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Biden’s electric vehicle charging network plan will be slow


Earlier this week, Vice President Kamala Harris publicly delivered a Chevy Volt at a charging station in Maryland. “There is no sound or fumes!” She said at the demo, which served as the official announcement of the Biden administration’s ambitious $7.5 billion plan to build half a million electric charging stations across the United States. The investment represents the latest iteration of a proposal that began with a $15 billion budget for the same number of chargers. If you do the math – or even if you don’t, it doesn’t add value.

Simply put, to build 500,000 chargers on half the budget, the Biden administration would have to choose slower chargers. (The faster the charger, the more expensive it is to install). The Biden administration’s plan, which draws on money from the recently passed $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill, prioritizes chargers that take hours to fully charge an electric car — something that’s hard to sell. For Americans who are used to filling their gas tanks from empty to full in minutes. And while more chargers are great, the plan is an indication of how far Biden’s energy policies have fallen through the past year. Democrats still can’t agree on a clean energy plan, and without one, these electric vehicle chargers could get their power from fossil fuel sources.

But while energy policy is shaky, electric cars represent one of the most tangible changes ordinary people can make in the fight against climate change, and the Biden administration seems to realize that. “We have to act, the transportation sector is the biggest part of our economy that emits greenhouse gases, and cars and trucks are one of the biggest parts of that,” Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg told CNBC earlier this year.

Getting the right kind of electric car chargers in place will play a big role in making this happen. There are currently three different types or levels of electric vehicle chargers. Level 1 chargers plug into a regular 120-volt power outlet and power electric vehicles at three to five miles per hour of ice. At this rate, it can take a couple of days for most cars to go from empty to fully charged. Level 2 chargers convert a 120 volt connection to about 240 volts, charge cars about 10 times faster than level 1 chargers and complete the battery in just a few hours. Level 3 chargers, also called DC fast chargers, are the fastest of all. They add anywhere from three to 20 miles of range per the moment.This means your car can be charged about 80 percent in the time it takes you to use the bathroom and have a cup of coffee on break.

You’ve probably heard of DC fast charging, because it’s the technology behind Tesla Superchargers and the Rivian Adventure Network. Both proprietary charging systems provide high-speed charging exclusively to people who purchase that company’s vehicles. (To its credit, Tesla has announced plans to open its charging network for non-Tesla cars.) While owners of other electric vehicles have to deal with subscribing to a slew of competing charging services with a variety of charging speeds, the Tesla and Rivian networks promise speed and simplicity. Which customers used to get at gas stations. Just plug in and it charges automatically, says Tesla’s website. “Pull up and plug in the power without touching a button,” Rivian boasts.

But for the most part, industry experts say, we don’t really need every charger to be a fast charger — which is why the Biden administration’s charging framework might work.

“There is a temptation to recreate the gas station model, where we say, ‘Oh, the fuel is low, I need to fill up now and be on my way in five minutes,’” Joe Britton, CEO of Zero Emissions Transport Association, told Recode. That’s wrong.” (Just don’t tell Harris, who said charging the Volt was “just like filling your car with gasoline.”)

Instead, Britton said, it’s important to think about how most people actually use their cars on a typical day. Most people don’t drive hundreds of miles every day; They would drive between home and work or run errands around town. For those folks, Level 2 chargers will work just fine. They can charge their cars at home, drive to a grocery store, deliver at the parking lot, and come home with a full battery. So while Biden’s plan includes strategically installing faster chargers along highways and in rural areas, focusing on building a lot of Tier 2 chargers in local communities is a way to extend the $7.5 billion long-term.

“We’re making it easier for people to use electricity,” Harris told an audience in Maryland on Monday. She added that the biggest hurdle for most people looking to buy an electric vehicle is “knowing where and how to charge it.”

The stakes are high here. Despite being home to electric vehicle pioneers such as Tesla and General Motors, the United States lags far behind Europe and China in electric vehicle sales. The majority of US electric vehicle sales are also concentrated in major metropolitan areas, with nearly half of all electric vehicle sales in California alone. And while transportation is the sector with the largest greenhouse gas emissions in the country, energy is a close second.

Biden’s plan could make buying and charging electric cars easier, but electric cars are as clean as the networks they power. Studies have shown that electric cars that draw power from heavy coal grids can actually be worse for the climate than hybrid cars. So far, the president’s attempts to clean up the grid have been repeatedly thwarted by Senator Joe Manchin of West Virginia, who single-handedly thwarted a proposal to replace coal and gas-fired plants with solar, wind and nuclear power. Much of the energy policy still in Biden’s Rebuild Better bill revolves around clean energy tax credits, with some penalties for continued pollution-heavy energy production.

Inevitably, more electric car chargers – even if they are slower – are better than no chargers at all. But they are not a solution on their own. The entire planet is fighting a losing battle against carbon emissions and climate change, and all those electric vehicles will need to get their energy from somewhere. With the Building Back Better bill and the new infrastructure law, the Biden administration is making progress on a robust plan for clean energy and the adoption of electric vehicles in the United States. But the plan only works if the “Build Back Better” bill is passed and the measures in the Infrastructure Act become a reality.

Are these things going to happen this year, if at all? It doesn’t look good.

This story was first published in the Recode newsletter. Register here So you don’t miss the next!

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