Long U.S. highways and many communities lack the charging infrastructure necessary for electric cars to thrive, and data analyzed by CNN shows that metro areas such as Montana, Wyoming, and other less populated states in the central and western U.S. are far behind. and the Dakotas.
It is a matter of increasing urgency. New York on Thursday became the second state after California to cut sales of gas-powered vehicles by 2035. More people than ever are buying electric vehicles—monthly sales have nearly tripled from four years ago—and the United States will have 500,000 new electric vehicle chargers by 2030 to keep up with demand. But the placement of those chargers will be key to how easily Americans can drive long distances across the US, and remains one of the biggest question marks for mass adoption.
“There’s a tremendous flood of new vehicles coming,” said Jim Womack, a fellow at the MIT Mobility Initiative on EV charging networks. “The question for the charging network is is it good enough? Will it be suitable for the world of tomorrow and 2025? Nobody knows.”
The bipartisan infrastructure bill has provided $7.5 billion for more chargers nationwide, an investment that automakers have compared to the development of the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s. And governments have called for a switch to electric vehicles, highlighting the growing need for more chargers to smooth the transition.
It’s difficult to predict the exact number of chargers any state will need, experts say. Still, the number of public chargers is growing exponentially every year.
States seeking federal funding must build charging stations on popular highways with four charging ports more than 50 miles apart. These ports, called fast chargers, support up to 150 kilowatts of charging. A vehicle can be charged in about 30 minutes mostly at this rate.
“It’s imperative that customers have a convenient refueling experience,” said the Alliance for Automotive Innovation, which represents major automakers. He believes the nation needs 24/7 chargers that are reliable, accept credit cards and clearly communicate their prices. For years, there was no standard for chargers.
There are more than 6,500 public fast-charging stations in the US, but some states are denser than others. Metro areas are generally well-equipped for charging, while lower-populated states in the central and western US, such as Montana, Wyoming, and the Dakotas, are generally underserved along major highways. In terms of 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 population, respectively.
Oklahoma, once a finalist for a new Tesla manufacturing plant, has heavy coverage. Some states like Colorado have chargers, but few near highways. While most vehicle trips are under 50 miles, they will need to add fast charging stations for long road trips and trucks suitable for highways.
The alliance has called for chargers to run at up to 350 kilowatts per hour, which would speed up charging but also increase the costs of chargers and operators. Most states are focused on meeting the government’s 150 kilowatt requirement, and some have described reaching 350 kilowatts per charge in limited circumstances or in the coming years.
Chargers will begin to replace gas stations, which have been around for over 100 years. Growing pains are inevitable and reliability issues have already surfaced.
A University of California-Berkeley study found that while charging station operators in the San Francisco Bay Area claimed to be operational 95-98% of the time, only 72.5% of their 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 will mostly be used for long journeys.
However, not all fast charging stations are created equal. While many stations only have one quick-charge port, others have two dozen or more. In terms of 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 behind the rest of the nation, with California leading the way with nearly 24 ports, followed by Oklahoma and Vermont.
ABB, the Swiss company that builds charging infrastructure, said it is expanding its trained service teams and adding features such as remote monitoring to identify reliability problems more quickly and easily.
“EV chargers are not implemented and the infrastructure is neglected,” said ABB spokesman Michael Touhill. “We know how to do that, and we’ve done it, in hospitals, data centers, the power grid and many other critical infrastructure sectors.” Touhill and ABB did not respond to CNN’s requests for comment on the Berkeley study.
Tesla has tackled the reliability problem by placing its chargers in large clusters. (Tesla, the largest seller of electric vehicles, has a network of 35,000 fast chargers.) If one charger is depleted, another may be available for drivers. But many other networks deploy small clusters of just a few chargers, which could potentially lead to an EV driver with a low battery running out of chargers.
“The district’s anxiety is drawing attention,” Womack said. “But there’s also charger anxiety.”
Many states have already released electric vehicle charging plans with the help of infrastructure dollars. Their plans vary widely, and current coverage is inconsistent across the nation.
California is at the heart of the electric vehicle trend, with 39 percent of all electric vehicles nationwide, according to the Department of Energy. It is home to Tesla’s first manufacturing plant and offices for other EV brands such as Rivian, Lucid, Faraday Future and Canoo. But despite making up only 1.6% of all vehicles in the state, EVs are already popular enough that the state recently warned owners during the recent heat wave not to charge their EVs during peak hours due to grid stress.
California plans to build 250,000 shared public and private chargers by 2025, more than quadrupling that number, with 1.2 million chargers by 2030 for light vehicles and 157,000 for medium and heavy trucks.
Other states have warned that meeting federal standards such as four ports and building rural locations will not be economical.
North Dakota, which says it has only 400 electric vehicles registered, says building four charging ports for one station is too much for the number of cars it has. He hopes to build the two port stations and expand as demand grows.
It’s not the only state where electric vehicles are still rare. Electric vehicles make up 0.04% of registered vehicles in Mississippi and 0.11% of registered vehicles in Kentucky. Louisiana only had 3,065 electric vehicles at the end of 2021, but that was a 63% increase from the 1,881 electric vehicles on the road when 2020 ended.
The federal government covers 80% of the costs and leaves the other 20% up to the states. This money could come from state budgets, local budgets or a company. Colorado has warned that finding the funds needed to build chargers in remote areas in its plan will be a challenge, as they will not be widely used.
Massachusetts said a solution to this shared problem could be to structure contracts with charging partners to ensure there is a return on investment across a broad set of sites.
“Some sites may be uneconomic to operate for many years, but are still necessary to provide a network with adequate geographic coverage that eliminates district anxiety and serves all communities,” the state said in its report.
Arkansas, for example, says that half of all electric vehicle registrations are from three counties.
Some states like Florida and Washington State plan to use toll credits they’ve received from building toll infrastructure to pay for the 20% of the construction costs of chargers that the federal government won’t cover.
Charging costs will vary by region. The District of Columbia estimates it will spend $1.2 million to install a fast charger, and $1,400-$2,000 a year to operate and maintain the fast chargers. North Dakota, where land and labor costs are lower, expects each station to be built for about $900,000.
Electric vehicle sales account for less than 1% of sales in Florida, according to the state. But he expects even a conservative adoption rate will require “intensive” charger construction. It estimates that by 2040 10-35% of its vehicles could be electric.
Florida currently has 170 fast chargers. The state says it needs more, for uses such as assisting evacuations, as the state has been hit by 79 tropical or subtropical cyclones since 2000. In 2017, nearly seven million people were evacuated during Hurricane Irma.