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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Slow rollout of national charging system could hinder EV adoption

An electric vehicle charging station in London, Ohio, Dec. 11, 2023. Lawmakers approved $5 billion for states to build a network of fast chargers two years ago — although some states have made progress in recent weeks, most have not yet awarded contracts or started construction. (Maddie McGarvey/The New York Times)

By Madeleine Ngo

More than two years ago, lawmakers approved billions of dollars to build out a national electric vehicle charging network in the hopes of encouraging more drivers to switch to cleaner cars. The money, included in the bipartisan infrastructure law, was intended to help assure drivers they could reliably travel longer distances without running out of power.

But a robust federal charging network is still years away. Only two states — Ohio and New York — have opened any charging stations so far. A handful of others have broken ground on projects in recent weeks, with the aim of completing them in early 2024. In total, 28 states, plus Puerto Rico, have either awarded contracts to build chargers or started accepting bids for projects as of Dec. 15. The rest are much further behind on starting construction.

Broad availability of chargers is critical for the Biden administration’s goal of getting EVs to make up half of new car sales by 2030. Americans routinely cite “range anxiety” as one of the biggest impediments to buying an EV. About 80% of respondents cited concerns about a lack of charging stations as a reason not to purchase an EV, according to an April survey from the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research.

The Biden administration is trying to entice consumers to buy EVs both by offering tax credits of up to $7,500 and promising to build out a national backbone of high-speed chargers. That network is meant to give drivers the assurance that they could reach a reliable charger every 50 miles along major roads and highways.

The White House has set a goal of building a national network of at least 500,000 public chargers by 2030, but researchers at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory have projected that the country will need more than 1 million public charging ports by the end of the decade.

Ben Shapiro, a researcher at RMI, a nonprofit that promotes the energy transition, said the country needed to accelerate the pace of new charging infrastructure considerably.

“People certainly have this perspective that there isn’t enough charging,” Shapiro said. “And that, I think, does hamper people’s interest in EVs.”

EV sales have been climbing faster than any other major category of automobile, with the nation on track to hit more than 1 million sales for the first time this year. President Joe Biden’s signature climate law, the Inflation Reduction Act, has also spurred a surge of investment in EV production across the country. But demand has not grown as much as expected.

Some state transportation officials said the rollout has taken more than two years because they had little experience building chargers and it has been challenging to navigate new federal requirements.

In Tennessee, officials started reviewing bids for contracts after closing applications last month. Preston Elliott, a deputy commissioner of the state’s transportation department, said he thought Tennessee was moving quickly, but it still took officials about two years to get to that stage, in part because they had to submit two plans to the federal government and wanted to have conversations with stakeholders before opening bids.

“Federal funds come with lots of requirements and lots of strings,” Elliott said. “I’ve been doing this for about 30 years, and this is the first time I’ve ever encountered a program where you’ve had to do so much planning before you spend a penny.”

The U.S. Department of Transportation issued final rules for the program early this year, outlining technological requirements and standards that have to be met. Chargers must be within a mile of an interstate exit or highway and have four ports that are all operational and meet minimum power levels 97% of the time.

But the law gave states flexibility to determine how to award contracts and dole out funds, resulting in varying degrees of progress.

Ohio became the first state to open a charger funded by the new program earlier this month. Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, cited charging concerns as a primary reason for getting the system up and running. There are about 43,200 EVs registered in Ohio.

“This industry is not going to develop unless people think they have places where they can charge their car,” DeWine said. “We want to send the signal that not only are we getting companies in here that are building things for the future, but we want our consumers in Ohio to have the ability to benefit from that.”

Six more charging stations are being designed and expected to begin construction in the next month or two, state officials said. Officials expect to build about 50 charging stations by the end of 2026 to meet the program’s requirement.

Most states are well behind Ohio and New York. Although some are bidding out contracts to build the network, the actual installation of all of the chargers can take years to finish because projects have to clear environmental reviews and other bureaucratic hurdles in addition to the construction, state officials said. Some states are also building chargers in several phases.

Barbara Ziegler, 66, a psychologist in Sheridan, Wyoming, said she welcomed more chargers, but she did not feel comfortable yet buying an electric car. She said she often drives more than 100 miles to see a diabetes specialist, attend conferences and go shopping in larger cities, and she was concerned about being stranded on the road because of the lack of chargers.

Ziegler said she would consider buying a hybrid car, but for now, she planned to stick with her 2012 Toyota RAV4 until it needed to be replaced.

“Here we have long, long highways without towns in between,” Ziegler said. “I would be too worried to try and do the drive just on electric.”

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