The Biden administration has an ambitious, $7.5 billion plan to expand electric vehicle charging to underserved areas, but it must first overcome a host of obstacles that have discouraged private investment in more equitable charging networks.
The experience of California — the state with the largest number of EVs and the most advanced charging infrastructure — shows how challenging it will be to achieve the goals in the $1 trillion infrastructure spending proposal President Joe Biden wants Congress to pass.
California has poured more than $2 billion into a variety of EV incentive programs over the last several years, including policies to promote equity in distribution of chargers. The state has also generated more than $25 billion through its carbon-credits trading program since 2012, a portion of which goes toward EV and charging projects.
But California has less than 40 percent of the charging infrastructure needed to support projected EV growth by 2025, according to a U.S.-wide charging gap study by the International Council on Clean Transportation.
Lower-income areas in largely Black and Hispanic California neighborhoods continue to be significantly less likely to have access to public chargers, a February study by researchers at California’s Humboldt State University found.
“For charging site hosts, the economics are extremely challenging because of the relatively low adoption of EVs today,” said John Gartner, senior director at the Center for Sustainable Energy, which administers EV incentive and infrastructure programs on behalf of six states, including California.
Gustavo Occhiuzzo, CEO of California-based EV charging company EVCS, said the level of public support to defray upfront and operational costs is the key to decisions on building out his charging network in rural and disadvantaged communities.
“We need to be strategic where we invest our time and money. And for now, California is the one place that provides the biggest return for us,” said Occhiuzzo, whose company maintains more than 1,500 chargers in largely disadvantaged California communities — and turns a profit.
Most of the private charging companies, however — such as EVgo, ChargePoint and Blink Charging Co. — have yet to be profitable. Executives at EVgo and ChargePoint said government support was needed to expand charging to overlooked communities and create incentives for business owners or landlords considering installation.
California’s incentives for disadvantaged communities are gradually increasing. But replicating its programs on a national scale will require vastly more funding than the U.S. government has currently allocated.
Daniel Davenport, senior director of automotive at Capgemini Americas, estimates it would require around $50 billion to build out the U.S. charging network. High-speed charging units that can top up a vehicle battery in half an hour cost about $100,000 to build. Experts estimate they need to be used at least 20 percent of the day to operate profitably at current rates, prompting many charging providers to place them in areas with higher anticipated use.