By HOPE YEN
WASHINGTON (AP) — States are getting the go-ahead to build a nationwide network of electric vehicle charging stations that would place new or upgraded ones every 50 miles (80 kilometers) along interstate highways as part of the Biden administration’s plan to spur widespread adoption of the zero-emission cars.
The administration on Thursday announced the availability of $5 billion in federal money to states over five years under President Joe Biden’s infrastructure law, sketching out a vision of seamless climate-friendly car travel from coast to coast.
Under Transportation Department requirements, states must submit plans to the federal government and can begin construction by this fall if they focus first on highway routes, rather than neighborhoods and shopping centers, that can allow people to take their electric vehicles long distances. Each station would need to have at least four fast-charger ports, which enable drivers to fully recharge their vehicles in about an hour.
Many technical details are to be worked out, and the administration acknowledges it will take work to persuade drivers accustomed to gas-powered cars, particularly in rural areas. The money is far less than the $15 billion that Biden had envisioned to fulfill a campaign promise of 500,000 charging stations by 2030, and it may take substantial private investment to make the plan work.
“A century ago, America ushered in the modern automotive era; now America must lead the electric vehicle revolution,” said Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, who will have final signoff over most aspects of the funding.
Buttigieg made the announcement in front of the Transportation Department along with White House officials, flanked by a pair of black Ford Mustang Mach-E SUVs in the federal government’s growing electric fleet that he and Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm drive. The vehicle’s retail price starts around $44,000 and climbs to $60,000-plus including options, and they are currently made in Mexico.
Buttigieg made a special appeal to rural drivers, suggesting that big wide open spaces of the U.S. no longer need to be a “valley of death” for EV drivers.
“Many might think of them as a luxury item,” he said. “The reality is nobody benefits more from EVs in principle than those who drive the longest distances, often our rural Americans.”
The law provides an additional $2.5 billion for local grants, planned for later this year, to fill remaining gaps in the charging network in rural areas and in disadvantaged communities, which currently are less likely to own the higher-priced electric vehicles. States failing to meet all the federal requirements risk delays in getting approval from the Federal Highway Administration or not getting money at all.
Biden also has set a goal of 50% electric vehicle sales by 2030, part of a broader effort to become zero emissions economy-wide by 2050.
Electric vehicles amounted to less than 3% of U.S. new auto sales last year, but forecasters expect big increases in the next decade. Consumers bought about 400,000 fully electric vehicles. According to a Consumer Reports survey, anxiety about limited range and the availability of charging stations were among the top concerns consumers had about owning an EV.
Biden hopes to do even more to promote electric vehicles, including a provision in his stalled social and environmental bill for a $7,500 tax credit for people who buy electric vehicles.
“It’s going to help ensure that America leads the world on electric vehicles,” Biden said this week about American companies expanding EV infrastructure.
“China has been leading the race up to now, but this is about to change,” he said. “Because America is building convenient, reliable, equitable national public charging networks. So wherever you live, charging an electric vehicle will be quick and easy.”
Granholm described the initial $5 billion investment as creating “the spine” of the national network. Alluding to surging gasoline prices, said the aim of the new stations is to build “the necessary infrastructure for drivers across America to save money and go the distance.”
The environmental group Natural Resources Defense Council praised the administration’s quick start but said much work remains to be done. It said states, utilities and private companies will need to step up and fill gaps in funding to ensure a full public charging system by 2035, estimated to cost as much as $39 billion.
“We have no time to lose,” the group said in a statement.
Currently, electric vehicle owners charge their vehicles at home 80% of the time, making the need for EV charging stations at colleges, apartment building parking lots or even public streets less urgent. But that is likely to change as more people who don’t have a garage to house a charging station buy EVs.
Under the Transportation Department plan, states would be eligible to build out EV stations in neighborhoods and cities once FHWA and Buttigieg certify they have done their part to fulfill commitments to the highway EV charging network, known as alternative fuel corridors.
Direct-current fast chargers, which can charge a car up to 80% of its battery capacity in 20 to 45 minutes, are quite expensive, costing $40,000 to $100,000, limiting the number that can be built, but they enable drivers to quickly get back on a road such as a highway.
Jessika Trancik, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies EV charging, called the administration’s approach a good first step. She said a successful strategy to spur wider EV use will require charging stations in a host of different locations, including faster charging along highways and slower charging near homes and workplaces.
Even with limited resources, she said, federal money could be distributed to accelerate private investment, with greater government incentives for areas that might otherwise be underserved by the private sector.
“It’s not about government going out and installing every one of these chargers themselves,” she said. “It’s also about nudging private sector investment.”