Note: This story was updated Jan. 8 to correct the number of states that got a failing grade from U.S. PIRG.
Electric vehicle owners — nearly 1.2 million of them on U.S. roads today — share the thrills of being energy-efficient and progressive. But they also have one big worry in common: where to plug in.
Depending on the state, access to public charging stations can be adequate — or nearly nonexistent.
Purchases of electric vehicles are growing at an astronomical rate — an 81% increase from 2017 to 2018, according to the Edison Electric Institute, which tracks electricity use — and nothing indicates the trend will slow dramatically any time soon. But if anything could stunt the growth, it’s the lack of power charging stations in some states.
Drivers can experience “range anxiety” wondering how far they can drive before the next charge and where to find a station before the car dies. It’s the electric vehicle equivalent of driving a traditional car on an isolated country road with the gas gauge hovering near empty.
Many states want to encourage electric vehicle use to reduce carbon emissions and tackle climate change. But ensuring that there are enough charging stations has been a challenge. Some states provide incentives for private investment, while others are relying on millions from a settlement with Volkswagen over its falsification of emissions tests to subsidize the building of commercial charging stations.
In addition, state utilities have just begun to cope with how to regulate the power supplied by the chargers by setting cost per kilowatt, peak charges and subsidies.
Legislatures in Colorado, Washington, California and New Mexico passed laws in 2019 calling on state utility boards to write rules governing electric charging stations to encourage EV adoption. In New Jersey, a bill to incentivize electric car buying and installation of charging stations passed a Senate committee in December with just one vote in opposition. Other states also are considering bills addressing electric vehicles and charging stations.
Electric vehicles used for short commutes can be plugged in at home daily; the worry stems from longer trips.
For example, let’s say you take a trip from Boston to Washington, D.C. In Massachusetts, there’s a ratio of 13 electric vehicles to every public charger. But in New Jersey, there are about 35 vehicles to every public charger, and drivers on longer trips might worry that they won’t find an available place to plug in.
Ford, maker of the electric Mustang, says the new 2021 model’s range could be up to 300 miles, though auto experts say it’s more like 240. But rather than touting the range, Ford is promoting the car’s “sleek silhouette and muscular curves.”
That could be because a lack of public charging stations turns off potential buyers, say many experts, including Matt Stanberry, managing director at Advanced Energy Economy, a business trade group focused on non-carbon sources of energy.
California has the most charging stations — more than 22,600 (some with multiple outlets) at last count in May by the website evadoption.com, which tracks electric vehicle issues. The state also has the most electric vehicles, approaching half a million. But North Dakota has 36 charging locations and Alaska 26.
“There is very good data that shows that [electric] vehicle adoption is slowed by a shortage of charging infrastructure,” Stanberry said. “Consumer surveys cite a very high percentage level of charging infrastructure as one of their key concerns.”
A survey for Volvo conducted in 2018 by the Harris polling firm showed that the No. 1 barrier to buying an electric vehicle was running out of power (58%), followed by low availability of charging stations (49%). And more charging stations was the No. 1 factor that would increase respondents’ likelihood of buying.
“We are short on charging infrastructure across the board in every state, even the states that are doing better,” Stanberry said in a telephone interview. “We are all playing catch-up.”
There are three levels of charging available for plug-in electric vehicles, according to the Council of State Governments.
Most can be plugged into an ordinary 120-volt outlet, but charging is slow. The most popular charger resembles the 240-volt outlet used for refrigerators and washing machines, which provides 10-20 miles of range per hour of charging. The third choice, a direct current “fast charging” outlet, zaps 60-80 miles of driving into the car in only 20 minutes.
Most electric cars have plug heads that are compatible with the three types of chargers. Tesla is the exception, with its own style of plug and outlet, but Tesla drivers can buy an adapter that will fit the other outlets.
States utility boards face questions on how to regulate charging stations, including how to set the price drivers must pay.
One model for charging for electricity involves so-called demand charges, which calculates the amount of electricity used in 15-minute increments. But high demand charges make fast-charging stations in places like malls and grocery stores costly and impractical, according to a report from the nonprofit Rocky Mountain Institute.
Many states give residents incentives to buy electric vehicles. California allows alternative-fuel cars to use high-occupancy lanes (a godsend in Los Angeles traffic) and provides a rebate of between $1,500 and $2,000 on plug-in electric vehicles and hybrids.
A federal program also gives rebates on a sliding scale. But both of those programs are phasing out; some credits expired Jan. 1. A congressional effort to extend the program failed in 2018.
One of the biggest pushes for electric vehicles came with the 2017 Volkswagen pollution settlement, under which the car company settled with the federal government for violating emissions laws. The settlement allowed states to allocate up to 15% of their share of the nearly $3 billion Environmental Mitigation Trust from the Volkswagen payout to electric vehicle infrastructure.
The consumer group USPIRG in a May report ranked the states on how they used the Volkswagen money for electric car infrastructure in the three years since the settlement. The group gave Washington state and Hawaii an A-plus. Rhode Island and Vermont got As; and California, Massachusetts and New York got Bs.
Fourteen states — Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, Delaware, Florida, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Utah, West Virginia and Wisconsin — got a failing grade, meaning they did not prioritize infrastructure for electric cars.
Overall, California is the leading state in providing electric vehicle infrastructure. Former Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, signed a 2018 executive order setting a goal of 5 million electric vehicles on the state’s roads by 2030. Under the order, the state will spend $2.5 billion to continue electric vehicle rebates and build 250,000 electric charging stations.
California also requires automakers to sell a certain number of electric (or hydrogen powered) vehicles in the state, under its “zero emission vehicle” program. The exact number is based on how many vehicles the automaker sells overall in California. That program has been copied in 10 states: Connecticut, Colorado, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Oregon, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island and Vermont.
Aside from personal vehicles, the push toward no-emissions electric vehicles includes cities and other jurisdictions committing to turning their fleet cars and trucks over to electric.
Minnesota, for example, in November pledged $15 million of its Volkswagen settlement money in grants to replace state school buses and heavy-duty vehicles with ones powered by electric motors and install more charging stations.
“Grant programs like Minnesota’s are critical to installing electric charging infrastructure,” said Kevin Miller, director of public policy at ChargePoint, a company that provides networks of residential and commercial electric vehicle charging stations. He said states like Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Colorado are considering modifying the regulatory and policy framework of electric vehicle charging.
But isn’t it a “chicken and egg” question of whether chargers come first and then more vehicles — or more vehicles demanding places to charge up?
“It’s not that we need a lot of chickens or a lot of eggs,” Miller said. “They have to complement each other. Having a comprehensive state plan is important. A comprehensive plan addresses the systemic issues head on.”