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Electric Cars Hit the Road This Holiday Weekend But Charging Stations Still a Big Hurdle

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Electric vehicles are easier to take on summer trips than ever, with the number of charging stations up two-thirds in the last year. But regions differ in availability.

Tim Mullaney

As America enters its peak summer driving season, the answer to one important question is changing fast: Can you take the Great American Road Trip in an electric car?

It still depends on where you live, at least if you want to do it without fear of running out of juice in a (pun intended) underpowered nationwide network of publicly available charging stations. But the infrastructure needed to support the transition to electric transportation is way ahead of where it was last year, and big money from the infrastructure bill Congress passed last year will begin to flow before this summer is out.

“That it depends on where you are is an infrastructure question,” said Spencer Reeder, director of government affairs and sustainability at Audi of America. “In California, it’s pretty good. In major [metro areas] there’s enough charging capacity. The question is, is it fast enough?”

The ability to make long trips is the single biggest factor consumers are watching before switching from gas-powered vehicles to electric ones, said Alec Slatky, director of public and government affairs at AAA Northeast, which has surveyed consumers on EV issues. For daily trips to work, shopping, and shuttling children about, most owners power their cars at home and rarely use public stations that are the next generation’s equivalent of gas stations.

But since most people don’t have a separate car for longer trips, they’re watching the development of charging infrastructure closely.

“When you don’t have an electric vehicle, your #1 concern is lack of charging and range,” Slatky said. “But when people do have them, we find they are satisfied with the charging.”

Nationwide numbers say charging stations are coming along rapidly, with the number of public charging stations growing 58 percent in 2021 to 50,054, according to the Alternative Fuels Data Center at the US Department of Energy. That’s three times as fast as the jump between 2019 and 2020, or the pre-Covid climb the year before that.

The numbers are beginning to bring public charging at least within sight of the number of gas stations in the US, which the National Association of Convenience Stores puts at 145,000. That number has been shrinking for years — government data put the count of fuel-selling outlets at 175,000 in 2000. Other estimates put today’s number as low as 115,000. The largest numbers of gas stations increasingly belong to convenience store chains, as the share of stations branded by big refiners like Exxon shrinks.

The most common devices are Level 2 chargers, which let people add about 25 miles of range per hour of charging.

Going to Level 3 direct-current fast chargers, which are about one in six total public chargers, will let drivers cut the amount of time it takes to charge their cars and complete their trip, said consulting group EVBox, which says they can recharge the smallest EVs in as little as six minutes.

“Early adopters will tolerate slow charging,” Reeder said. “As the mass market begins to buy in, will they tolerate that for the family trip?”

But there are wide state-to-state disparities in EV infrastructure, says Reeder. In California, it’s easy to go see a distant Grandma and Grandpa or hit the beach using an EV, while in much of the south and west it’s much harder.

Eighteen states have fewer than 100 public Level 3 chargers, according to consulting firm EVAdoption.com. California has the most at 6,143 as of last Sept. 30, the firm says. The most underserved state is New Jersey, with 41 electric vehicles on the road for every public charging point. By another measure, the relatively-compact Garden State’s 500 Level 3 chargers suggest it’s easier to find juice there than in less-populated areas like Wyoming, which has 75 fast chargers statewide, or the 124 serving the two Dakotas combined.

The picture will begin to improve sharply over the next year, Reeder said, as $5 billion in money from the infrastructure bill begins to flow.

The law, signed by President Joe Biden in November, requires states to submit plans by August 1 to the US Department of Transportation and Department of Energy to develop charging infrastructure, focused on so-called Alternative Fuel Corridors that largely track the interstate highway system. The bill will make $615 million available this fiscal year, which ends Oct. 1, the Transportation Department says.

The other thing working in favor of using EVs for summer road trips is that newer electric vehicles have a longer range than many earlier models.

Brian Ratkevich, an engineer from Maplewood NJ, replaced a Nissan Leaf last summer with an electric Hyundai Kona that has twice the range. Ratkevich says he can now make it as far from home as Boston or Washington on a single charge.

In the meantime, the slower charging and more frequent stops can have an unexpected side benefit.

“We [at AAA] recommend stopping every couple of hours anyway if you’re the driver just to keep from getting drowsy,” Slatky said. “It kind of forces you to stick to the recommended pattern.”

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