Dec 11, 2023 - Business

First Biden-funded electric car charging station opens

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

More than two years after President Biden signed legislation allocating $5 billion for a nationwide network of taxpayer-funded electric vehicle (EV) charging stations, the first one finally opened last Friday in Ohio.

Why it matters: Having convenient, reliable fast chargers along major highways is an important confidence-booster for people considering an electric car.

  • But the government's effort to supply them is moving at typical government speed, while the privately funded buildout of charging stations continues separately.

Threat level: That slow pace is making it harder to achieve Biden's ultimate goal of EVs making up half of all new cars sold by 2030 — let alone proposed regulations that envision even higher sales by 2032.

Catch up fast: The 2021 infrastructure law included $5 billion to establish the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure (NEVI) program, administered by the Federal Highway Administration.

  • The intent was to give money to all 50 states to deploy fast chargers near federal highways designated as "alternative fuel corridors."
  • Once the highway charging network is complete, states can use remaining funds to deploy chargers elsewhere.

Where it stands: Twenty-six states have made an effort to spend their share of the money so far, according to the Biden administration's new Joint Office of Energy and Transportation, which was created to facilitate the EV transition.

  • Of those, 17 are in the process of soliciting bids, while seven others have issued "conditional awards" for new stations worth $101.5 million.
  • Ohio and Hawaii are the furthest along, with firm contracts in place, but only the one station in Ohio is up and running.

Zoom in: The first NEVI-funded station, which opened Dec. 8, is located at the Pilot Travel Center along I-70, on the western outskirts of Columbus.

  • It includes four EVgo fast chargers under an overhead canopy, plus access to restrooms, Wi-Fi, food, beverages and other conveniences.
  • It's the first of more than two dozen highway charging stations set to open in Ohio by the end of 2024.
  • The state, which will receive $140 million in NEVI funding over five years, is already planning a second round of 25 additional charging stations.

Reality check: Ohio is an exception. Many other states are just getting started, if they're moving at all.

Between the lines: Bureaucratic challenges have slowed the charger rollout.

  • The federal government, for example, first had to staff the new Joint Office to support the effort.
  • It took more than a year for that office to finalize standards ensuring consistent plug types, charging speeds and payment systems with easy access for all. (Automakers' surprise decision to adopt Tesla's plug style complicated matters.)
  • Another problem: State transportation officials, who are used to overseeing federal road and bridge projects, lack the resources and expertise to plan and manage charging infrastructure, says Loren McDonald, CEO of industry analytics firm

Meanwhile: Utilities have their own challenges, he noted.

  • Some of the sites chosen by states require new transformers or switches before chargers can be installed and powered up.
  • Local construction permitting can take six to 12 months.
  • In all, it can take up to 18 months for a charging station to be installed once a site is selected, industry experts say.

Yes, and: A "Build America, Buy America" provision in the law requires that charging equipment manufacturers move production lines from Asia to the U.S., Cathy Zoi, newly retired CEO of EVgo, said at a recent industry event.

  • One supplier, Delta Electronics, got its new plant up and running in Plano, Texas, months ahead of schedule, she noted.

What they're saying: Gabe Klein, executive director of the Joint Office, is satisfied with the pace of development.

  • "This is exactly the timeline I was expecting," he told Axios. "I think the states are doing a phenomenal job."

The big picture: The federally funded chargers are just a small slice of a much larger picture.

  • As of June 2023, private companies had committed about $24 billion to expand charging in the U.S., Klein said.
  • That was before seven automakers announced plans in July to create a vast new network of 30,000 fast chargers.

Yes, but: The U.S. will need 28 million home and public charging ports to support a potential 33 million plug-in electric vehicles by 2030, per the Energy Department's National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

  • Most of those will be home chargers, but public chargers are key to alleviating drivers' range anxiety.

The bottom line: With about 158,000 public chargers across 60,000 locations — including nearly 37,000 fast chargers at about 8,570 public stations — available today, the country still has a long way to go.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that the U.S. has about 158,000 available public chargers, including nearly 37,000 fast chargers at about 8,570 locations (not 60,000 public chargers, including 8,570 fast chargers).

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