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The Race to Convert to EVs: Innovation vs. Infrastructure

Angie Moreschi talks with museum director Brad Brownell about the history of electric vehicles on display at the Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum (courtesy SOA){p}{/p}
Angie Moreschi talks with museum director Brad Brownell about the history of electric vehicles on display at the Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum (courtesy SOA)

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The race to convert to electric vehicles is on, but is America’s infrastructure ready for all the innovation? Watch the video to see National Investigative Correspondent Angie Moreschi’s report.

It’s going to take major upgrades to achieve ambitious goals set by new proposed rules the Biden administration put out in April. They are the strongest ever new car emission standards and would require two-thirds of new cars sold to be all-electric by 2032.

That’s less than a decade. So, can the country do it in time?

Critics say that aggressive timetable is not realistic, but supporters are hopeful, admitting it will be a heavy lift.

Infrastructure Readiness

On the road to an electric vehicle future for America, the nation will require a robust network of EV charging stations across the country.

“I don't think we're currently ready, but I think we could possibly be ready in 10 years,” said Brad Brownell, Director of the Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum in Cleveland, Ohio.

Brownell knows cars well. As director of the museum, he oversees a fascinating collection of historic electric vehicles from the past century, including the 1901 Baker Electric, 1975 Sebring Vanguard CitiCar, and 1997 GM EV1.

As a longtime automotive enthusiast and writer, he’s on board with the need to electrify vehicles and put America’s infrastructure to the test. He took a 10-day cross country trip to evaluate the nation's EV charging network.

“I would say overall it was an eye-opening experience,” Brownell said. “The biggest surprise to me was I found places like Fort Wayne, Indiana had almost no charging at all.”

He calls the middle of the country “an EV charging wasteland.”

“Sometimes we would pull in, and they would say, ‘Stop the vehicle. Charge immediately. You're at zero percent,’” he said, describing the sometimes nerve wracking adventure as he traversed the country from Los Angeles to New York.

Finding Charging Stations

Spotlight on America rented a Tesla Model 3 and hit the road in Ohio to get a sense of the infrastructure readiness ourselves.

We talked with EV owner Samuel Omotoye, who was charging his vehicle in the Cleveland area.

Moreschi: How convenient is it to find charging stations?

Omotoye: At this point, I would say it’s not convenient, because you’ll often have to drive out of your way to find one.”

Omotoye relies on apps like PlugShare, ChargePoint, and Electrify America, which provide updates on charging stations and their condition from EV drivers who actually use them.

“The last person who used it will leave a review to say ‘working, excellent condition, available,’” Omotoye said.

According to the U.S Department of Energy’s Alternative Fuels Data Center, the country has approximately 53,000 operational, public EV charging locations nationwide (based on May 2023 data, updated weekly).

States with the most:

  • California (about 14,000)
  • New York (about 3400)
  • Florida (about 2800)
  • Texas (about 2500)

States with the fewest:

  • Montana (about 100)
  • North Dakota (about 90)
  • Wyoming (about 80)
  • South Dakota (about 80)
  • Alaska (about 60)

Range anxiety is very real when you're driving long distance in an EV, not only because of the patchy charging network, but also due to the reliability of charging ports when you find them.

Brownell says it’s not uncommon for charging ports to be out of service; and even when they are working, some don't charge at the promised rate.

“I've experienced extremely slow charging, and I’ve experienced where I've had to call and have the machine reset,” Brownell explained.

Convenient & Reliable Charging Network Needed

Making EV charging both convenient and reliable will be essential to make the ambitious EV goals feasible.

Spotlight on America talked about it with the Department of Energy’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Sustainable Transportation in the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy Michael Berube.

Moreschi: Will the country's infrastructure be ready for this in less than a decade?

Berube: There's a lot of work to be done, for sure, but we think we will be ready. We will be able to build out across every interstate, every US highway, all the major roads, having them at least every 50 miles.

The infrastructure law passed in 2021 allocated $7.5 billion to help fund the effort. It provides tens of millions of dollars to every state to start building-up the charging network.

The goal is to go from just under 150,000 individual public charging outlets now to 500,000 by 2030.

As for the reliability issue, Berube acknowledges it is a problem, but says it’s being addressed.

“A lot of times right now you hear reports about ‘Oh, a lot of these chargers are broken.’ A lot of these chargers are like 7, 8, 9 years old when EV charging was just starting to happen. The chargers that are being built today and that are going to be (built)— really the vast, vast majority of everything out there are much higher quality,” he said.

Electric Grid Readiness

The electric grid is another area of concern.

Moreschi: Are blackouts going to be a concern here for people when we have so much extra demand?

Berube: I don't think that electric vehicles would cause any more of a problem with blackouts. Obviously, the grid's got to be strong and resilient. It's got to be maintained to avoid blackouts all the time regardless.

Spotlight also took that question to a leading expert in the field of electricity technology. Dr. Ramteen Sioshansi is a professor and director of Carnegie Mellon University’s Electricity Industry Center.

Moreschi: Can the electric grid handle the acceleration towards this transition?

Sioshansi: The answer, the devil really is in the details. It depends really on how people are going to be using and recharging their vehicles. If everyone is going to be recharging on, you know, hot summer afternoons, then the answer is no, because you're adding all of this demand at kind of the absolute worst time.

He says the grid does have excess capacity for increased demand, but controlling when and where that demand peaks will be the key to avoid overload.

It's called "smart charging" and technology is being developed to do it.

The DOE’s Michael Berube explained how it works.

Berube: Rather than just sending electrons to the vehicle the minute it’s plugged in, the software behind the scenes can be saying, ‘You know what, right now is a peak time in the grid, and you only need two hours of charging maybe to fill up. We'll do it in the middle of the night,’ and you postpone when the electrons come.

Moreschi: So, will that control when people can charge? So, you can't be in charge of your own destiny for when you want your vehicle to charge?

Berube: No, that, that would not work. The idea of managed charging is to actually make it easier for the consumer and more level for the grid, but it's going to have to work for people.

Back to the Future

There is still a lot of uncertainty but if what’s past is prologue, car enthusiasts like museum director Brownell hope history will repeat itself. Back in the early 1900s, it was actually easier to have an electric vehicle than a gas-powered vehicle.

“The infrastructure for gasoline didn’t exist back then, so electric was much easier,” Brownell said, pointing to the 1901 Baker Electric displayed at the museum.

He says he’s especially hopeful the infrastructure will be ready with the billions of dollars being spent now to make it happen.

“I believe that the will is there,” he said. “The will, will follow the money,” Brownell said.

The tens of billions of dollars being invested by the government are just part of the equation. Energy companies, car manufacturers, and private industry are also investing record amounts, hoping to capitalize on the growing EV market.

Government Response

Given the significant impact the new rules proposed by the Biden administration would have on all Americans, Spotlight on America reached out to several agencies to discuss the implementation of this goal, but most didn’t want to do interviews.

In addition to the Department of Energy which did agree to talk with us, we also asked to interview the Secretary of the Department of Transportation about the EV infrastructure build-up and the head of the Federal Highway Administration, which is in charge of distributing infrastructure money to all the states, but both of their offices declined.

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We also requested an interview with the Secretary of the Environmental Protection Agency, which is the office that proposed the new strict guidelines, but they also declined.

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