The Biden administration laid out plans Thursday for a $5 billion network of electric vehicle chargers along interstate highways, aiming to boost confidence in battery-powered cars by ensuring drivers can always find somewhere to plug in.
Officials say the federal funding is aimed at standardizing charging systems so drivers have an experience comparable to finding a gas station on a road trip. It is one of the most significant investments in the $1 trillion infrastructure law aimed at reducing carbon emissions from transportation and a steppingstone toward the administration’s goal of having half of new cars be battery-powered or plug-in hybrids by 2030.
“We are modernizing America’s national highway system for drivers in cities large and small, towns and rural communities, to take advantage of the benefits of driving electric,” Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said in a statement.
The administration says the money is the largest investment of its kind, yet it still represents a fraction of the estimated $39 billion cost of building a public charging system by 2035.
“The $5 billion the EV Charging Program will provide is a historic investment, but it is far from sufficient,” the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental group, wrote in comments to the Federal Highway Administration. “Federal guidance should do everything possible to encourage complementary commitments and hedge against displacing other investments or programs.”
Electric vehicles are a tiny fraction of annual sales and establishing a viable network of chargers — the administration wants 500,000 — is widely seen as a vital step to convince more Americans to switch out their gas-powered cars. But it’s a job that must account for the needs of apartment and rowhome dwellers, who can’t charge on their driveway, and people traveling through rural areas, where electric grids might struggle to meet demand.
Without access to charging stations, Black and Hispanic communities may be left behind in the era of electric vehicles
There are 116,000 public charging ports in the country, according to the Energy Department — mostly lower-speed “Level 2” chargers that are heavily concentrated in California. Cost estimates for installing chargers vary widely. Tesla has proposed the government cap costs at $75,000 per port, which would mean 80,000 chargers with the new federal funding and matching state dollars.
Congress left many details about how the program should work to the Department of Transportation. When the department last year asked how the money might best be put to use, it received hundreds of comments from state governments, car and charger manufacturers, and advocacy groups.
Many agreed the chargers need to be high-powered — for quickly topping up batteries — and generally located in safe areas near highway exits with stores and restrooms. Plug in America, a group that advocates for electric vehicle ownership, identified Tesla’s 1,400-location Supercharger network as the “benchmark.”
The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials suggested the new federal funding was an opportunity to ensure prices for charging are listed in terms of kilowatts per hour and to require that charging can be paid with credit and debit cards, rather than through an account with charging providers.
“A consistent, uniform payment process would allow for a more reliable and accessible network,” the association wrote.
Guidance issued Thursday by a joint office of the departments of energy and transportation calls for states to first tackle charging near interstates — ideally within a mile of the highway — creating a network that is “convenient, reliable, affordable and equitable.”
The framework leaves more detailed questions unanswered about how the chargers should work, but officials said they will issue technical standards in the coming months.
Various groups disagree about the proximity of chargers. A group of Western state transportation departments said the current 50-mile standard was hard to meet in rural areas. But the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which represents major carmakers, said the distance should be closer to offer convenience similar to filling up at a gas station.
Ultimately, the federal government will consider a particular corridor fully built out when it has at least four 150-kilowatt charging points every 50 miles, with limited exceptions. Once states meet that goal, they can use their remaining money for other charging projects.
States have until Aug. 1 to submit plans for using the money. If states don’t submit a plan or don’t take steps to implement it, the federal transportation department can withhold money or give it to local governments. The Federal Highway Administration is set to approve plans by Sept. 30.
“We’re not going to dictate to the states how to do this, but we do need to make sure there are basic standards met around the interoperability of the chargers, around making sure that they actually benefit consumers, making sure that we meet our key policy goals,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg said at an event Thursday to announce the funding. “But I’m looking forward to the fact that the states will think of things that we never will here in Washington.”
The infrastructure legislation includes another $2.5 billion the Transportation Department can use to target rural areas or city neighborhoods with poor access to charging. Officials say they expect to set out plans for that funding later this year.
The administration is seeking to ensure that 40 percent of the benefits of the spending accrue to disadvantaged communities and it will be up to states to demonstrate how they intend to meet that goal.
On Tuesday, President Biden hosted the chief executive of Australian charging company Tritium at the White House. The company is planning to open a manufacturing plant in Tennessee to make 30,000 chargers a year. Officials pointed to that investment as evidence that switching to electric vehicles will create jobs.
Buttigieg said that even as private industry transitions toward electric vehicles, the government needs to ensure the switch happens quickly enough to limit climate change and help American companies and workers, with benefits that reach various communities.
“Those things will not happen on their own, but they will happen with our action," he said.
More coverage: Air travel, transit, railroads
Airlines: Airline asks to operate under charter rules, sparking safety debate
Holiday travel: Memorial Day holiday travel boom begins in early test for airlines
Railroads: Miles-long trains are blocking first responders when every minute counts
Runway incursions: NTSB tackles airport near misses as travel season begins
Metro breach: Policy under scrutiny after probe into Russia computer intrusion