WASHINGTON - President Joe Biden's proposal to build thousands of electric vehicle charging stations could begin revolutionizing the nation's highway grid if Congress passes a bipartisan infrastructure bill that includes $7.5 billion for the initiative.
As automakers expand their lineup of electric cars, the funding for the charging stations would represent a historically large down payment on Biden's plan to aggressively reduce greenhouse gas levels by 2030. Transportation makes up 29% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, more than any other sector.
But an important question remains unanswered: Will a massive expansion of stations be enough to convince drivers to trade in their gas-powered vehicles for electric ones?
Advocates applaud the money for charging stations as a good start even though Biden's original request of $15 billion was cut in half by Congress. But they warn that convincing drivers to trade in their gas-powered cars for non-emitting vehicles won't happen on a large scale unless they feel comfortable they won't be stranded because they run out of power.
"Certainly there are people who are driven by environmental concerns, but for most folks, they just need their transportation to do what it needs to do, whether that's carry kids or drag their boat or deliver the mail," said Genevieve Cullen, president of the Electric Drive Transportation Association. "So they need to be reassured of that. And the key to that is knowing that there is abundant infrastructure."
Nearly two-thirds of car shoppers say additional stations would help convince them to buy an electric vehicle, according to a February survey of car owners by car-buying site CarGurus.
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"We're heading towards a battery-electric vehicle future, a fuel cell vehicle future, a hybrid future, plug-in hybrid vehicle future," Toyota North America executive vice president Chris Reynolds said on a recent conference call with reporters. "Let's make sure we have the infrastructure to support that."
The infrastructure bill has hit a roadblock, however.
The measure is idling on Capitol Hill as lawmakers struggle to reach agreement on a larger package of climate and social safety net programs that progressive Democrats are pushing. They say they won't vote for the infrastructure bill unless the larger bill gets a vote on the House floor as well.
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The larger bill, known as the Build Back Better Act, has money for electric vehicle infrastructure as well: $13.5 billion to support new charging infrastructure in publicly accessible locations, outside apartment buildings, workplaces, and underserved areas, as well as to support electrification of industrial and medium-heavy duty vehicles.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said this week the bill will have to be pared back from its $3.5 trillion price tag, though it's unclear where those cuts would happen.
Even if the money for charging stations survives intact, some lawmakers say it's not nearly enough. House Democrats Debbie Dingell of Michigan and Yvette Clarke of New York are urging their colleagues to allocate $85 billion - four times the combined amount in both bills - for charging infrastructure.
"If we are to make the rapid transition to a zero-emission and zero pollution future, we must seize this once-in-a-generation opportunity to go big, go bold, and build the infrastructure that will take us into the 21st Century," they wrote in a recent letter to congressional leaders signed by 26 other House lawmakers.
Money could help spread out charging stations to ease 'range anxiety'
Perl Hollingsworth would love to trade his gas-guzzling Dodge Durango for an electric car. But the 51-year-old lawyer won't because there's no charging station near enough to his Washington, D.C., home.
""the closest charging station is a mile from my house so how the heck am I gonna manage that? Am I gonna drive every night, park my car (while it charges) and walk home? Walk back in the morning?," he said "It's just not convenient enough."
He could charge up at work but he's been at home during the pandemic. And even when he does make it to the office, all the chargers are usually taken.
One of the issues the money could fix is the imbalance of where charging stations are located, a disparity that fuels what's called "range anxiety."
While the Electric Drive Transportation Association estimates roughly 80% of charging takes place at home or at work where drivers can wait as they power up, getting Americans to take electric vehicles on long road trips or to remote areas will require a broad distribution of stations in places that have few now - if any.
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There are nearly 50,000 charging stations across the country, according to data compiled by the U.S. Department of Energy. Each station typically offers several to a dozen or more plugs.
Nearly a third are in California with New York, Florida, Texas and Massachusetts rounding out the top five but far behind. Alaska, South Dakota, North Dakota, Wyoming and Montana have the fewest.
The top ten counties are heavily concentrated in California with Los Angeles having the most with 3,257. On the other side, about a third of all US counties - 1,329 - do not have a single electric vehicle charging station, while another 1,048 have five or fewer, based on federal data analyzed by USA TODAY.
But Hollingsworth's situation shows that even in a city like Washington which has lots of charging stations still poses challenges and fosters "ranger anxiety."
It's not just where the stations are that matter but how far drivers have to travel from station to station to power up. The threat of conking out is much less in counties with multiple stations. Drivers in those counties with fewer plug-in options must be constantly aware not only of their range but also of their battery power, both of which are tracked closely in electric vehicles.
Not every electric vehicle travels the same distance on a single charge and stations don't always offer the same charging capacity. And while it takes only a few minutes to fill up on gas (and there's usually a pump available), it takes much longer to fill up on electricity.
For now, charging times vary widely depending on the vehicle and voltage rates. The average EV can get a complete fill-up in anywhere from 30 minutes on the speediest available "fast" charger to a couple of days on a standard plug, according to Kelley Blue Book.
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The longest-range vehicles now get about 300 miles of range, though longer-range cars are in the works, such as a version of the Lucid Air electric sedan that will offer more than 500 miles on a single charge.
Updated power grid also a must
It's not a simple matter of plopping down charging stations in places that don't have them. The local power grid has to be modernized to accommodate the projected surge in electricity usage EVs will command, Cullen said.
"if you have a whole fleet of electric school buses, and they all come home to their depot to charge at the same time, hundreds of kilowatt hour batteries, that's going to be a lot of power," she said "So you have to be able to plan for and manage that power."
And that will be expensive, according to a report form the Boston Consulting Group, which estimates that by 2030 an additional $1,100 investment in grid upgrades will be needed for each electronic vehicle sold.
"This would translate into around $25 billion in power grid investment," the group reported.
In addition, the Zero Emission Transportation Association which wants every car sold by 2030 to be electric, is calling for the development of model building codes, particularly multi-unit and urban parking structures, to include charging infrastructure. Many Americans don't have access to a charger or can't afford one on their own, since they can cost thousands of dollars.
The availability of charging stations is likely to impact Biden's executive order signed in August setting a target that half of all new vehicles sold in 2030 be zero-emissions vehicles, including battery electric, plug-in hybrid electric, or fuel cell electric vehicles.
Only about 1 in 50 vehicles sold in 2020 were electric though that share is slowly increasing. Zero-emission vehicles represented nearly 4% of all vehicles sold during the three-month period ending in June, the highest for any quarter to date according to the Alliance for Automotive Innovation.
While automakers like General Motors, Honda and Volvo say they aim to phase out gas engines in the next 10 to 20 years, a lack of public electric car charging stations is widely viewed as a threat to those plans.
But even then, a study released in February by the Energy Institute at the University of California Berkeley's Haas School of Business found that owners drove their EVs about half the mileage annually compared to the average gas-powered vehicles.
"All told, this suggests that households may not yet view EVs as a good substitute for their gasoline-powered cars and that, unless there are major improvements in EV technology, regulators and policy-makers have more work to do to convince drivers to abandon their gasoline-powered cars for EVs," the analysis found.
Cullen said it's about changing an in grained culture in America where drivers are so accustomed to driving gas-powered vehicles despite the fluctuating cost of fuel and the constant maintenance of an internal combustion engine.
"People are comfortable with it and therefore they think it's the best way to do it but it's turns out," she said. "You just have to get in one."
How quickly a future of electric cars zipping across the country materializes could well depend on what Congress decides should be in the spending bill currently being negotiated.
During a visit to a union hall in Michigan last week, Biden implored lawmakers to make sure that whatever deal they reach on his Build Back Better Act includes a significant investment to de-carbonize the highway system.
"The whole world knows that the future of the auto industry is electric," he said. "We need to make sure America builds that future instead of falling behind."
Contributing: Matt Wynn
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Biden's climate goals include an electric vehicle plan. Is it enough?