The US government is pushing for a massive wave of electric vehicles to hit the roads in the next few years, but the country doesn’t have nearly enough chargers installed to power them all.
The Environmental Protection Agency released proposed standards today that set limits for companies on total carbon dioxide emissions from fleets of new vehicles. To make sure they are met, electric vehicles will need to account for up to 60% of manufacturers’ new vehicle sales by 2030, and up to 67% by 2032. The standards apply to vehicles starting with model year 2027.
Today, the transportation sector is the single biggest contributor to greenhouse-gas emissions in the US. The new rules are part of a growing push from the US federal government to boost EVs and other low-emission forms of transit. In 2021, President Biden set a target for EVs to make up half of new vehicle sales by 2030. The Inflation Reduction Act, passed in 2022, includes $7,500 individual tax credits for new electric vehicles.
“Today’s actions will accelerate our ongoing transition to a clean vehicle future, tackle the climate crisis head-on, and improve air quality for communities all across the country,” said EPA administrator Michael Regan at a press conference unveiling the new rules.
Supporting all those new electric vehicles will require a lot of chargers—far more than the US has right now. There are only about 130,000 public chargers currently installed across the country, and just a small fraction of them are fast chargers. That’s a 40% increase since 2020, according to the EPA press release, but it’s still not enough. We’ll need to build millions of new chargers within a decade.
A lack of available charging infrastructure is one of the top barriers to EV adoption, according to the International Energy Agency. Public chargers allow drivers to travel longer distances and provide a crucial level of reliability.
In 2021, the Biden administration set a target of 500,000 publicly available EV chargers by 2030 and designated $5 billion in funding to build the national charging network. With that investment, “we will see a rapid increase of DC fast chargers along national highways,” said Leilani Gonzalez, policy director of the Zero Emissions Transportation Association, in an email.
Some analysts think those targets won’t be enough to support all the EVs that could be on the roads by the end of the decade. If EVs make up just 40% of new vehicle sales in 2030—less than the expected boost from the new EPA rules—the country would need over 2 million public chargers installed by that date, according to a January report from S&P Global. That figure includes units that have restricted access, like those available to employees at certain workplaces.
“We need strong investment at the state and federal level in charging networks,” says Robbie Orvis, senior director of modeling and analysis at Energy Innovation. “And there’s a lot of work to be done there.”
Between 70% and 80% of EV charging occurs at home, according to research from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. So in addition to public chargers, supporting a growing EV fleet will require millions of new home chargers. In total, if EVs make up just over a third of new sales in 2030, 17 million home chargers will be needed, according to a 2021 report from the International Council on Clean Transportation.
It won’t be cheap: building all the required workplace and public chargers alone will require a total investment of $28 billion between 2021 and 2030, according to the ICCT report.
EV owners would shoulder the cost of installing at-home charging equipment, but there could be additional barriers. Most homes require some electrical work to support EV charging, which can be expensive if it involves retrofitting. “The building stack generally isn’t ready for charging,” says Dan O’Brien, a modeling analyst at Energy Innovation.
Compounding the charging problem, there’s also a shortage of electricians. But even though the logistics are daunting, the government isn’t alone in trying to build out charging infrastructure: businesses like Walmart are also jostling to keep up with demand. The company plans to add chargers to thousands of store parking lots in the next few years.
The rising EV tide
There’s no question we will need more chargers; the only uncertainty is how many will need to be plugged in, and how quickly. The new EPA guidelines join a host of other federal and state policies that are already bending the curve of EV adoption upwards.
Last year, California announced new vehicle standards that require manufacturers to sell an increasing share of low-emission vehicles, including EVs, plug-in hybrids, and fuel-cell vehicles. The rule effectively bans new sales of gas-powered vehicles in the state after 2035. And the mandate could have nationwide impact: 17 states have signed on to previous California vehicle standards, and several have already announced plans to adopt the new rules.
The EPA announcement will essentially align federal regulations with the new California rules, Jonas Nahm, an assistant professor of energy, resources, and environment at Johns Hopkins, said in an email.
It will also help make sure that EVs continue to sell after the tax credits from the IRA expire in the early 2030s. The individual tax credits and other incentives in the IRA were already expected to boost projected EV sales from less than 40% in 2030 to nearly 60%, according to modeling from Energy Innovation. That means those incentives would put EV sales on track to meet the proposed EPA guidelines. But some experts worry that if they expire, there might be a rebound back to gas-powered cars in the early 2030s, Orvis says.
Mandates like the new federal rules could be key in cementing the future of EVs. “In order to meet these targets, carmakers will have to commit to EVs to a degree that will make it harder to change course later on,” Nahm says.
There’s a lot of work left on charging, battery technology, and public acceptance for EVs to reach the levels they’ll need to in order for us to reach climate goals, but the new EPA rules and other policy shifts suggest that the tide is turning. “This is the future: the consumer demand is there, the markets are enabling it, and the technologies are enabling it,” Regan said in the press conference. “We’re rolling in the same direction.”
Climate change and energy
How a half-trillion dollars is transforming climate technology
Checking in with the landmark Inflation Reduction Act, one year later.
Zinc batteries that offer an alternative to lithium just got a big boost
The US Department of Energy just committed a $400 million loan to battery maker Eos.
This startup has engineered a clever way to reuse waste heat from cloud computing
Heata is now using these busy servers to heat water for homes.
How electricity could clean up transportation, steel, and even fertilizer
More industries are joining the charge to electrify everything in order to cut emissions.
Get the latest updates from
MIT Technology Review
Discover special offers, top stories, upcoming events, and more.