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Long Road, Tough Choices Ahead for Biden Car-Charging Pledge

Feb. 22, 2021, 10:31 AM

President Joe Biden’s plan to crank up electric vehicle infrastructure is short on publicly available details, but electric vehicle advocates already have a long list of ideas on how the administration can make it a reality.

Chief among the unanswered questions are how much the administration’s plan for new chargers is going to cost, who’s going to pay for it, and where they should go.

Despite the lack of answers, the Biden pledge “is being taken very seriously” by states, local governments, and supporters of EV charging, said Ray LaHood, a Republican who was President Barack Obama’s transportation secretary.

“Even the Obama administration didn’t make the kind of commitment Biden is making here,” LaHood said.

Biden has vowed to build 500,000 new charging stations across the nation by 2030, about 10 times what the U.S. has now. But the U.S. needs millions of charging stations to build out EV infrastructure, and California alone would need as many as one million to meet its 2030 goal of putting 5 million zero-emission vehicles on the road.

Putting Biden’s 500,000 chargers where they get the biggest bang for the buck in boosting EV purchases is a crucial factor for a variety of groups. So is making sure that the stations benefit those who are nowhere near a plug—drivers in rural areas and poorer urban communities.

Generally, cities and suburbs have better access to the electric grid and more experience with workplace chargers and pay-as-you charge stations. But highways and rural areas pose unique EVchallenges, given the massive power needed for more remote car charging and to meet future demand from power-hungry electric long-haul trucks, American Trucking Associations’ Vice President of Energy Glen Kedzie said.

“If you’re in the middle of nowhere, you have to extend a utility line out there,” Kedzie said. “You cannot use the same charging infrastructure for cars as for trucks, because of the load that’s needed to charge a truck.”

Congress is starting to seek answers. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee is slated to hold a Feb. 24 hearing on Biden’s plan to boost transportation infrastructure spending.

Consultation Needed

The Transportation Department and White House so far have declined to offer specifics on the 500,000 pledge. But the administration has assured EV advocates that the number refers to charging stations with multiple charging plugs, said Jay Friedland, senior policy adviser for Plug-in America.

Still unknown is how those plugs will be allocated between more modest charging and fast chargers that can fully recharge an EV battery in an hour or so, Friedland said.

Biden needs extensive consultations with governors and mayors to lay the groundwork for big charging networks, LaHood said. Biden’s selection of former South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg as transportation secretary was significant in that regard, he noted.

“If you want to put these charging stations in places where they’ll be most used, you really need” local input, he added, and not “someone from DOT or the Energy Department in Washington telling them where they should go.”

Payment Options

Another mystery is who will pay for upgrades, including whether ratepayers should bear the costs, Kedzie said.

One possible funding source: new Transportation Department grants flowing to states and local jurisdictions, said Kevin DeGood, the director of infrastructure policy at the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress. Some could likely be steered toward local electric utilities to upgrade substations, DeGood said.

Another key source: extending the 30C tax credit, which lets businesses claim up to $30,000 for EV and alternative fuel infrastructure installed in 2021, said Robbie Diamond, president of the Securing America’s Future Energy think tank.

The Securing America’s Clean Fuels Infrastructure Act, introduced in 2020 by Sens. Tom Carper (D-Del.) and now-retired Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), would raise the $30,000 cap per charging location credit to $200,000. The $30,000 credit was extended to the end of 2021 in a December omnibus spending bill, and Carper is seeking a new GOP co-sponsor before reintroducing the measure.

Tax credits could give private operators a powerful tool to help meet Biden’s 500,000 goal, DeGood said.

“If you’re a parking deck company, you might say, ‘Well, we’ve got 35,000 spots in Washington, D.C., and we own these facilities or have 20- to 30-year leases. We’ll go out and take advantage of the tax credit because it’s a way to attract customers” and make buildings more attractive, he said.

Billions Needed

The price tag for 500,000 EV stations is unclear and will depend heavily on how stations are built and their location, said Morry Markowitz, president of the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Association.

Some groups already have run the numbers. The Zero Emission Transportation Association—launched last fall with support from EV backers such as Tesla Inc. and Rivian Automotive Inc.—says $30 billion will be needed over 10 years for home charging rebates and grants to state, local, and tribal governments. ZETA members want 100% of new vehicles sold by 2030 to be electric, arguing an ambitious target is crucial for Biden to make good on his net-zero emissions by 2050 pledge.

Biden’s 500,000 chargers is “a huge down payment” but still a partial solution, said Joe Britton, ZETA’s executive director.

“When we get to 100% EV sales, we’ll need 4.5 million charging stations—that’s the endgame,” hesaid.

Congress will need to invest in the plan to put public chargers in street parking, multi-unit housing, and other areas, Britton said. Where such stations are built will be crucial to addressing increasing environmental justice concerns and a push to ensure low-income communities benefit from the EV push, including electric transit buses.

Caroline Samponaro, who heads Lyft’s Transit & Micromobility Policy, said e-bikes also need to be on the table in deciding charging infrastructure for those without a car. In New York City, the average Lyft e-bike is used for nine daily trips, outstripping traditional bike usage of 3.5 daily trips, she said.

Broader Challenges Ahead

Biden’s campaign pledges also included boosting demand for charging stations to ensure they’re economically viable. He wants all new U.S.-built buses to be zero-emissions by 2030 and to replace 500,000 school buses with zero-emission vehicles.

Deciding how to divvy up the 500,000 chargers among states will require deciding whether states that have done the most should get a fair share, or whether the effort should focus on states with less infrastructure.

California, New York, Maryland, Massachusetts, Washington, Vermont, Colorado, Oregon, and New Jersey, as well as Washington, D.C., have been EV leaders, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy. A few Republican-dominated states have made modest progress, including North Carolina, Tennessee, Utah, and Florida, the council says.

Building 500,000 stations not only would help cut transportation’s greenhouse gas emissions but also would help close the gap on EV adoption and charging infrastructure with China, which leads the world on both, said Robert Puentes, president of the Eno Center for Transportation think tank.

Policymakers need to consider how commuter and home-buying patterns have shifted during the Covid-19 pandemic, he said. Many workers are moving away from city centers, expecting the trend toward remote work to continue.

“People say everyone is working from home, and that’s not true” for many non-white collar sectors, he said. “But even if people are working from home a day just every two weeks, that’s still a 10% change"—which he said may require further tweaking of where chargers should be located.

To contact the reporters on this story: Stephen Lee in Washington at stephenlee@bloombergindustry.com; Dean Scott in Washington at dscott@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Rebecca Baker at rbaker@bloombergindustry.com; Chuck McCutcheon at cmccutcheon@bloombergindustry.com

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