By Ledyard King and Nathan Bomey
President Joe Biden’s proposal to build thousands of electric vehicle charging stations could revolutionize the nation’s highway grid if Congress passes a bipartisan infrastructure bill that would spend $7.5 billion on the initiative.
As automakers expand their lineup of electric cars, the new public charging stations would represent a historically large down payment on Biden’s plan to aggressively reduce greenhouse gas levels by 2030. Transportation makes up 29% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, more than any other sector.
But an important question remains: Will a massive expansion of stations be enough to convince drivers to trade in their gas-powered vehicles for electric ones?
Advocates applaud the money for charging stations as a good start even though Biden’s original request of $15 billion was cut in half by Congress. But they warn that convincing drivers to trade in their gas-powered cars for non-emitting vehicles won’t happen on a large scale unless they feel comfortable they won’t be stranded because they run out of power.
“Certainly there are people who are driven by environmental concerns, but for most folks, they just need their transportation to do what it needs to do, whether that’s carry kids or drag their boat or deliver the mail,” said Genevieve Cullen, president of the Electric Drive Transportation Association. “So they need to be reassured of that. And the key to that is knowing that there is abundant infrastructure.”
Only about 1 in 50 vehicles sold in 2020 were electric though that share is slowly increasing. Zero-emission vehicles represented nearly 4% of all vehicles sold during the three-month period ending in June, the highest for any quarter to date according to the Alliance for Automotive Innovation.
While automakers like General Motors, Honda and Volvo say they aim to phase out gas engines in the next 10 to 20 years, a lack of public electric car charging stations is widely viewed as a threat to those plans.
But even then, a study released in February by the Energy Institute at the University of California Berkeley’s Haas School of Business and the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago found that owners drove their EVs about half the mileage annually compared to the average gas-powered vehicles.
“All told, this suggests that households may not yet view EVs as a good substitute for their gasoline-powered cars and that, unless there are major improvements in EV technology, regulators and policy-makers have more work to do to convince drivers to abandon their gasoline-powered cars for EVs,” the analysis found.