After a century of dependence on oil, we are in the midst of a dramatic transformation of our transportation system. This transformation will have huge benefits for our environment, our communities, our national security, and our economy.
The federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) also known as the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, will invest billions of dollars in charging infrastructure nationwide over the next five years. Most of this funding will flow through a $5 billion formula program called the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure corridor charging program (NEVI) and through a $2.5 billion discretionary grant program.
Most of this funding will flow through state and local transportation agencies, many of which have never included charging or transportation electrification in their work. These agencies will need to quickly develop expertise and build partnerships to make this work successful. Their partners — advocates, utilities, community groups, and others — also want to know how they can best shape and support these investments. Here are a few suggestions to ease the path:
8 Key Steps
Plan for a marathon, not a sprint. States have fewer than 150 days to produce their first EV charging plans, which are due August 1. States are already rushing to spend a lot of consulting dollars to develop these plans. However, this is just one deadline, and it should not cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to prepare these initial plans. States will want and need to update plans annually over the next five years. While state plans should get things off on the right foot, many of the most important decisions (selecting charging companies, choosing specific sites, developing outreach and activation strategies, implementing effective evaluation strategies, etc.) can and should come later. Transportation agencies and stakeholders should expect charging to be part of their core work for the foreseeable future and plan accordingly.
Seek trustworthy information and advice. While this level of investment is new, we have over a decade of experience in rolling out EV charging infrastructure in the US. This experience has produced a number of best practices, tools, and resources. There is no need to reinvent them. For example, charging locations need to be easy to find, well lit, open 24/7, and have bathrooms nearby. The new federal Joint Office of Energy and Transportation has already provided many tools and a template for required state plans. The American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) and National Association of State Energy Officials (NASEO) have signed an MOU with the Joint Office to provide further assistance. Forth and our partners recently wrote a report on how governments can best support charging, and the Forth Roadmap Conference has been a reliable place to learn about best practices for over a decade. States should seek diverse perspectives, but be wary of the “gold rush” of new consultants and recently created charging firms, and other voices in this space.
Charging is a means, not an end. Charging is an important enabling technology to expand access to affordable electric mobility. By itself, however, it does little — it’s like building train tracks without trains. States need to make maximum use of the limited flexibility provided by NEVI funds, but they will also need to identify other funding sources to ensure this infrastructure benefits their states’ residents. For example, federal guidance suggests NEVI and partner match funds should be used to pay for community engagement and outreach by trusted partners to ensure local residents know when charging is available. It is unclear, however, whether those funds can pay for “ride and drive” events featuring affordable electric cars in those communities. It will definitely take additional funding to support other high impact programs, such as paying community organizations to purchase electric vehicles for their own use or rental by community members.
Keep it Simple. Resist the urge to over plan. States do not need to spend money on traffic studies and complex modeling at this point, nor should they attempt to pick specific locations or define rigid five-year spending plans. These plans will be updated annually and states need to build capacity, pursue continuous improvement, and adapt as they implement these investments. States should focus on laying a solid foundation in the next 150 days, and building a robust update process that includes broad stakeholder engagement, including compensation that allows historically underserved voices to fully participate in that process. The transformation we are making in transportation will not happen in the next 150 days, or in the next 5 years — but what we do now will be crucial to ensuring that transformation happens as quickly and efficiently as possible, and is truly inclusive. If we can keep that in mind and consider the starting points above, we will accomplish great things together.
Prepare the ground. Now is the time for states to create a more “charger-friendly” environment by addressing the “soft costs” of charging through policy and regulatory changes. State and local permitting delays and inefficiencies can add months to schedules and dramatically increase costs. Likewise, utility connection policies and practices, demand charges, and rate structures will have a significant impact on the costs of charging. States that require or encourage electric utilities to invest in transportation electrification can leverage federal funds for much greater impact. On the other hand, due to outdated “sale for resale” laws, many states do not even legally allow charging to be paid for by the kilowatt-hour. Now is the time for stakeholders to get these supportive policies in place. Resources like the NASEO policy evaluation rubric, various reports by the Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management, and the AchiEVE toolkit developed by several nonprofit organizations provide valuable learnings.
Gather stakeholders. Transportation electrification is a team sport. Federal guidance rightly directs states to consult a long list of stakeholders: electric utilities, various state agencies, local and regional governments, car dealers and manufacturers, charging companies, environmental and equity advocates, and others. States should be starting these conversations already. High-level public support, such as a governor’s directive or a formal transportation electrification advisory council, can help provide gravitas and support for this effort. However, speed and inclusiveness are paramount right now. It is also essential to proactively reach out to historically underserved communities (while compensating participants for their time and expertise) to understand how charging infrastructure can best meet their needs.
Center people, not technology. The NEVI corridor charging program is designed to give Americans confidence that they can drive long distances in EVs. While this is important, 95% of trips are 30 miles or less (see below). Therefore, the main customers likely to regularly use this infrastructure will be nearby residents. In much the same way, the interstate highway system makes it possible to drive from Los Angeles to Washington, DC, but is more often used to drive from northern Virginia to Washington, DC. States should appeal to both groups by locating fast charging close to amenities, apartments without charging, park and ride facilities, or other trip-generating facilities. More generally, states will need to work with their charging partners to ensure an excellent customer experience (98%+ uptime, clear signage, clear and reasonable pricing, etc.) and will need to coordinate with stakeholders to ensure a more consistent and seamless experience for drivers nationwide. Lastly, with this funding, it’s important to stay focused on charging for light cars and trucks. These systems can be “future proofed” to allow their use and expansion to serve commercial vehicles over time, but other funding will be needed to meet those needs.
Center drivers with the most barriers. The heaviest users of public fast charging will likely be those who have the most barriers to charging at home, such as apartment residents and gig drivers who drive many miles in a day. Smart charger placement that centers their needs is the best way to ensure that charging is regularly used and accelerates transportation electrification. It will also be necessary to comply with the Biden administration’s Justice40 Initiative and program guidance directing that at least 40% of benefits flow to disadvantaged communities. States should also develop programming and pricing to ensure charging is not a barrier to electric vehicle adoption. For example, states should use their contracting authority and federal funding to ensure networks have reasonable subscription rates (e.g., $30/month for unlimited charging) that will ensure those who have to depend on public DCFC will not pay more than they would for home charging, or for gasoline. States should design programs to provide other forms of charging (such as at workplaces and in apartments) and develop plans for funding that infrastructure. Federal competitive charging funds should become available later this year, but will not be remotely enough to meet the need. State and utility funding will also be needed.
This blog was originally published as an editorial in CleanTechnica on March 17, 2022