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The White House wants a robust electric vehicle charging network. Here's the plan

Vice President Harris charges an electric vehicle during a tour of the Brandywine Maintenance Facility in Prince George's County, Md. There, she highlighted electric vehicle investments.
Manuel Balce Ceneta
Vice President Harris charges an electric vehicle during a tour of the Brandywine Maintenance Facility in Prince George's County, Md. There, she highlighted electric vehicle investments.

For electric vehicle owners who long for the freedom of the open road, range anxiety has been a constant source of concern.

The Biden administration hopes to change that, announcing this week a multi-billion-dollar plan to beef up the nation's electric vehicle charging system — a step experts say is vital to reducing America's carbon footprint and improving the accessibility and practicality of nontraditional vehicles.

The White House has pledged $7.5 billion from a bipartisan infrastructure law to go toward improving and increasing the national charging network. The plan would create new public chargers both for local commuting and longer-distance traveling.

The announcement comes on the heels of commitments from some of the nation's most popular automobile brands, including General Motors, Volvo and Lexus, to expand their electric vehicle offerings.

A big barrier to buying an electric vehicle, Vice President Harris said as she described the White House's plan, is figuring out where and how to charge it.

"Well, when we install public chargers in rural, urban and suburban neighborhoods, we make it easier for people to go electric. It's that simple," Harris said.

President Biden hopes that greater accessibility to charging stations — as well as other incentives like a proposed tax credit of up to $12,500 in his Build Back Better proposal — will push drivers on the market for a new vehicle toward a more environmentally friendly electric option.

There will be a new joint office to support developing the charging network

The plan includes $5 billion for states to broaden their charging networks, particularly in rural and urban neighborhoods that have historically been underserved in the green vehicle market.

Also included is an additional $2.5 billion in competitive grants for communities to "ensure that charger deployment meets Administration priorities such as supporting rural charging, improving local air quality and increasing EV charging access in disadvantaged communities," the White House said in a statement.

The administration says that by no later than Feb. 11, it will publish guidance for states and cities to "strategically deploy EV charging stations to build out a national network along our nation's highway system."

"This guidance will look at where we already have EV charging and where we need — or will need — more of it. It will focus on the needs of disadvantaged and rural communities, catalyze further private investment in EV charging, and ensure we're smartly connecting to our electric grid," according to the plan.

By no later than May 13, the Department of Transportation will issue guidance for chargers in the national network "to ensure they work, they're safe, and they're accessible to everyone."

Pete Buttigieg, who oversees the Transportation Department, and Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm this week signed a memorandum of understanding to create a Joint Office of Energy and Transportation to support developing the charging network.

"We are embarking on a transformative path to modernize the way we get [...] around in this country, making sure all Americans have the option to choose electric vehicles and spend less at the pump while making our air healthier," Granholm said in a joint statement.

Moving toward an electric future

While building the infrastructure will not happen overnight, Timothy Johnson, a professor and chair of the Energy and Environment program at Duke University, pointed to the speed at which the U.S. was able to adapt to the growing need for gas stations between the 1920s and 1930s, building a brand new sector from a threadbare starting point.

"We went from pretty much nothing in 1920 to a couple hundred thousand pumps in the 1930s," he said. "We have electricity infrastructure, so adding chargers isn't as big of a deal. We've done it before, we can do it again, and I think under easier conditions this time."

Despite the progress in increasing the number of chargers, all chargers are not created equal. While the $7.5 billion plan is a historic investment in the future of electric cars, the number is half of what the administration had originally proposed for the same number of chargers.

That means that rather than installing Level 3 operating chargers that can nearly fully replenish a car's battery in anywhere from 15 to 45 minutes, the administration will likely implement more Level 2 chargers — like the kind usually found usually found at homes and office buildings — that can take upwards of 20 hours to fully juice one.

The price tag for Level 2 chargers rings in at a few thousand dollars, whereas Level 3 chargers are 50 to 100 times as expensive, according to The Verge.

Still, the plan was hailed by environmental activists as a win in the fight against climate change.

"The Biden administration's EV charging action plan brings us another step closer to a much-needed national charging network," said Simon Horowitz, associate of Environment America Global Warming Solutions. "Transportation is currently the No. 1 source of global warming emissions in the United States, with vehicle pollution fueling the climate crisis everyday. It's critical that we drastically reduce our pollution to protect our planet."

The infrastructure bill also addresses EV batteries

Industry experts have raised concerns about the speed at which the car batteries are produced as well as their environmental impact.

The infrastructure bill, under which the electric vehicle charging station program is funded, allocates $3 billion in competitive grants to accelerate the development of a North American battery supply chain. It also includes an additional $3 billion in grants aimed at expanding the United States' battery manufacturing capabilities as well as establishing battery recycling facilities.

The charging network announcement comes alongside an additional effort, set by executive order, that sets a target to make half of all new cars sold in 2030 zero-emissions vehicles.

Recent market changes suggest that, while ambitious, the nation is better positioned to achieve that goal than in years past, as a number of barriers to electric car ownership — like a lack of charging stations — have fallen.

"The more it comes to seem normal, the more people will be willing to buy an electric vehicle," said Johnson, the Duke University professor.

According to a June Pew Research Center survey, just 7% of Americans said they owned an electric vehicle, but nearly 40% said they were very or somewhat likely to seriously consider buying an electric vehicle for their next car.

And for drivers concerned about the price of electric cars as opposed to their gas-powered counterparts, Johnson said that as the cost of lithium battery production continues to fall, America approaches a "magic cost threshold" for electric vehicles, where the price gap between gas-powered and electric vehicles will narrow.

A data analysis by Kelley Blue Book shows that the average cost of an electric vehicle dropped 10.8% from 2020 to 2021, while the average cost of a traditionally powered vehicle rose 2.2% in the same period.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Alana Wise
Alana Wise is a politics reporter on the Washington desk at NPR.