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How Will We Charge All the New Vehicles?

  • Posted: 10.20.2021
graphic of car with a charging cord around it
Image: Pixabay

What electric cars need to become a top choice for American drivers is a nationwide network of charging stations to overcome fears of running out of juice on long trips.

Or maybe that’s not true at all.

There are already nearly one-third as many charging sites in the U.S. as there are gas stations. And that doesn’t even count the “refueling stations” found in the electric outlets of every home in America.

Plus, the range of electric cars already exceeds how far most people drive in a day. Ninety percent of Americans drive less than 45 miles a day, and the average range for electric vehicles is 250 miles.

The ballyhoo over charging stations has created a powerful conventional wisdom that they’re a necessary step toward overcoming the “range anxiety” about getting stranded in the middle of nowhere. President Biden’s American Jobs Plan proposes a national network of 500,000 charging stations by 2030, up from the Department of Energy’s current count of 50,000.

But the conventional wisdom masks a different road ahead. Range anxiety may be the least of the reasons there aren’t more electric vehicles on the road, says Brian Sloboda, director of consumer solutions for the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association.

“There are people who argue we need the charging network for the electric vehicle market to be successful. They might be right, but I’m not one of those people,” says Sloboda. “Let’s say your electric vehicle is only used for commuting and you’re just driving it from your home to the grocery store and to work. It is very likely that you would never even use public charging stations because you can charge your EV at home for a very reasonable price.”

Sloboda is quick to list the advantages of electric vehicles, from how they affect the environment to their lower maintenance costs to the fact that you can wake up every morning with a full tank of “gas.” But he sees bigger issues than a lack of charging stations standing in the way of greater acceptance.

He says, “You have limited model availability, limited body styles, limited manufacturers, high prices and most people are unfamiliar with the technology.”

But Sloboda sees those problems as solvable. Right now, you’ll pay about $10,000 extra for an electric model. But those costs are coming down as batteries get cheaper and more powerful.

And competition is heating up. Every major car manufacturer has high-profile plans for electric models—Ford has announced an electric model of its popular F-150 pickup. Although electric vehicles make up less than 4 percent of the auto market, that’s doubled from just one year ago.

Even if charging stations are not the most important determiner of the future of electric vehicles, they are a growing part of the landscape. To find the nearest charging station, a variety of apps will guide you. Many electric co-ops are also responding to the rising interest.

“Co-ops are looking at what they can do to support public charging,” says Sloboda. “They do it to meet the needs of their members, but they also do it as economic development to bring tourists into the community to support local businesses like hotels and parks.”

While trends point to strong growth for electric vehicles, forecasting the future of charging stations is trickier. It’s not as easy as comparing the number of charging stations to gas stations. For one thing, people don’t have a gasoline pump in their garage, which is essentially the case with an electric vehicle. And while an internal combustion engine might take 4 minutes for a fill, it could take more than an hour to recharge an electric vehicle.

“It’s something everyone is wrestling with,” says Sloboda. “But if you’re truly interested in making the switch to electric, don’t let the current charging infrastructure deter you. Focus on your daily driving needs; your budget; and read reviews from trusted sites like Consumer Reports, Motor Trend, and Car and Driver.”

Author: Paul Wesslund, for National Rural Electric Cooperative Association