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White House aides asked Elon Musk for help with Biden climate goal

The administration wants Tesla to open its charging network to non-Tesla electric vehicles.

Tesla CEO Elon Musk. (Marlena Sloss/Bloomberg)
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Senior White House officials asked Elon Musk during a private meeting last month for Tesla to make its extensive charging network available for use by other electric vehicles, seeking to enlist the bombastic billionaire in their efforts to push along a clean energy revolution, according to two people with knowledge of the meeting.

John Podesta and Mitch Landrieu, two top aides tasked with implementing the sprawling clean energy packages approved by Congress earlier in President Biden’s term, met with Musk and other Tesla officials at the company’s D.C. office on Jan. 27. Tesla officials expressed openness toward working with the administration on doing more to open its charging networks but made no firm commitments, the people said.

White House National Economic Council Director Brian Deese also joined the meeting virtually, according to an administration official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a private conversation.

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The meeting put administration officials in the potentially uncomfortable position of asking Musk — who has repeatedly sparred with Biden and other top Democrats, and whose rocket business, SpaceX, is a major contractor with NASA — for help making progress on its goal of building a national network of 500,000 electric vehicle chargers. Biden has at points declined to cite Tesla as an important U.S. automaker because of its resistance to unionization efforts, eliciting rebukes from the Tesla CEO. As the new owner of Twitter, Musk has amplified stories about the president’s son Hunter Biden, referred to the president as a “damp [sock] puppet in human form” and expressed support for far-right conservatives.

Still, the White House officials’ request of Musk — which was previously unreported — reflects how President Biden and his frequent antagonist have overlapping objectives despite their public animosities. Congress on a bipartisan basis approved a $1 trillion infrastructure law in November 2021 that included billions of dollars for expanding electric vehicle charging stations, and then Democrats in Congress approved a separate energy bill last year with tens of billions of dollars in new subsidies for electric vehicles. Biden has characterized these efforts as critical to bolster the U.S. economy and achieve a major drop in carbon emissions to combat global climate change. Tesla stands to benefit significantly from the trillions of dollars the administration is hoping to unleash in the clean energy sector.

Spokespeople for the White House and for Tesla declined to comment on the meeting. Musk did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

The car company’s existing charging network could play a major role in what the White House is hoping to achieve. S&P Global Mobility estimates there are about 20,000 “Level 3” charging stations — chargers that can more quickly repower a vehicle — in addition to roughly 17,000 of Tesla’s “Superchargers” and slower Tesla destination chargers. Although most drivers rarely need to drive long distances, many motorists have resisted buying electric vehicles in part because of the inadequacy of charging stations that would enable significant road trips, according to Trevor Higgins, acting senior vice president for of the energy and environment department at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank.

“The new federal programs for charging infrastructure will drive major investments that can get the job done, whether or not Tesla decides to help by opening up its own network,” Higgins said. “But the sooner we complete a nationwide charging network, the better.”

Significant obstacles loom toward making the transition, however. Nick Nigro, founder of Atlas Public Policy, a policy technology firm, said other electric vehicles cannot simply be plugged into Tesla’s chargers. Other electric vehicles in the United States mostly use a standard called CCS for rapid charging, and the connectors are not compatible with each other, though Tesla now sells adapters allowing its cars to use CCS stations. Even if adapters can be supplied for CCS cars to use Tesla stations, Tesla and the administration would still face a distinct set of hardware and software complications, in part due to the proprietary data of the Tesla charging systems.

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Those barriers exist in the United States despite the fact that Tesla’s charging stations are compatible with other electric vehicles in Europe because of government regulations mandating conformity, Nigro said. Tesla began making cars in Europe with the CCS charging standard several years ago and retrofitted its existing charging stations there.

In the United States, Musk said last year that the company would start making the CCS standard compatible with its charging network, but he hasn’t provided details. The 2021 infrastructure law won’t fund new charging stations that are only open to one brand of electric vehicle. Tesla, though, proposed last year that its plugs, not CCS, should be the new standard in North America.

“Adding Tesla as a charging service provider for other vehicles would be a big step,” Nigro said, “but it’s not as easy as flipping a switch and there would be a lot of work ahead of them.”

The outreach is unlikely to lead to cozier public relations between Musk and the White House. Musk has needled the president over electric cars and unrelated political matters. In December 2022, Biden tweeted: “We’re building 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations across the country. The great American road trip will be fully electrified.” Musk replied to the tweet: “Or you can just buy a Tesla.”

Faiz Siddiqui contributed to this report.