In a bid to fight climate change and build a stronger, greener economy, Joe Biden is starting with plugs.
Specifically, Biden has a plan to install 500,000 electric vehicle charging cords by 2030, roughly a five-fold increase in the nation’s EV infrastructure that could cost more than $5 billion.
The 500,000-unit pledge was part of Biden’s platform when he was running for the job but largely overlooked in a grinding campaign dominated by the pandemic. Now, the industry hopes he’ll stick with it. But it is a wildly ambitious strategy to overcome one of the biggest hurdles facing EVs: Would-be drivers fear they won’t have enough places to charge up. The infrastructure milestone would cover 57% of the charging that U.S. vehicles will need by 2030 and could spark the sale of some 25 million electric cars and trucks, according to forecasts by BloombergNEF.
“It’s spot-on with what the market needs,” said Cathy Zoi, chief executive officer of EVgo, one of the country’s largest charging networks. “The sweet spot is to actually accelerate the electrification of our transportation, and this can bring that forward by three to five years.” Biden’s transition team declined to comment on his stated plans.
Right now, there are about 90,000 public charging plugs at 28,000 U.S. stations, according to the latest Energy Department tally. However, one in five of those is exclusive to Tesla; of the remainder, only one in 10 tops a car up quickly enough to be useful on a road trip. Most public charging options are still relatively slow — useful for drivers idling at work, for example, or grinding through a long grocery hunt.
Nevertheless, U.S. charging infrastructure is arguably a little ahead of the EV market. At the moment, there are about 20 U.S. electric vehicles for every public plug — the ideal ratio, according to research from BloombergNEF, is about 40 to 50. At that rate, Biden’s charging push would cover 25 million electric vehicles, roughly 9% of the current U.S. vehicle fleet.
For automakers, the policy push provides confidence to maintain or accelerate electric vehicle rollouts, even as adoption has been relatively tepid. Car companies plan to offer at least 121 battery-powered machines to U.S. consumers by 2025 and will be able to crank out 1 million of them a year by the end of Biden’s first term.
Two big questions remain, however: How will the policy be structured, and will Biden’s administration be able to persuade Congress to pay for the plan?
Biden’s policy team will first have to decide who its charging constituents are. Private networks already have covered much of the country, though it’s still tough for them to turn a profit in two places: dense, urban areas whose low-income apartment dwellers largely park on the street, or in a common lot, and rural interstate corridors where electric vehicles trickle past. If you live in a Queens, New York, co-op or work the oil fields of North Dakota, an electric vehicle is probably a logistical bridge too far at the moment. The former is best served by lots of cheap, slow charging units, while the latter demands a few ultra-fast cords, says Nick Nigro, founder of Atlas Public Policy, a Washington consultancy focused on transportation.
“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 U.S. at the moment,” Nigro said. “It’s not just ‘Let’s build the electric vehicle charging site of the future and then copycat it all over the country.’”
Biden’s team has yet to detail what form of chargers it hopes for and where they might pop up. Still, private charging networks are cheered by the policy push and hope to help the administration craft its plan — and possibly bid on the business.
Pasquale Romano, the CEO of ChargePoint, the biggest operator of electric vehicle chargers globally, called the Biden proposal a huge positive but hopes to caution the administration to avoid a gas-station model and focus on placing chargers where businesses will have incentives to maintain them in the future. “We don’t want to see something that’s spent willy-nilly, even if it’s spent with us,” Romano said.
Installing 500,000 public chargers at the national level is “feasible”, said Edison International Chief Executive Officer Pedro Pizarro. “It will require a lot of collaboration across utilities, charging companies, charger manufacturers and automakers,” said Pizarro, whose company owns the largest electric utility in Southern California. In addition, there will need to be collaboration with local municipalities to address potential roadblocks with the permitting and citing of the chargers, he said.
Congress, however, could be the trickiest part. Biden faces either a split legislature, where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell could stymie Biden’s most ambitious climate plans if Republicans retain their majority, or narrow Democrat control of both chambers if the party picks up both Senate seats that are up for grabs in Georgia’s runoff election, giving Kamala Harris the tie-breaking vote.
On the spectrum of political scrums, infrastructure is less polarized than most issues. Zoi is optimistic that the administration can muster some money for charging, in part because she worked closely with Biden in deploying the 2009 Recovery Act. “We had a weekly dashboard that I would show him,” Zoi recalls. “He’d say: ‘Come on over, we’re going to make calls to governors and make sure this all gets done.’ That’s absolutely who he is.”
EVgo’s internal estimates show that a job is created for every fast-charging station that is installed. With 500,000 new public chargers, that could be 500,000 added jobs.
“Regardless whether you are a Republican or Democrat, you support the job,” she said. “You support clean air. You support economic growth. You support healthy infrastructure in America.”
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