It was President Joe Biden’s favorite phrase during the 2020 campaign, one that he repeated over and over again whenever the subject of electric cars came up: “500,000 charging stations.” Despite his reputation as an ardent fan of trains and Amtrak, the president has spent the last year conjuring an image of an America filled with electric vehicles by 2030, each one seamlessly zipping from one charging station to the next.
But as the Biden administration prepares to push his $2 trillion infrastructure proposal through Congress — which includes a $174 billion investment in electric vehicles — one part of that ginormous plan has been overlooked. The U.S. currently only has about 115,000 gas stations and 41,000 charging stations across the entire country, meaning that EV stations will have to match — and then quickly overtake — stations dispensing America’s longtime favorite fuel. Even with sufficient funding, where are those half a million new stations going to go?
Why public chargers?
The first thing to know about EV charging stations is that, despite having a charging mechanism that looks eerily like the nozzle of a gas pump, they aren’t much like gas stations. Filling an average car with a tank of gas takes only 3 to 4 minutes. Fully charging the battery of a Nissan Leaf, on the other hand, takes anywhere from 20 hours on a “Level 1” old-fashioned, 120-volt household wall outlet, or 4 to 8 hours on a standard, “Level 2” public charger. (If you’re lucky enough to find a “Level 3” DC fast charger, it can take as little as 30 minutes.)
That’s why, according to the Department of Energy, around 80 percent of current EV charging takes place at Americans’ homes often while the owners sleep: It only makes sense to charge the car when you don’t use it. “Most people are going to charge at home,” said Jay Friedland, the director of Plug In America, an EV advocacy group.
But if the country is really going to zero out emissions by 2050 — as Biden has promised — America is going to need a lot of public chargers, both for those who can’t charge at home (apartment buildings and shared homes can make it difficult to find a free outlet) or who want to power up during their commute or on long trips. Mike Nicholas, a researcher at the International Council on Clean Transportation, estimates that the country needs one charger for every 10 to 15 electric cars; that means Biden’s plan would cover 5 to 7.5 million EVs across the country. (The country has around 1.4 million electric cars on the road today.)
Where will they all go?
The country’s public chargers are now scattered across retail stores, hotels, malls, grocery stores, and office buildings — “anywhere that you think you might be parked for an hour or two,” Nicholas said. Charging takes time, and so unlike gas stations, EV chargers are clustered in areas where people can go shopping or otherwise entertain themselves. As a result, the Department of Energy’s map of public chargers looks like a random cross-section of American consumerism: A single charger is nestled around the back of a coffee shop called “English Muffin Bakery & Espresso” in Hudson, Wyoming, population 438. In San Jose, California, where 20 percent (!) of all new vehicles sold are EVs, 28 chargers line the parking lot of a single shopping mall.
That might seem like a built-in drawback of the Biden plan: Charging stations will only be constructed if stores, restaurants, and hotels decide to spend the money to install them. But Nicholas says that businesses are already seeing benefits of adding charging stations, and the incentives are likely to grow in the coming years. For one thing, businesses that install chargers can already receive a credit of up to $30,000 off their federal taxes — a program that Biden could expand in the quest to add 500,000 stations. The government could also provide more direct rebates or funding to help businesses pay for pouring cement, rewiring their electrical systems to accommodate charging, and more.
And providing EV charging might also attract customers and sales. One analysis by ChargePoint, a company that operates a network of charging stations across the U.S., found that EV customers at a retail store in California stayed at the store 50 minutes longer than the average customer — and spent an average of $1 per minute. (The retail store was anonymized in the report, but the photos make it look a lot like a Target.)
Anne Smart, the vice president of public policy at ChargePoint, said that companies also have an incentive to set up charging stations even if it’s not for their customers. They could be a new workplace perk, like snack bars or nap pods.“Workplaces want to provide an amenity for their employees,” she said.
There are many hurdles ahead. For Americans to feel comfortable driving EVs on longer routes — not just on daily commutes — the Biden administration and the Department of Transportation will have to prioritize building some “Level 3” DC fast chargers, which can cost up to $150,000 to install and take much more energy to operate. Nicholas estimates that of the 500,000 stations in Biden’s proposal, at least 50,000 should be DC fast, to enable longer trips and faster charging times for EV drivers in a hurry.
It might sound strange but in a perfect world, those chargers would also need to be unused a lot of the time. “The big challenge with this is that ideally you build these stations and then they’re empty half the time,” said Costa Samaras, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. Prospective Tesla or Nissan Leaf buyers want to see that chargers are plentiful, and available when they need them. “The amount of stations has to outpace the number of cars, so the next person can feel confident that they can buy an EV,” Samaras said.
Biden has repeatedly promised that he’ll set the country on course to zero out carbon emissions by 2050. Barring any sort of technological breakthrough — or an American pivot away from cars altogether — that means all of the country’s 250 million cars need to go electric over the next 30 years, a feat requiring millions more charging stations. But half a million, experts say, is a good start. “It’s a very good down payment on what we’ll need for the future,” Friedland said.
This article has been updated to clarify that ChargePoint operates a network of EV chargers across the United States but does not own them.