500,000 Public Electric Vehicle Chargers Is the Wrong Goal

Experts and industry leaders say the U.S. needs to build hundreds of thousands of EV chargers to assuage range anxiety concerns. But it's far from clear that would work, or that it's even necessary.
September 10, 2021, 1:00pm
EV charging station
FREDERIC J. BROWN / Contributor via Getty
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On Tuesday, the New York Times ran an article headlined "Biden’s Electric Car Plans Hinge on Having Enough Chargers." The article goes on to cite "energy and auto experts" who declare the U.S. needs at least five or 10 times as many public chargers as the 110,000 it currently has to achieve Biden's goal of 50 percent EV sales by 2030. 

The article barely mentions at-home chargers, even though the one time it does reads: "Most drivers today plug in their electric cars at home, and only occasionally use public charging stations." Nevertheless, it immediately hand-waves away this critical fact and its implications with a dismissive "But those [public charging] stations will be crucial, especially to those who live in apartments and people who drive long distances."

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This is not a new narrative. For months, news outlets have been confidently asserting that a lack of public charging is a—if not the—main barrier to EV adoption. It is also a point I have previously echoed. But I am increasingly dubious it is actually true and worried that the idea of simply replicating America's gas stations, but as EV charging stations instead, is becoming an unnecessary and expensive distraction from the very real infrastructure we need to accommodate widespread EV adoption.

At its core, installing hundreds of thousands of new public chargers over the coming years is assuming old infrastructure needs for new technology. People think cars need gas pumps, and public fast chargers are the EV's equivalent of a gas pump. Therefore, the thinking goes, we probably need lots of charging stations if they're going to replace gas cars. But it's far from clear this is true, because EVs are not like gas cars in one crucial way. They can typically be charged conveniently and easily at home overnight like a cell phone. 

This doesn't cover every single potential EV use case (more on that later) and of course fast chargers are still necessary for the occasional long trip. To address these concerns, the U.S. needs careful, targeted policies. The gaps in EV charging infrastructure—gaps in both quality as well as quantity—are real, but will not be solved with a buckshot policy of spraying hundreds of thousands of them all over the country hoping the gaps eventually get filled by sheer numbers. That approach is not only a potential for wasting tens of billions of tax dollars that could be spent on other critical infrastructure needs—like upgrading the nation's pathetic public transportation or rail infrastructure, to pick just one potential use—but may not even solve the biggest EV charging problems to begin with.

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Before we get to what the U.S.'s EV charging policy should look like, it's important to understand how we got to the current consensus that we need 500,000 or a million chargers to begin with. This argument is best encapsulated by what Asad Hussain, a senior analyst at PitchBook, told the Times. "You talk to anyone who’s on the fence about buying an E.V. and the No. 1 concern that comes to mind is range anxiety.”

"Range anxiety" is a catch-all term for two distinct but related concerns: Vehicle range and public charging availability. Both of these concerns ranked high in a Consumer Reports survey on barriers to EV adoption. So, industry experts, not unreasonably, conclude that if a lack of public charging availability is why people say they won't buy an EV, then if we build more public charging, more people will buy EVs.

The problem with this logic is it is building out an infrastructure system for the people who don't use it, not for the people who do. In fact, lack of public charging availability—and range anxiety more generally—is not a major concern among most EV owners. It turns out, people wildly overestimate the number of miles they typically drive and the frequency with which they will need public chargers. 

Surveys and studies repeatedly show the vast majority of EV charging is done at home, either in a driveway or garage. Consumer Reports found that owners of EVs who can charge at home and have a car with a range of about 250 miles can do 92 percent of charging at home, visiting public chargers on average just six times a year. In fact, this is one of the key benefits of EV ownership. Earlier this year, AutoNation's CEO Mike Jackson said on CNBC, "Here’s what they [EV owners] like: They buy an electric car, and they tell us, ‘You know what’s great? I never have to go to a gas station again.'"

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Charging an EV at home overnight is convenient and easy if you have or can install a dedicated Level 2 charger in your driveway or garage, a project roughly equivalent to installing an electric dryer hookup, which also uses a 240-volt outlet, and is rarely more than a rounding error on the price of a new car overall. Some states offer tax incentives to install one. This range anxiety concern seems to be an issue best addressed through education especially by salespeople. The simple response is: Most EV owners charge their cars like their phones, plugging it in overnight and having a full charge that lasts all day or more in the morning. In fact, a car charge will last much longer than your phone, on average. You'll probably use a public charger much less often than you plug in your phone away from home.

Of course, it is true that many U.S. residents do not have a driveway or garage to park in every night and convert to a private charging station. Again, this fact is often cited as a key reason why the number of public chargers must dramatically increase. But what little data there is on the subject seems to suggest the problem is vastly overstated. 

The U.S. can make huge gains in EV adoption just from people who park their cars in their garages or driveways. According to the Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, 63 percent of U.S. housing units have a garage or carport, which is likely to have electricity already hooked up, making installing a home charger costs about $1,000, give or take, or about as much as that "rustproofing" the dealer is always tacking onto the final price of a car (GM will pay for it if you buy a new electric car from them). And a recent survey of new car purchasers by the firm Escalent found 88 percent of them will park the new car (gas or electric) in a garage or driveway next to their house. Depending on the specific electrical layout, a driveway may be trickier for at-home charging but in the majority of cases it can be done easily. So, while the specific numbers may be up for debate, it is quite possible Biden's stated goal of 50 percent EV adoption by 2030 can be achieved entirely by people who charge their cars at home the vast majority of the time.

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To be sure, there are wide discrepancies about who tends to have the accommodations for convenient at-home charging. According to the same Department of Energy study, only 49 percent of housing units in the northeast have dedicated garages while 76 percent in the west do. And most people with garages are homeowners (78 percent) while just 37 percent are renters. Plus, renters are at the behest of landlords about whether or not they can install one. This owner/renter divide has obvious implications for equity in electric vehicle availability.

But it is far from clear the answer to this problem is to install a ton more public fast chargers everywhere. First, it's entirely unproven that would actually drive more EV adoption. How many fast chargers are "enough?" How far would one have to be from one's home or work to be sufficiently convenient? These are targets conspicuously left out of every survey of prospective EV owners. Further, what we do know about people who give up an EV for a gas car is they do so most often due to not having at-home charging or needing to rely on "trickle charging" from a standard outlet that takes days to fully charge a car. Imagine if, in the heady days of the mid-2000s when smartphone adoption was just taking off, if you had to go to some charging hub several miles from your home to charge your phone all the time. Would you have gotten one?

Second, the fast charger everywhere solution would likely only exacerbate the equity issue, not address it. "Filling up" an EV at a public fast charger is much more expensive than charging one at home overnight, roughly two to three times more expensive than at-home charging. Green Car Journal has a handy guide comparing fast charging costs to gasoline, but the upshot is it can cost as much or more than gasoline, depending on various factors like charging speed and the charging company, negating one of the key benefits of EV ownership. Plus, it may degrade the battery faster if relied on as the main charging method, increasing repair costs and ultimately requiring more frequent charging as the battery degrades and necessitating more frequent vehicle replacement. 

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Third, relying on fast charging infrastructure undermines the main goal of EVs which is environmental sustainability. Fast chargers are incredibly energy-intensive. As the electric vehicle charging company EVGo explained in a white paper, the energy consumption of one DCFC station with four 50 kilowatt chargers in use 35 percent of the time uses as much energy per year as it would take to power 35 single family U.S. homes. Four 150 kilowatt chargers at the same utilization rate would require the power of 100 homes. And finally, four 350 kilowatt chargers would equate to about 230 homes.

Creating a national charging landscape where renters and apartment-dwellers must rely on fast chargers will mean the grid is likely taxed at peak use times, requiring fossil fuel plants to continue firing to meet that demand, rather than charging vehicles more slowly overnight when energy use is low and more easily accommodate with renewable energy sources, further exacerbating the environmental harm of relying on fast chargers for everyday charging.

This fast-chargers-everywhere approach might make more sense if there wasn't another way. Fortunately, there is. Cars park somewhere overnight. Rather than spend tens of billions of dollars installing fast chargers near where people live, the government's focus should be a carrot-and-stick approach to getting apartment complexes and landlords to install Level 2 EV chargers on their properties as soon as possible. There should be incentives to install them now and fines for not doing so by a certain date. And Level 2 chargers available for every residential parking spot should be mandatory for all new construction. 

On-street parking is a harder nut to crack, but it's worth remembering what a tiny percentage of U.S. car owners park overnight on the curb, an occurrence that is likely overstated because many of us who write about cars and energy policy for a living reside in New York, D.C., San Francisco, or a handful of other U.S. cities where this is common. Data on this is hard to come by, but the aforementioned Escalent survey found just five percent of car buyers store them on the street or "some other place at my residence." To provide charging for those who do, utilities can install curbside Level 2 charging that may help convince some street parkers to go electric. This should be done, and as much of it as possible. But public dollars spent incentivizing EV charger build-outs in these denser urban neighborhoods would possibly be better spent improving public transportation service and bike infrastructure to encourage street parkers to get rid of their cars altogether.

There is one more critical flaw to the fast-chargers-everywhere approach. It misses—or at the very least minimizes—a far more important issue, one that actual EV owners complain about all the time. The public chargers that currently exist really suck. Ethan Zuckerman, a professor at UMass Amherst, recently posted a Twitter thread in which he said he hates the public charging company EVGo "with a ferocity and passion that I've never felt for another company," a particularly impressive feat considering Amherst is Comcast country. Plug In America, an EV advocacy group, found 54 percent of EV owners "reported experiencing problems with public charging." Most frequently, those problems were that the charger was broken. There are several handy tools for planning a longer EV trip route so there are multiple fast chargers along the way, like Plugshare and A Better Route Planner, but those can only help so much if you pull up to the charger and it just doesn't work. Those horror stories are just as likely to dissuade future EV purchases as a perceived lack of chargers in general, and non-functional charging stations routinely rank higher on EV owner issues than a lack of available public charging in general.

The irony here is all of this is actually good news. This is one of the rare circumstances where the path to a better, greener future is actually far more achievable than one might think or experts are advising. Installing fast chargers is really, really hard and expensive. The U.S. needs perhaps 10,000 more along key interstate corridors—ones that work—to have a true national network, not the 500,000 or a million experts predict. The U.S. has a viable, achievable path to reach widespread EV adoption soon, as long as we focus not on what people eyeing EV's skeptically from a distance say they want, but what EV owners actually use.