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Your electric vehicle cannot get there from here – at least not without a fee

If we are to deal with the climate crisis, electric cars are a crucial part of the task.Photo by Rebekah Zemansky / Shutterstock

I drove into a Whole Foods parking lot in Bedford, New Hampshire, hoping against hope – but no, someone was already there, their Chevy Bolt plugged into the quick charger. Damn it.

We finally reached a stage in the climate crisis when we, as a nation, decided to give up refusal. After pledging to act quickly, we must now be carried out. My Mother’s Day weekend drive through New England was a reminder of how far we have to go. Thanks to the excellent vaccine technology, I was finally able to go to my mother’s home for the first time in a year, belatedly to celebrate her ninetieth birthday. But I had to get there first, from my home in rural Vermont to their retirement community in the Boston suburbs. There’s no bus or train that makes the trip, so I had to figure out how to do it in my electric car, a Kia Niro. I usually charge it at home using a plug connected to the solar panels on my roof. A full charge can cover a range of roughly 250 miles, which is more than enough for ninety-five percent of the trips I make in a year. Maybe ninety-nine percent.

But getting to Boston and back is not enough. I had to use a public charging station on the way. When you look at the different apps that can help you find chargers, it doesn’t seem like a problem. Pins are shown on the maps on the obvious freeway roads. However, further research shows that most of them are essentially useless: they are slow chargers designed to be used overnight, or they can be found near businesses where employees park in the parking lots for the day. I had experimented the week before and visited a charger a few towns from my house. After twenty-three minutes (I was bored of waiting) it had only added enough juice to drive me fourteen miles, at a cost of $ 4.13, the equivalent of buying gasoline for $ 12 a gallon.

So I called ChargePoint, the company whose name was on the charger. A helpful rep explained that the charger wasn’t theirs any more than a Shell station actually belonged to Shell – it was just connected to their network. She kindly offered to help me work out a strategy for my trip and we focused on the quick charger at Whole Foods as there was nothing else on the route. Since the bolt driver was already using the station when I got there and the quick charge takes about half an hour, it probably would have taken me an hour to get back on the road. The charger actually had two cables, and if I had been willing to park in the handicapped spot on the other side of the charger, I could have got it working. But I wasn’t.

If we are to address the climate crisis, electric vehicles are a crucial part of the task. We also desperately need electric trains, buses, bicycles and scooters, but since America was designed with private automobiles in mind in the post-war years, electric vehicles will play a major role in the transition. Transportation is responsible for nearly a third of all carbon emissions in the US, and cars and trucks make up the majority of it. Electric vehicles generate less than half the emissions that gas cars cause over their lifetime, and these levels can steadily decrease as the electricity grid becomes more renewable. In other words, automobiles are among the lowest hanging fruits in the carbon orchard. But just because they hang low doesn’t mean they will fall on their own. Apart from the early adopters, people will not buy electric vehicles as long as the charging situation remains a mess.

Tesla owners have it a little better. In an early moment of clarity, Elon Musk realized he needed to build a network of chargers for the cars without being distracted by virtual coins or tunnel bores. There are now more than ten thousand Tesla sales outlets for “compressors” strategically located across the country. He was unable to convince other automakers to join him, perhaps because the terms he was offering were onerous. Whatever the reason, non-Tesla models don’t even use the same plugs. Now there’s a confusing mix of jets and far fewer stations that can quickly charge anything other than Musk’s fleet. According to the Department of Energy, there are only about 7,800 non-Tesla charging stations spread across four thousand stations. (Compare that number to the estimated one hundred and twenty-eight thousand gas stations that supply the gasoline that melts glaciers and fuels forest fires.) Some countries are leading the way – drivers in South Korea, where my car was designed, can access a gas station on average every twenty-eight kilometers. Yes, South Korea is densely populated, but so are the highway corridors outside of Boston.

All of this explains why the Biden administration is proposing to spend fifteen billion dollars building charging stations – or at least “attempting” to support transformation “through a combination of grant and incentive programs for state and local governments and the private sector” “Acceleration” in expansion. It is not impossible to imagine that the administration will find many willing partners. When a car takes 30 minutes to charge, restaurants with parking spaces are natural allies. However, these stations are so expensive that they are not created automatically. And there is also a great need for plugs for people who park on the street in cities.

However, building EV charging stations is one of the easier parts of the execution task ahead since it doesn’t go to someone else’s house. The other critical jobs include replacing oil and gas stoves for air source heat pumps and other types of electrical heating and cooling, and converting gas hobs into induction or other electrical heat. These changes are necessarily invasive. Right now, even the most aggressive proposals are to make the changes mandatory only for new homes or during major renovations. For the carbon numbers to work, these changes must be made within a decade.

It turned out I had enough juice in the tank to get to a mall near my mother’s house. There was a quick charger in the huge parking lot that was miraculously available. So I filled up and we had our party. The next day, on the way home, I tried again to stop at Whole Foods in New Hampshire. The plug was back in use, so I swallowed hard, did some math, and drove on. I came home with flashing red lights on the dashboard and a display that said my range had dropped to two miles. That’s close – almost as close as we are dealing with climate change. It’s time for our leaders to improve their game.

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