Cars and Trucks

We Need to Build More EV Chargers, but Where?

  • The Biden administration would like to spend $15 billion to increase the national electric-vehicle charging network to half a million stations by 2030.
  • While Congress argues that point, the national network continues to grow, thanks to private companies and regional government initiatives.
  • But the charging stations get built mainly in more populous areas, causing gaps that will be a problem going forward.

    President Joe Biden has announced a plan to spend $174 billion to make it easier for Americans to choose electric vehicles. Biden wants $15 billion of that money to go toward building a national network of 500,000 charging stations by 2030. The day after Biden’s announcement, Representatives Andy Levin and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—both Democrats—announced that they had revised their existing bill on electric vehicle infrastructure so that it would align with Biden’s new plan. Republicans oppose Biden’s plan. Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (R-WA) called it a “mandatory rush” toward EVs (it’s not—Biden has declined to back a California proposal that would ban the sale of gas cars by 2035).

    Whether or not Biden’s plan can weather the slings and arrows of a bitterly divided Congress, an EV charging network is popping up across the country, driven by efforts from private companies and various government initiatives. But where will all those chargers go?

    That depends on what’s used to determine the optimal charge station layout, according to Mehrnaz Ghamami, an assistant professor in civil and environmental engineering at Michigan State University. Ghamami led a team of researchers who developed a plan to optimize Michigan’s EV charging network for inter-city trips and trips within high-traffic urban environments. The study’s goal was to plan a network for 2030, which meant the team had to consider both the existing capabilities and adoption rate of EVs and charging networks and the potential for future higher adoption rates, higher-capacity batteries, and the wider availability of fast chargers. The state also directed the team to plan chargers with “uniform distribution throughout the state, for equity purposes,” not just in areas where road traffic or EV adoption are already high.

    Electrify America

    The resulting charging maps imagine a network of chargers splayed at roughly even intervals across the state, with clusters around the state’s population centers, where dozens or even hundreds of chargers will be necessary to support the higher number of EV owners and the lower likelihood that those owners will be able to charge their EVs at home. Ghamami says her team faced some criticism for planning stations in remote areas, but “the infrastructure needs to be there, and users need to be educated about these vehicles” before they’ll feel comfortable purchasing one. “The state wanted to build the chargers, and the demand will follow,” she says.

    But not every government or charging network is prioritizing equitable placement of charge stations. If you look at a map of existing chargers in the United States, there are often (depending on the station provider) big gaps in the middle of the country, especially in the upper Midwest and through the Rockies. That could be a signal that some of the biggest network providers, including ChargePoint and Electrify America, have so far focused on putting chargers where lots of people (and EVs) already go.

    That’s the technique the city of London is using to build out its network in advance of a 2033 deadline that will mandate a zero-emissions taxi fleet. That plan used mapping data from current taxi trip patterns combined with data on the capacity of the electrical grid to start building a fast-charging network based around established travel patterns. That may mean that parts of the city that don’t currently see high taxi traffic will be left out of the charge station boom and could theoretically make for an out-of-date network as neighborhoods and their traffic patterns change over time.

    London’s strategy of working with electricity providers is one we’ll have to think about on this side of the pond, too. Ghamami says her team’s next act is a study on how to distribute the energy demand of charging stations, for example by using large batteries to store energy so that the electrical grid isn’t overwhelmed on high-traffic days. Grid failures aren’t only a risk in rural or remote areas—Ghamami says that in Michigan, portions of the grid in danger of being overloaded by a growing EV charging network are split between low-population areas and higher-density zones with outdated electrical infrastructure.

    And, of course, no amount of planning will create a robust charging network if no one wants to build the stations. The installation of new charging stations often involves partnerships among two or more parties, often some combination of state and local governments, electrical utilities, a charging company, and a private company interested in the business it can get from drivers waiting for their cars to charge. But Ghamami says Michigan’s government sometimes can’t find willing partners to shoulder even a third of the cost of installing a planned station, and an analysis from consulting firm AlixPartners found last year that a fast-charging station asking the market rate for electricity could take 20 to 25 years to make back its initial investment.

    Those are the administrative challenges that await the Biden administration’s EV infrastructure plan, should it ever be signed into law. And that first hurdle will likely be enough to occupy the interested parties in Congress for quite some time.

    The bill that Reps. Levin and Ocasio-Cortez hope will turn into funding for a network of fast-chargers isn’t new. They first proposed a version of it in February 2020, but it never emerged from its subcommittee. With a new President who has been vocal about his interest in EVs, Levin and Ocasio-Cortez are trying again with a more aggressive bill. But there’s no sign that Republicans are more willing to compromise on legislation than they were last year.

    What is the standard to guide states and charging networks on the best layout for burgeoning networks in the meantime? “Nationwide?” Ghamami said. “I don’t think there is one.”

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