We need more and better charging infrastructure to win over electric vehicle skeptics.
“Excuse me, do you know the way to the clean energy transition?” Source: ABC
The best way to get the American consumer to participate in the energy revolution is to ensure that it requires no effort on their part.
People love renewables, as long as they remain invisible. They are happy to vote for aggressive renewable portfolio standards, as long as they don’t notice an impact on their bill. The less we ask people to change their behavior, the easier it is to make progress.
Unfortunately, it will be hard to electrify personal vehicles without drivers noticing. We won’t be able to swap people’s conventional cars for shiny new EVs while they are looking the other way. Instead, Americans have to be lured out of their fossil-mobiles voluntarily, and that requires the promise of something demonstrably better.
That is exactly what led to Tesla’s initial success. Tesla buyers don’t feel like they are compromising on quality to save the environment—they think they are getting something better. With a Tesla, you get to feel morally and materially superior at the same time.
Deep decarbonization requires this sort of product quality across the board: we need an electric vehicle “for every purse and purpose” that is not just on par with its fossil counterparts, but is actually an upgrade. This is a tall order on many fronts, but I think the biggest challenge lies not with designing or marketing the next generation of vehicles, but with ensuring a charging infrastructure that makes EVs seem like the easier, more convenient option to nearly all Americans.
Which is more important, the chicken or the egg?
Conventional analysis highlights two main barriers to EV adoption: sticker price and concerns about charging, that is, range anxiety.
Battery price declines are solving the first problem. BloombergNEF projects EV cost parity with conventional vehicles in the next two or three years, with EVs enjoying a cost advantage going forward, even before subsidies are figured in. Policy can help by juicing tax credits (as the Biden administration proposes) and tightening fuel economy regulations (like in the EU). Product offerings remain uneven across categories, but diversity is expanding rapidly.
Battery prices continue declining by double digit percentages per year. BNEF
But, the second problem—range anxiety—still needs work. If we focus on the goal of making EV charging feel “effortless” and “easier than gas” to the broadest possible swath of the American consumer, then the magnitude of the challenge starts to take shape.
Can EV charging be better and more convenient than gas?
The Biden administration is touting a target of 500,000 public charging stations by 2030. This is meant to be a mix of public and shared private (i.e., workplace and multi-unit dwellings), with probably a couple of plugs per station (DOE currently estimates that there are roughly 43,000 stations with 105,000 plugs).
Would this overcome our collective range anxiety? A number of high quality studies (here, here, here, and here) have estimated the charging infrastructure needed to support significant EV penetration. (Others show how advances in ride sharing and automation could greatly reduce infrastructure needs.) These studies suggest that the Biden target is adequate to support a fleet that was around 20% electric by 2030, which is broadly consistent with a target of full electrification of new vehicles by 2035.
But saying a public charging network is viable is still a long way from saying it is superior to refueling with gas, which is what will be needed to win over millions of Americans who are skeptical of EVs.
Fortunately, EV charging is already more convenient most of the time for many people. Once you have a home charger setup, charging at home is easier than having to refuel at the gas station. Ditto charging at work, if you can secure a spot.
If you add to that ubiquitous public charging at retailers, integration of parking fees and charging in both lots and street meters, a common platform for vehicle to grid communication, and a unified, simple billing system with low prices, then you can start to imagine a utopian future where charging your EV is a passive, effortless activity that drivers hardly notice, vastly preferred to stopping at a gas station (unless you like inhaling the fumes).
But, there is a lot of hard work and innovation between here and there, and EV charging has some structural weaknesses compared to gas.
EVs cannot, and will never, outperform fossil vehicles in refueling speed.
As Andy explained in a previous post, a gas pump in the US is limited to pumping 10 gallons a minute. At that rate, a vehicle with average fuel economy (25 mpg) can add 250 miles of range per minute.
A level two charger (the kind you find at retailers and install in your home) adds range to an EV at about 25 miles per hour. Put differently, after a minute of charging, you get enough juice to drive a Chevy Bolt twice around your high school track, while a Chevy Equinox sips enough gas in that minute to drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. (East Coasters could drive from New York to DC, then loop back and do a few donuts around Baltimore.)
This Chevron station in Jean, NV has 96 pumps, which can provide range per hour equivalent to more than 50,000 level 2 plugs, or about 75% of Tesla’s entire US supercharging network. Source
And EV infrastructure has to compete with a fully mature incumbent fossil network. There are around 115,000 gasoline stations in the US, with something like 10 pumps per station. This means our fossil infrastructure has the capacity to pump out 17 billion miles of range per hour, equivalent to servicing the entire 3.2 trillion annual miles of personal vehicle travel in under 200 hours. That is convenient, ubiquitous power.
EVs can’t compete, at least not directly (assuming battery swapping remains niche). Suppose you wanted to service the aforementioned 20% of vehicle miles traveled in 2030 with EVs, and you wanted the same flow capacity in terms of range per hour across the fleet to match the current gas infrastructure, so you can fill up in 200 hours. Assuming 80% of charging is done at home, you’d still need more than 25 million public level two plugs, or 2.5 million DC fast chargers, which are the fancy (and expensive) kind.
This matters mostly for facilitating road trips. Only 5% of vehicle trips are longer than 30 miles, but I think these trips play an outsized role in the psychology of EV adoption for many.
The solution is to build a network of DC fast chargers along highways, as the Department of Transportation intends. These chargers add more like 250 range miles per hour. Even then, refueling will take 30 minutes or an hour. This is hardly insurmountable, but it still fails on the “entirely effortless” metric.
But even beyond road trips, there are fundamental hurdles facing millions of drivers. Most people can’t charge at work, and even charging at home is a problem for many, including the roughly one-third of Americans who live in multi-unit dwellings, and a substantial number who will need panel upgrades to install a level 2 charger at home.
For these households, going electric is a hassle. Some of them will be “EV curious,” and they might find a way to make it work. But others will be “EV hesitant,” and for them, these barriers are all the reason they’ll need to stick with the fossil-based status quo.
It pays dividends now to think about rolling out a network that not only aims to service drivers who are going electric in the near term, but also thinks ahead about looming barriers to mass adoption. The administration’s plan calls for special attention to highway corridors, as well as multi-unit dwellings, so they seem to be on the right track. But these challenges will only be met with sustained investments over a long period, and we are all still waiting for the US Senate to fully embrace infrastructure week.
Can we travel the long road ahead, and quickly?
California has a goal to sell 100% electric (or other non-fossil) new vehicles by 2035, and a number of countries have expressed similar aspirations. To get there, EVs can’t just be on par with gasoline incumbents, they have to be better, cheaper and more convenient.
A robust charging network is a necessary step for overcoming EV hesitancy, but it is certainly not sufficient. Widespread adoption likely requires not just making EVs as appealing as possible, but also throwing roadblocks in the way of fossil vehicles—like pricing externalities, or perhaps using low emissions zones that exclude all fossil vehicles from central cities, and eventually an outright ban.
Our future depends on our collective ability to reimagine transportation in a way that makes electric vehicles the default choice for everyone. This undoubtedly requires at least a dash of behavior change from consumers, but policy would do well to focus on minimizing the effort required of consumers if we are serious about converting the entire US fleet.
Keep up with Energy Institute blogs, research, and events on Twitter @energyathaas.
Suggested citation: Sallee, James. “The Road to Electrification is Paved with Convenient Chargers” Energy Institute Blog, UC Berkeley, June 14, 2021, https://energyathaas.wordpress.com/2021/06/14/12201/
James M. Sallee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at UC Berkeley, a Research Associate of the Energy Institute at Haas, and a Faculty Research Fellow of the National Bureau of Economic Research. He is a public economist who studies topics related to energy, the environment and taxation. Much of his work evaluates policies aimed at mitigating greenhouse gas emissions related to the use of automobiles.