “When we think about the largest segments of the population, that’s where we really need to focus our attention. This is a major equity issue,” said Alexia Melendez Martineau, policy manager at Plug-in. In America, an electric vehicle consumer advocacy group.

Empowering people is one such solution. In Hoboken, New Jersey, Volta is working with the city to create an on-street charging network. “The network will be within a five-minute walk of every resident,” Lipsher said. “Hopefully that’s a way for us to really import it into cities that think public on-street EV charging infrastructure is important.” Likewise, in parts of Los Angeles — like Berlin and London — drivers can charge from a streetlight.

And there may be new technologies that could help, exciting experts and EV enthusiasts. This could include the roads themselves charging electric vehicles through magnetizable concrete technology being tested in Indiana and Detroit. And two-way charging, where, like solar panels, drivers can put their electricity return into the grid – or maybe even to another EV, via what’s called electric vehicle supply equipment (EVSE). Nissan approved the technology for its Leaf model this month.

An artist's rendering shows a white truck driving down a road with an internal structure to carry a load.
The magnetizable concrete could recharge the batteries of electric vehicles while they are driving. Photography: MAGMENT/HOLCIM LTD

Prochazka said he envisions a future where cities rely on excessive EV charging when energy demand increases, rather than polluting peak power plants that are currently on to increase supply. “We haven’t even scratched the surface of the opportunities that are going to exist once we have two-way,” Prochazka said.

Experts hope these advances will help bridge the gap in historically disconnected areas, such as rural communities and communities of color. But first, planners must listen: Although extensive trials of community engagement have been hailed in states like Arizona, the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Indiana accused the draft state plan of excluding black communities.

“The more information the community has about where these chargers go, how they’re used, and how they’re designed,” Melendez Martineau said, “the better they’re going to serve the community.”

Still, the United States looks much more ready to electrify now than it did six months ago, says Dale Hall, senior research fellow who focuses on electric vehicles at the International Council on Clean Transportation (ICCT).

He says the private sector, which is driving much of the charging infrastructure, is moving forward with clear signals of support from the public sector. Stronger local policies or advanced technology will only help dictate the speed of this transition, Hall added.

He thinks the Biden administration’s goal for the Chargers is achievable. “The business case will continue to improve.”

About Catherine Sturm

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