As U.S. pushes a shift toward electric cars, where should the chargers go?

Source: By Michael Laris, Washington Post • Posted: Monday, January 3, 2022

The Biden administration sees the plug-in network as critical groundwork for cutting carbon emissions.

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm and Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg visit RS Automotive, an electric-vehicle charging station that used to be a gas station in Takoma Park, Md. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

Frustrated by the whims of gasoline suppliers and sensitive to his daughter Teresa’s environmentalism, Doley dug up his tanks and converted his Takoma Park, Md., station into an electric-vehicle charging pioneer two years ago, prompting a wave of headlines and inquiries from station owners from Seattle to New Orleans.

At lunch hour on a warm day this month, Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg pulled up in a government-issued black Mustang Mach-E with Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, then plugged in. It’s the latest in a stream of made-for-media moments that last year included a visit to Doley’s station by Gov. Larry Hogan (R), who arrived to highlight state funding for the project.

Compared with a new bridge or long-needed transit connection, the infrastructure enabling electric cars receives little attention, but the Biden administration sees the plug-in network as critical groundwork for cutting carbon emissions.

As federal officials draw up guidelines for billions in new spending on chargers, issues surrounding policy, technology and practical questions have bubbled up — among them, where new charging spots should go, how powerful they should be and how to cover busy corridors and harder-to-reach communities.

At RS Automotive, Granholm and Buttigieg pointed to a new Joint Office of Energy and Transportation. The White House said the goal is a “one-stop shop” to smooth the rollout and management of electric vehicles and other initiatives in the infrastructure law President Biden signed in November.

“You cannot separate transportation from energy when it comes to the electric-vehicle future of this country,” Buttigieg said.

Standing by stacks of tires outside the service bay, the Cabinet secretaries in a joint interview outlined some of what they hope will emerge from the infrastructure law’s surge in spending over five years, including $5 billion toward a national electric-vehicle charging network. An additional $2.5 billion in grants will cover charging, hydrogen, propane and natural gas infrastructure along with “alternative fuel corridors,” according to the Transportation Department.

The administration’s goal is 500,000 new chargers, with an emphasis on disadvantaged and rural areas, as well as efforts to improve local air quality and promote equity.

“In the early days, you will see gas stations with both types of fueling operations,” Granholm said, adding that more stations like Doley’s will convert to electric-only as the U.S. fleet goes electric.

Doley makes more money fixing cars than charging them, and he has told his mechanics they should prepare for a future when electric vehicles, which are cheaper to maintain, are ubiquitous. But it will be a while, he said.

“Fossil fuels are not going to disappear that fast,” Doley said. “I have a feeling another 20, 25 years, they’re still going to be around.”

Granholm said the charging effort stretches far beyond gas stations, with their presence in places like fast-food restaurants and grocery store parking lots expected to grow so people can eat and shop while they charge. A priority is ensuring access for residents of apartment buildings or other multifamily developments “who don’t have garages and who need immediate charging,” Granholm said.

Buttigieg said lower-income households stand to gain the most, if they can afford electric vehicles, because of fuel savings. People in rural and tribal areas would benefit because they burn more gas while driving longer distances, he said. But it’s those same areas where drivers might have “range anxiety” over whether they will make it to their next charge, he said, which makes them good candidates for chargers backed by federal incentives.

“Some places it’s already profitable to put in chargers. Some places it’s not. But we need to make sure that we have a full network, and that’s where policy can make all the difference,” Buttigieg said.

The Biden administration is pushing for half of new car sales to be all-electric or plug-in electric hybrids by 2030. Through the first three quarters of 2021, U.S. sales of such vehicles averaged 3.9 percent of all vehicles, according to the trade group Alliance for Automotive Innovation.

To boost those numbers, the administration backed $12,500 incentives for electric-car buyers as part of a climate and social policy bill, although that far-reaching budget legislation has stalled.

Transportation officials around the country are drawing up plans for the new charger funding, much of which will flow to states through a formula set by Congress. The Department of Transportation is also writing guidance for states and setting up rules for competitive grants.

In Maryland, where Vice President Harris traveled in December to push electrification efforts, transportation officials said they expect to receive about $63 million from the infrastructure bill for charging and other fueling initiatives.

The state has 22 federally approved “alternative fuel corridors” covering 644 miles and will use the new funds over five years “to increase the number of alternative fueling stations along these 22 designated corridors,” according to a statement from the Maryland Department of Transportation. State officials cite a federal tally showing 1,181 alternative stations in Maryland, 1,125 of which are electric, often with multiple hookups.

Virginia expects to receive about $100 million to “address a key concern of drivers about EVs — availability of places to charge vehicles,” according to a statement from the office of Gov. Ralph Northam (D).

In the District, the focus will be on cutting emissions, equitable charging opportunities and making “the adoption of electric vehicles easier for all residents,” Lucinda M. Babers, deputy mayor for operations and infrastructure, said in a statement.

Industry groups are also weighing in. A group of 15 carmakers wrote Buttigieg in December asking the federal government to direct states to prioritize investments in 350-kilowatt charging stations for a “future-proofed” network. Such high-power devices would provide quicker charging for cars. They also called for a minimum of 150-kilowatt charging along highway corridors.

As federal and state officials shape charging plans, outside experts say a key goal should be guaranteeing federally subsidized chargers are placed where they will bring the broadest social benefit.

Laura Schewel, who worked at the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on electric-vehicle policy before founding transportation analytics firm StreetLight Data, said federal funds should emphasize metrics such as income and air quality, not just the density of chargers along busy highways.

Done the wrong way, “subsidies can just accelerate the way things were going to go,” Schewel said, which would mean putting too much focus on busy locations used by early adopters.

Schewel said policymakers should broaden their sights beyond highways, emphasizing that consumer behavior for charging an electric vehicle is different from those at a gas station. The most convenient way for many people to charge is at home overnight, or at work, given the long hours cars sit unused.

But in some cities, “low-income people are going to be the ones who don’t have control over their home parking spot because they’re renters or they street park,” Schewel said, noting the importance of charging locations away from home.

Doley’s partner on the Takoma Park gas station conversion, Matthew Wade, has spent years trying to find the best spots for chargers. He is a longtime electrification booster and chief executive of the Electric Vehicle Institute, which helps to develop and equip charging sites.

Wade worked with Baltimore and Maryland officials to install chargers at city libraries, which were meant to appeal to residents who live in multifamily developments and lacked easy charging access. When the free chargers opened more than four years ago, they were used maybe once a week at a location, Wade said, but that has grown to multiple times a day.

It’s far short of the usage at his company’s chargers along Interstate 95, but “it’s a pretty neat thing,” Wade said. “There’s different ways to look at business, right? There’s the bottom line and then there’s like the bottom-bottom line.”