When President Joe Biden took to the White House on Saturday to tout the successful passage of his infrastructure bill, he lauded the $1.2 trillion package as a "once-in-a-generation" investment that would – among other things – create a national network of electric vehicle charging stations, helping him deliver on his pledge to get half of U.S. drivers to switch to electric vehicles by the year 2030.
But experts say that while it's a good start, it falls short of Biden's goal to "build out the first-ever national network of charging stations."
The final version of the infrastructure bill approved by Congress, which Biden is expected to signed into law on Monday, includes just half of Biden’s proposed budget for electric vehicle infrastructure. Biden initially asked for $15 billion for the construction of new charging stations, but the final bill contains $7.5 billion allocated for EV infrastructure.
The bill "will provide funding for deployment of EV chargers along highway corridors to facilitate long-distance travel and within communities to provide convenient charging where people live, work, and shop – and funding will have a particular focus on rural, disadvantaged, and hard-to-reach communities," the White House said in a press release earlier this week.
Biden said Saturday that, thanks to the bill, “we’re going to build out the first-ever national network of charging stations all across the country — over 500,000 of them.”
“You’ll be able to go across the whole darn country, from East Coast to West Coast, just like you’d stop at a gas station now,” he continued. “These charging stations will be available.”
But experts say the money, while a good start, is not enough to spur widespread electric vehicle adoption, according to a fact check from The Associated Press.
Currently, just 7% of U.S. drivers own an electric or hybrid vehicle, according to a Pew Research survey from June. And while 47% of Americans said they would support a proposal to phase out production of gasoline-powered vehicles, 51% of respondents said they would oppose such a measure.
The International Council on Clean Transportation says the United States would need 2.4 million electric vehicle charging stations by 2030 if about 36% of new car sales were electric.
Currently there are just over 43,000 charging stations in the U.S. with more than 106,000 outlets, according to the Department of Energy. Fully electric vehicles represented just 2.2% of U.S. new vehicle sales during the first half of this year, or about 1.1 million vehicles on the road.
Widespread availability of electric charging stations in communities big and small is the cornerstone of his efforts to switch America’s car and truck fleet from polluting combustion engines to zero-emissions electric. Many drivers are hesitant to make the switch for fear of running out of electricity with no charging station in sight.
Speaking to Spectrum News in an interview Wednesday, Jeremy Michalek, a professor of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University, said the two largest hurdles preventing Americans from switching to electric vehicles are a lack of familiarity and their comparatively high price tag.
“A big barrier for electric vehicle adoption is the cost — [electric vehicles] still are priced higher than gasoline vehicles up front,” Michalek told Spectrum News. “You do typically save money over the life — depending where you live, electricity tends to be much cheaper than gasoline in order to drive the vehicle. But that higher upfront cost is a barrier.”
“And the other part of it is just lack of familiarity," he added. "A lot of households aren’t yet sure what they'll be compromising, or they don't maybe don't trust the technology yet."
Still, the number of electric car owners is expected to increase in the coming years, especially as the effects of climate change grow even more severe — resulting in higher temperatures, longer periods of drought, and more extreme weather events such as hurricanes, floods, and forest fires.
Increasing in the number of charging stations is another major factor that would incentivize demand.
“Adopting an electric vehicle is a tough sell unless, and until, [Americans] can reliably get access to a convenient charger,” Michalek said.
“Most public chargers today … [maybe give] 200 miles to your vehicle over a 15 minutes of charging—that's still way slower than filling up a gas tank,” Michalek said. “And so there's a convenience factor here that matters for those households. And having fast and convenient public charging infrastructure available is, I think, going to be necessary to make those households adopt” electric vehicles.
Things like enabling long distance travel will also be tricky, he noted. “There needs to be enough chargers, so that on a peak holiday travel day, you can charge your vehicle without having to wait in a queue for an hour for your turn— it takes longer to charge an electric vehicle than to refill a gasoline vehicle. So we're going to need a lot more infrastructure to support that.”
“I don’t know whether we will meet [Biden's] goal or not, but I think the goal could be very useful whether we strictly meet [it]," Michalek said. "If we were at 40% of U.S. sales, that would still be a lot further along than where we are at now."
Current research underscores just how much work needs to be done to incentivize electric vehicle purchases. According to a report from the International Council on Clean Transportation, the U.S. would have to construct nearly 2.4 million electric vehicle charging stations by 2030 in order to if they hope to achieve a 36% rate of electric vehicle purchases among new car buyers.
White House officials have acknowledged the infrastructure funds alone will not be enough to fund all 500,000 of Biden’s proposed charging stations, and said it plans to use “all the tools and resources available” to meet its goal.
Jessika Trancik, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who studies EV charging, told The Associated Press earlier this year that "if there’s half the funding, you have to be twice as strategic and twice as deliberate."
In a call with reporters Wednesday, U.S. Deputy Secretary of Transportation Polly Trottenberg praised the passage of the infrastructure package, which she noted “marks the largest investment in electric vehicle infrastructure and clean energy transmission in history … [including] 7.5 billion for the creation of a nationwide network of 500,000 EV chargers by 2030, and 65 billion for upgrading our electricity transmission systems.”
The bill also “quadruples funding for a couple of the Department of Transportation’s very popular and oversubscribed grant programs ... and that will enable us to support many more community projects across the country.”
Asked how soon Americans could expect to see funds from the infrastructure bill distributed to states and localities, Trottenberg said some discretionary grant programs could begin in a matter of “months.”
“We will as I mentioned in my remarks, there are some of the discretionary grant programs that will be getting up and running within the first six months, and then some of the programs will take some more time to craft,” Trottenberg added. “And in some cases, where they're brand new, making sure that we're getting input from … potential grantees to make sure we design the program in such a way that it is the most useful and our grandkids can take advantage of.”
“Infrastructure is a climate issue,” Samantha Silverberg, the White House special assistant to the president for transportation and infrastructure, told reporters Wednesday. “The transportation sector is the largest contributor to greenhouse gas emissions.”
Biden, she added, “has been clear really, I think, since the campaign trail, that he sees the climate crisis is probably the [biggest] existential crisis."
What the infrastructure bill doesn't include is the $550 billion in spending to combat the climate crisis, which is a part of the bill's companion legislation, the $1.85 trillion Build Back Better measure. That bill includes, in part, funding for tax credits and other incentives to persuade Americans to switch to electric vehicles.
Speaking at the U.N. Climate Change conference in Glasgow, Scotland, on Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who is working to bring the bill across the finish line, called it the "most ambitious and consequential climate and clean energy legislation of all time."
"Our congressional delegation comes here fresh from advancing ... the most ambitious and consequential climate legislation," Pelosi told reporters Tuesday, adding: "Our legislation is far-reaching, ensuring that the future economy is greener and cleaner."
"That means $250 billion in clean energy tax credits to develop and deploy the latest in future generations of clean power,” Pelosi continued. “That means over $100 billion in addition for resilience including climate-smart agriculture and nature-based climate solutions, another $100 billion toward local- and region-led climate solutions, and over $222 billion for environmental justice.”
But one member of Pelosi's caucus said that the U.S. needs to back up its words with action: New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, one of Congress' most staunch climate activists.
Speaking at a separate panel Tuesday, Ocasio-Cortez said that "we have to draw down emissions to get credit for being committed on climate change. It’s really that simple."
Ocasio-Cortez, did, however, credit Biden with waging a high-stakes fight to get the climate legislation through Congress. But she urged that future U.S. climate action include grassroots advocates, benefit working people and marginal communities, and create jobs, she said.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.