Long stretches of highways and many communities across the US are lacking the charging infrastructure necessary for electric cars to thrive — and data analyzed by CNN shows that metro areas are further ahead than states with smaller populations in the central and western US, like Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas.
It’s an issue that is growing in urgency. New York became the second state after California to restrict sales of gas-powered vehicles by 2035 on Thursday. More people are buying electric vehicles than ever before — monthly sales are nearly triple what they were four years ago — and the United States is set to have 500,000 new electric vehicle chargers by 2030 to keep up with the demand. But the placement of those chargers will be critical to how easily Americans can travel long distances by car across the US — and remains one of the biggest question marks to get to mass adoption.
“There’s an enormous flood of new vehicles coming,” Jim Womack, an MIT Mobility Initiative fellow focused on EV charging networks said. “The question with the charging network is if it’s good enough? Will it be adequate for tomorrow and the world of 2025? Nobody knows.”
The bipartisan infrastructure bill has provided $7.5 billion for more nationwide chargers, an investment that’s been compared by automakers to the development of the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s. And governments have called for a shift to electric vehicles, which has highlighted the growing need for more chargers to smooth the transition.
It’s difficult to forecast the exact number seanof chargers any state will need, according to experts. Even still, the number of public chargers is growing exponentially with each passing year.
States that want federal funding must build charging stations with four charging ports no more than 50 miles from each other on popular highways. These ports, called fast chargers, are supposed to support charging at 150 kilowatts. A vehicle can be mostly charged in about 30 minutes at that pace.
“It is imperative that customers have a convenient refueling experience,” the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which represents major automakers, has said. It believes the nation needs chargers available at all times that are reliable, accept credit cards and clearly communicate their pricing. For years, there had been no standards for chargers.
There are more than 6,500 public fast-charging stations in the US, but some states are more densely covered than others. Metro areas are generally well equipped for charging, while states with lower populations in the central and western US, like Montana, Wyoming and the Dakotas, are sparsely covered, generally along major highways. Relative to statewide driving-age population, Mississippi and Louisiana have the fewest fast-charging stations, with 0.6 and 0.63 stations per 100,000 driving-age residents, respectively.
Oklahoma, which was once a finalist for a new Tesla manufacturing plant, has significant coverage. Some states like Colorado have chargers, but few near highways. Although the vast majority of vehicle trips are under 50 miles, they’ll need to add fast charging stations convenient to highways for long road trips and trucking.
The Alliance has called for chargers to go as fast as 350 kilowatts per hour, which would speed charging, but also increase costs for charger builders and operators. Most states are focused on meeting the government’s 150 kilowatt requirement, and some have described reaching 350 kilowatt per hour charging in limited circumstances or in future years.
Chargers will begin to replace gas stations, which have existed for more than 100 years. Growing pains are inevitable and reliability issues have already surfaced.
A University of California-Berkeley study found that while San Francisco Bay Area charger operators said they were up and running 95-98% of the time, only 72.5% of charging equipment was functional.
Chargers will also have a different dynamic than gas pumps. Most charging is expected to be done at people’s homes, and fast chargers are likely to be used mostly for long trips.
Not all fast-charging stations are created equally, though. While many stations only have a single fast-charging port, others have two dozen or more. Relative to driving-age population, Kentucky has the fewest fast-charging ports, with fewer than three ports per 100,000 residents age 16 and older. Several Gulf states also lag the rest of the nation, while California leads the way with nearly 24 ports, followed by Oklahoma and Vermont.
ABB, a Swiss-based company that builds charging infrastructure, said that it’s expanding trained service teams and adding features like remote monitoring to identify reliability issues faster and more easily.
“EV chargers are not set it and forget it infrastructure,” ABB spokesman Michael Touhill said. “We know how to do this, and have done this, in other critical infrastructure sectors like hospitals, datacenters, the power grid, and many others.” Touhill and ABB did not respond to CNN requests to comment on the Berkeley study.
Tesla has addressed the reliability problem by placing its chargers in large groups. (Tesla, the largest seller of electric vehicles, has a 35,000 fast-charger network.) If one charger is out, another one is likely to be available to drivers. But many other networks place small clusters of a few chargers, which could potentially lead to an EV driver with a low battery being stranded at a dead charger.
“Range anxiety gets attention,” Womack said. “But there’s charger anxiety too.”
States get their act together
Many states have already released plans for building out electric vehicle charging with the aid of the infrastructure dollars. Their plans vary widely, and coverage today isn’t consistent nationwide.
California is at the heart of the electric vehicle trend, with 39% of all electric vehicles nationwide, according to the Department of Energy. It’s home to Tesla’s first manufacturing plant and to offices for other EV brands like Rivian, Lucid, Faraday Future and Canoo. But despite making up only 1.6% of all vehicles in the state, electric vehicles are already popular enough that the state recently cautioned owners during a recent heat wave to not charge their EVs during peak hours due to stress on the electric grid.
California plans to build 250,000 public and shared private chargers by 2025, and forecasts a need for more than quadruple that, 1.2 million chargers by 2030 for light-duty vehicles, and 157,000 for medium and heavy duty trucks.
Other states are cautioning that meeting federal standards like four ports and building rural locations won’t be economical.
North Dakota, which says it has only 400 registered electric vehicles, says building four charging ports a station is simply too many for the number of cars it has. It’s hoping to build two-port stations and expand them as demand grows.
It’s not the only state where electric vehicles are so far uncommon. Electric vehicles are 0.04% of registered vehicles in Mississippi, and 0.11% of registered vehicles in Kentucky. Louisiana had only 3,065 electric vehicles at the end of 2021, but it was a 63% increase from the 1,881 electric vehicles on the road when 2020 concluded.
The federal government is covering 80% of costs and leaving the other 20% to states to cover. That money could come from a state budget, local budget or a business. Colorado cautions in its plan that finding matching funds required to build chargers in outlying areas will be a challenge as they won’t be highly utilized.
Massachusetts has said a solution to this shared problem may be to structure contracts with its charging partners to ensure that there’s a return on investment across a broad set of sites.
“Some sites may be uneconomical to operate for many years, but are nevertheless needed to provide a network with adequate geographic coverage that eliminates any range anxiety and serves all communities,” the state said in its report.
Arkansas, for example, says that half of its total electric vehicle registrations come from three counties.
Some states like Florida and Washington State are planning to use toll credits they’ve received from building toll infrastructure to pay for the 20% of charger construction costs that the federal government won’t cover.
Costs to build out charging will vary by region. The District of Columbia has estimated it’ll spend $1.2 million to install a fast charger, and $1,400-$2,000 a year to operate and maintain fast chargers. North Dakota, where land and labor costs are lower, expects each station will be built for about $900,000.
Electric vehicles sales make up less than 1% of sales in Florida, according to the state. But it expects that even a conservative rate of adoption will require an “intensive” build out of chargers. It estimates that by 2040, 10-35% of its vehicles could be electric.
Florida has 170 fast chargers today. The state says it needs more, for uses like supporting evacuations as the state has been affected by 79 tropical or subtropical cyclones since 2000. In 2017, nearly seven million residents evacuated during Hurricane Irma.