As Congress was putting the finishing touches on its infrastructure bill this fall, electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla announced it would soon change its business model and make all its charging stations open to autos from all manufacturers, not just its own cars.
It turns out that platform neutrality is a key requirement of the new law, which promises $7.5 billion in taxpayer money to kickstart construction of a broad national network of charging ports capable of supporting what the Biden administration hopes is the transition to fossil-fuel-free roadways.
Tesla’s move signals it hopes to have an inside track to collect a large chunk of that cash.
Tesla did not respond to requests for comment.
Though exact contours of how the $7.5 billion will be spent are still being written, analysts are already gaming out who’s going to get a piece of the action.
Leading candidates include auto manufacturers and utility companies, which have deep pockets and the relationships and know-how to get charging stations built.
Green energy advocates say the details are less important than the symbolism of a $7.5 billion infusion of taxpayer money, which they hope gives the public some sense of lasting commitment to ending America’s gas-guzzling ways.
“It’s like a chicken or the egg. People are not going to feel comfortable buying electric cars if there aren’t more charging stations,” said Michael Farkas, founder and chief executive officer of Blink Charging, a company that is building places to charge-up around the country.
But Tom Pyle, president of the free-market Institute for Energy Research, said the government should have left the chickens and eggs alone. The companies that hope to benefit from the transformation of the auto industry should pick up the tab, he said.
“If it really is the emerging technology, the market signals should be there for the Teslas to invest in the infrastructure,” Mr. Pyle said.
He also feared the warping effect government mandates could have on decision-making, by attempting to pick winners from among the technological options available. He said consumer demand should drive where and what kinds of chargers are built.
The legislation will provide funding for the 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, according to a White House fact sheet.
Many of the decisions remain to be made.
The $7.5 billion, tucked into the $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill President Biden signed last month, is silent on the when, where and how, other than to require charging stations financed with taxpayers’ money are in publicly accessible spaces and can’t be proprietary.
The Energy Department, and perhaps states that will administer most of the federal money, will also have to decide whether to push for a specific type of station. Level 2 hookups can take hours to top off a battery, while DC Fast chargers fill a batter sometimes in as little as an hour.
The Energy Department lists about 45,000 public charging stations in the U.S., with more than 120,000 charging ports.
About 41,000 of the stations are Level 2 hookups, which can take hours to top off a battery, while 5,600 have DC Fast chargers, which can sometimes fill a battery in less than an hour.
Ms. Bailo said it will take more research to figure out the best way to use the money.
“Don’t rush it. Do it right,” she said.
Several stores like Whole Foods and Walmart are partnering with companies like Blink to install places where people can recharge their vehicles while they shop.
However, most people recharge their vehicles at home while they sleep. Electric vehicles can go about 200 miles before running out of juice, so unless people take long trips, they’re likely to be able to get back home to charge up.
So if fast-charging stations are built in the name of reassuring drivers, only for people to see them sitting empty, it will be a “white elephant” for the industry, Mr. Farkas said.
At the same time, the Energy Department estimates 40% of U.S. drivers don’t live in places, like a home with a garage, where they can plug in their cars while they sleep, said Edward Sanchez, a senior automotive analyst with Strategy Analytics, a global consulting firm.
Mr. Sanchez and Mr. Farkas said it may be more important to subsidize slower chargers that can recharge vehicles in two to six hours.
Mr. Farkas said federal and local governments have been moving away from giving grants upfront to build charging and instead reimbursing companies after they’ve built the stations, to ensure the projects actually get done.
Mr. Farkas acknowledged the infrastructure dollars could go to companies to pay for building charging locations that would have been funded by the businesses. But rather than going to waste, he said the government dollars will also free up more money for the companies to build more charging locations elsewhere.
Some of the companies vying for the federal money may come as a surprise.
While the U.S. has lagged in making the transition to electric, global companies have been sinking billions into developing electric versions to meet the demand in areas like Europe and Asia, said Carla Bailo, president and CEO of the nonprofit Center for Automotive Research. Pretty much every auto company is developing electric vehicles and would benefit from more places to charge them, she said.
Because electric vehicles currently cost more to produce, auto companies will not make as much of a profit from them, Ms. Bailo said. However, that should change as the cost to build them comes down and the transition to electric is not expected to harm car companies making the transition in the long term.
“No one is saying this is going to kill us,” she said of the auto companies.
At the same time, some gasoline companies, seeing the writing on the wall, are beginning to build places to charge electric vehicles and transform gas stations into “energy stations,” Ms. Bailso said.
Whichever companies end up winning, critics say the losers are taxpayers, and particularly those on the lower economic rungs, for whom city buses and subways are a more realistic mode of transportation than a $45,000 Tesla.
“Democrats are preparing to spend billions of dollars on electric vehicles and EV infrastructure, a taxpayer-funded gift to the wealthy,” said Jack Heretik, spokesman for Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee. “The Democrats’ EV agenda is a transfer of wealth from American workers who can’t afford EVs to the rich.”
Mr. Biden hasn’t let those sorts of criticisms dampen his big dreams.
“We’re going to build out the first-ever national network of charging stations all across the country — over 500,000 of them. … So, 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 said last month.
An analysis by Alix Partners, a global business consulting firm, suggests the president isn’t dreaming big enough yet. Alix found that if the popularity of electric vehicles continues at the rate it has been growing the number of charging spots in the nation would have to grow from 98,000 in 2020 to 1.5 million in 2030.
Analysts do indeed expect interest to continue growing, figuring that when the cheaper price of electricity is taken into account, the cost of buying and owning an electric vehicle could be roughly the same as having one that runs on internal combustion engines.
Akshay Singh, industrial and automotive industries principal with PricewaterhouseCoopers U.S., said a case can be made that the $12,500 per vehicle tax credit Democrats want to approve in their still-looming budget bill should be spent on charging stations because electric vehicles are going to become more affordable anyway.
“$7.5 billion is not much, but it’s a good start,” Mr. Singh said.
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