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Behind the government-backed effort to create a national EV charging network

An electric vehicle charging station installed by the city of New Bedford, Massachusetts. (Courtesy Massachusetts Department Of Environmental Protection)
An electric vehicle charging station installed by the city of New Bedford, Massachusetts. (Courtesy Massachusetts Department Of Environmental Protection)

Most of the major car makers are moving toward an all electric future.

And better batteries mean EVs have a larger range than ever. But many drivers are still hesitant about making the switch.

The Biden Administration says it has a solution.

“A national network of 500,000 electric vehicle charging stations across America,” the president said.

Today, On Point: A national EV charging network. Essential infrastructure, or boondoggle? We’re looking for ideas on how to best put that money to use.

Guests

Samantha Houston, senior vehicles analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists’ Clean Transportation program.

Alexander Laska, senior policy advisor for transportation at Third Way. (@AlexanderLaska)

Also Featured

Alec Watson, EV enthusiast. Creator of the Technology Connections YouTube Channel. (@techconnectify)

Jordan Achs, public relations specialist with the Wyoming Department of Transportation.

Watch on YouTube.

Transcript: An ‘EV Native’ Reflects On America’s Electric Vehicle Future

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Today, we’re talking about what it would take to build a truly nationwide electric vehicle charging infrastructure, and how the Biden administration this year rolled out what it’s calling the National EV infrastructure program.

And that is $7.5 billion in federal money that would go to each of the 50 states, to build charging stations along American highways roughly every 50 miles, and along what the Biden administration calls alternative energy corridors. But we’re asking today, is that the best way to spend a sizable chunk of change in order to help usher in the EV revolution in this country?

Now … we wanted to talk to what I’m going to call, essentially, an EV native. Someone who’s grown up driving almost nothing but electric vehicles. And that is Alec Watson. His first car was an EV. It was a used Chevy Volt that he started driving to his first job back in 2015. He was his family’s EV guinea pig, let’s put it that way. And the experiment was a success. Because then his parents bought a Chevy Bolt. That’s Bolt with a B. And this year, Alec upgraded his Volt to a Hyundai Ioniq 5.

The Korean carmaker’s top of the line EV. Now, in all that EV experience, Alec also became a successful YouTuber. His channel is called Technology Connections and it covers all sorts of topics. But a recurring theme is his frustration with some of the misconceptions he says that people have about EVs, and the way charging them actually works in practice.

ALEC WATSON: I have never once thought about when is my car going to be finished charging? It’s just not a thing that enters my mind. Because I plug it in when I get home. It’s going to be full again the next day. So I have spent virtually no time, day to day, thinking of how I’m going to charge the vehicle.

It’s only ever been on road trips when I’ve needed to use the DC fast charging infrastructure. So that is by far I think the biggest thing people can’t help themselves from fixating on, is how long does it take to charge the car? And they don’t understand that you can do other things while the car is charging, including sleep.

CHAKRABARTI: I would say if you have a charger on your property, and we’ll talk about that in a second. But Alec says that in the seven years he’s owned an electric vehicle, the first time he charged it away from home, the very first time, was this year when he took a road trip from Illinois to Florida. He charged it up at stations run by Electrify America, a nationwide network of fast chargers that’s owned by Volkswagen.

WATSON: I’ve driven to Florida a few times in my life, and it felt like it took the least amount of time. Because having to stop every 160 to 200 miles for 15 or 20 minutes was actually really good for preventing fatigue. And is about the perfect time to take a break anyway.

So we just would plug in the car, maybe head into a Walmart if it was next to there and grab a couple drinks. And by the time we [had used] the bathroom, got our drinks, got back to the car, we were about ready to unplug. So, yeah, it was a wonderful experience.

CHAKRABARTI: Now Electrify America. That network is owned by Volkswagen, as I mentioned, but it charged Alec’s Hyundai just fine. That’s because all EVs sold in the U.S. and ones, I should say, that are not made by Tesla now use the same standard plugs.

And Tesla itself has made hints that it’s going to move to that industry-wide standard. By the way, it uses a standard already in Europe. But that 350 watt kilowatt fast charger Alec used on his road trip is, as he puts it, orders of magnitude more complicated than the charger that electric vehicle owners use at home.

WATSON: 350 kilowatts is an immense amount of power. A 200-amp service in the United States, and you might be familiar with your home has 100-amp or 200-amp service. If you have 200-amp service, that means the maximum amount of power that your house can pull from the grid is 48 kilowatts. So these 350 kilowatt chargers are pulling as much power as seven homes to the max.

So the equipment that handles this power is obviously bulky. It needs a lot of cooling. And fans. It’s got massive power cables hooked up to it because it’s literally basically, you can think of it like a small apartment building, it’s all getting shoved into your car.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, charging technology is, of course, improving all the time. We’ve just seen it in the past couple of years. But the fact is, it’s always going to be a challenge to achieve faster charging speeds without catching that battery on fire. So while Alec says DC Fast Chargers are great for a road trip, he says they’re only one part of getting electric vehicles to mass adoption.

WASTON: What I would like to see besides that is much more robust level two infrastructure, which is incredibly cheap as far as the actual charging units themselves. It’s basically running a dryer circuit and you can get someone well along their way to charging a TV.

But we need to figure out ways to make that happen for neighborhoods with on-street parking, for multi residential situations. And also just lowering the cost for level two infrastructure. My very deeply held belief is that DC fast charging is great for long distance travel, but you shouldn’t be forced into it. Because it is so much more convenient to charge your car at work or at home.

Listener Highlights

Tom of Whitewater, Wisconsin on how a national EV charging network should mirror America’s last great nationwide transportation project

“I think the most important thing to do, and in some ways, the simplest thing to do, is to take advantage of the logic that was behind the creation of the Eisenhower Interstate Highway System in the mid-1950s. And make efforts to install easy charging stations first and foremost along the interstate highway system in the United States. We would need and want charging stations elsewhere, but starting with charging stations and the interstate highway system, I think would be a perfect way to start.”

Margie of Seattle, Washington shares why rural areas should be prioritized when it comes to charging infrastructure

“The most important thing is to increase the density of chargers in rural areas. For one thing, I think it’s more important for people in rural areas to use electric vehicles because they have to drive more miles than those of us who live in the city. And as a city dweller with an electric car … it could be better, but there are quite a few chargers. And I really don’t worry about my range in the city. It’s when I go into the more rural areas like in eastern Washington, that the chargers are few and far between and I think they need to be increased.”

Bridget of Oklahoma City on what’s stopping her from getting an electric vehicle

“One of the limiting factors I’ve found when considering an electric vehicle is renting an apartment. There’s no way to modify your parking space overnight or your work. So the main places I am are not equipped with the power to charge a vehicle. So I would have to rely on charging stations where there’s no you just have to sit there and wait for your car to charge.”

Shane from Lynchburg, Virginia on clean solar renewable energy and EV charging stations 

“When we start converting to electric vehicle charging stations, it makes perfect sense to have the canopies exactly like they look now, but have solar panels on top of them. So that the charging of the EV is done through clean, renewable solar energy. I’m sure it’s way more complex than it seems to me at the moment. But it absolutely seems like a tremendous idea and something that we should look for. So that as we are charging more or less clean energy vehicles, we are using clean, renewable energy to charge them.”

Nicola from Ventura, California on her frustration with the government’s spending of taxpayer money

“I don’t get that. You know, Henry Ford, when he started making cars and pumping them off of the production line, the government did not build gas stations. Private industry should be doing this. Elon Musk has all this money to go to the moon. He can build his own damn charging stations as far as I’m concerned. I don’t know why taxpayer money should be doing this. There’s better uses for it.”

Related Reading

Third Way: “Bipartisan Infrastructure Law Will Jumpstart EV Charger Buildout” — “The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) includes $5 billion in formula funds to help every state build out a network of EV chargers.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.