Will The U.S. Government Really Build 500,000 EV Charging Stations?

Recently, the US government released further details on their plans to build charging stations. For those unfamiliar, a law passed last year provided $7.5 billion for the construction stations of 500,000 EV charging, but details were scarce. Given the government’s reputation for wasteful spending ($50 toilet seats, $10 nuts and bolts… and those numbers were thrown around in the 90s when those prices weren’t almost normal), there is definitely a reason for concern about how far the $7.5 billion would get spent. Would we get a big boost in charging infrastructure, or would we get just a few stations while some well-connected government contractors line their pockets?

Now, as part of a new website by the Departments of Energy and Transportation, the government finally released new information detailing how the process is going to work. Fortunately, the document was only 31 pages, and not the usual hundreds or thousands of pages we often see for things like this. But, I know readers are busy and probably don’t have time to even read 31 pages, so I’m going to summarize things here for everybody, and then discuss whether we’re going to see a real station buildout.

An Aggressive Timetable

The federal government isn’t going to directly hire contractors to build out charging stations. Instead, they’re requiring each state to submit a plan that federal requirements. Then, they’ll be able to get funds from the infrastructure bill to get things going.

Compared to many federal programs, this one is pretty fast. States can submit plans as soon as they’d like, and the deadline for submitting a plan is August 1st, 2022. They’ve only given themselves an extra two months to approve the last plans submitted by states, so final approvals have to come by September 30th. This means that states can probably have at least some station construction happen this year, assuming they hurry up and submit a plan.

To hurry things along, the federal government wants state departments of transportation to work with state energy departments. This not only should theoretically provide more expertise, but more personnel to get good plans going. They’re also planning on providing a lot of guidance and even workshops on how to prepare a suitable plan that can get approved fast.

On this point, I’m pretty optimism, but there’s one downside to leaving this up to states. Some states are probably going to drag their feet. When they do, they’re going to hurt states around them and hinder the construction of good cross-country routes. But, later in the plan it appears that DOT thought about this problem. If a state fails to submit a plan or implement it properly, the federal government is authorized to instead work with cities and counties to get at least something built. Then, grants I’ll describe in the next section could be used to fill in gaps.

So, states aren’t going to get in the way of building out the 500,000 EV charging stations promised.

Who’s Going To Get Money, and How Much?

The whole $7.5 billion that’s going to build the 500,000 EV charging stations isn’t going into the same federal-state program. $5 billion is going to the states, with 10% held back. That last ten percent is going to be kept for later and given to states to fill in unintended gaps that end up left after plans are completed. The other $2.5 billion is going more targeted grant programs aimed at ensuring equity, meeting climate goals, and more. Unfortunately, some of the $2.5 billion is going to go toward infrastructure for hydrogen and other alternative fuels.

I don’t think that last part (money for hydrogen, natural gas, etc) is going to do a lick of good for the environment. Hydrogen just doesn’t make sense to make with renewable energy (it uses 5 times the energy or more to split hydrogen), and it’s really going to come from fossil fuels.

Fortunately, it’s only a small part of 1/3 of the whole program, so it shouldn’t get in the way of actually building out charging stations. If anything, giving the hydrogen and fossil fuel companies a small cut of the action is probably how it got through and became a law.

For the part that’s definitely going to states to build EV charging, $1 billion per year will be disbursed, starting this year. States will get their cut of the $5 billion in proportion to what they’re already receiving now in highway funds.

What Requirements Do States Have To Meet?

State plans have to focus on existing “alternative fuel corridors,” and give priority to interstate highways. If those corridors are already sufficiently covered by charging stations, then states are allowed to submit plans for charging at publicly-accessible sites. To qualify as “built out,” an interstate must have:

  • Gaps of no more than 50 miles between chargers, and chargers within a mile of the interstate.
  • At least four 150 kW or higher rate chargers, with CCS connectors.
  • Ability to simultaneously charge four vehicles at that rate or greater.
  • Exceptions are available for any of these on a case-by-case basis (unavailability of electricity, etc.)

States are also allowed to use funds to generate electricity with renewables and/or add battery storage to stations if it will help lower charging costs or otherwise help improve the station work well. They’re also allowed to contract with private charging companies to build, maintain, and operate the stations. So, expect established charging station companies to make a lot of money from this bill.

Is This Actually Going To Help?

Based on what I’m seeing, this seems like a pretty solid plan. They’ve thought about problems in advance and came up with plans for getting through it. They’ve also considered the needs of drivers by demanding that states leave only gaps greater than 50 miles when there’s a compelling reason to do so.

There are some issues, though. For one, this is going to leave CHAdeMO and Tesla drivers out. Tesla drivers already have a lot of infrastructure, and adapters from CCS to Tesla plugs are coming available. I own a Nissan LEAF with a CHAdeMO port, and I’m a little sad that I’m going to get left out, but let’s face it — my LEAF just wasn’t ever really a highway car, and no amount of infrastructure is going to change that.

Another problem is that there’s not a solid plan for rural areas. I get prioritizing interstates first, but there should be similar requirements for a second tier of highways, like the US highways, to have stations every 50 miles and at intersections with interstates and putting other US highways before states start them wherever they want.

Finally, there’s the question of whether this system will swamp itself with EV adoption. With only 4 stalls every 50 miles, it wouldn’t take a lot of EV adoption to clog this up. Tesla’s network and the struggles some drivers run into on it during busy times shows us this much. Whether this becomes a problem is probably going to be up to states. Some will be smart and require those building the stations to implement connectivity and work with automakers to direct cars to empty and underused stations.

Despite my reservations, I’m still very optimistic at this point that we’ll get the stations the 500,000 EV charging, and before 2030. It’s just a question of quality at this point.

Featured image by US DOT and US DOE (public domain).


 

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