The Lack Of EV Charging Stations Could Limit EV Growth
By Nives Dolšak, Aseem Prakash, and Nathan Shih
Transportation contributes to about 28% of US carbon emissions. To cut emissions by 50% by 2030, this sector will need to be rapidly decarbonized. Electric Vehicles (EVs) are the key element of this plan. Because EVs are more expensive than internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles, Biden’s infrastructure plan provides for $100 billion for EV rebates. But the EV challenge extends beyond its sticker price. EV owners must be able to charge their vehicles conveniently and quickly. Biden’s plan provides for additional $15 billion to build 500,000 EV charging stations.
The number of EVs on US roads is projected to increase rapidly in this decade. In 2020, about 300,000 EVs were sold, accounting for about two percent of US new automobile market. However, the cumulative number of EVs on US roads could reach 35 million by 2030. How many charging stations will this require and what sort of challenges will need to be overcome to deliver on this target?
Costs are not the only impediment here. Local regulatory issues and electric grid upgrades also play an important role. Viewed this way, the EV revolution faces important regulatory and technological challenges which require close collaboration among different levels of governments.
Recharging Could Become a Bottleneck
Lower prices, helped by federal subsidies, will certainly make EVs more attractive. But drivers may still worry about recharging. Where would they plug in their cars and recharge with speed and convenience?
Consider the process of refueling ICE vehicles. When the fuel is low, the driver pulls into a gas station and refuels in around 3-5 minutes, depending on tank capacity. Since gas stations are everywhere, ICE drivers don’t have range anxiety. But EV owners do have a range anxiety for two reasons. First, there aren’t enough charging stations. Second, it can take a long time to charge EVs.
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One might wonder, why can’t we just install EV chargers at gas stations? While repurposing gas stations can be a good idea, and is popular in Europe, it has some issues. For one, charging an EV can take a long time. Adding 100 driving range miles could take six minutes to 26 hours of charging, depending on the charging station type and the EV’s battery size.
Thus, long charging time means that chargers have to be in places where people park their cars for extended periods. Homes, apartments, and workplaces are prime locations. The bottom line is that charging EVs poses different challenges in contrast to refueling ICEs. This means that we must rethink the geography of refueling.
Types of Charging Stations and How They Are Used
Gas stations are alike. Some might pump a bit faster, but the pumping times are not an issue for drivers. But EVs are different. There are three main types of charging stations: Level 1, Level 2, and DC fast chargers (DCFC). Level 1 charging stations are the slowest and use a 120V AC outlet (in the US) to add around 2-5 miles of range per hour of charging. This is the same outlet you plug your phone into. Level 2 uses a 240V AC outlet and adds about 10-60 miles of range per hour of charging. These are used by EV owners who want faster charging and some public charging stations where vehicles are expected to be parked for a few hours. DCFCs are 480V DC and can add around 180-240 miles of range for each hour of charging. These are mainly used for on-the-go charging where users are expected to stay for a shorter time, like along a highway or for community charging in metro areas.
Gaps in Public EV Charging Infrastructure
In the U.S., 80% of EV drivers charge their cars at home, typically using either Level 1 or 2 chargers. But as EVs become more popular, especially with individuals not living in single family homes, public charging station networks will need to expand.
A study by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that 3.4 DCFC, and 40 Level 2 charging ports are needed per 1,000 EVs. Assuming 35 million EVs by 2030, US will need to build about 50,000 DCFCs and 1.2 million Level 2 ports. This means that 380 EV charging ports will need to be installed each day over the next nine years! In comparison, the US has installed on average about 30 ports a day between 2010 and 2020.
How much will this cost? Building an EV charging station is expensive because of installation costs and specialized hardware. Installation involves permitting and grid connections which may require additional distribution grid upgrades. Together, hardware and installation could cost as much as $4,500 per Level 1 port, $20,000 per Level 2 port, and $90,000 per DCFC.
Since Level 2 and DCFC charging stations consume large amounts of power, the grid (including transformers, substations, and eventually transmission lines) will need to be upgraded. This is particularly expensive for DCFC, which can draw the equivalent of a whole neighborhood’s electricity needs at once.
It is unclear who will pay for these grid upgrades. Should utilities simply increase the price of electricity for all? This presents an equity issue because the poor and working classes will probably not drive EVs. Akin to user fees, grid upgrade costs should be passed on EV owners, but this will raise their sticker price, partially negating the effect of subsidies that Biden’s infrastructure plan has proposed.
The challenge of charging EVs is particularly acute for individuals living in apartments and homes without designated parking spaces. But building new public charging stations requires local governments’ approval of siting plans. A framework or a set of best practices could help streamline engagements between local governments and affected parties including owners of office and apartment complexes, malls, and parking lots, as well as EV charging companies.
There are about 115,000 gas stations in the US, employing around 939,000 people. This means that the decline of the traditional gas station can pose political problems. Given the time involved in charging even with DCFC chargers, many EV owners will charge their vehicles in places where they park for a long time. Thus, gas stations will lose business. Fearing employment decline, local politicians may use zoning laws to impede building of new charging stations.
Even for repurposing existing gas stations, regulatory changes might be required because some states prohibit the resale of electricity. The crucial issue is to look at the automobile, a defining feature of modern America, in terms of its economic linkages and understand how the rise of EVs might affect this ICE-based ecosystem. This proactive approach could help the Biden Administration anticipate political problems and build a political consensus before the issue gets polarized.