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Electric Boogie Woogie Wagon

Should EV chargers be public infrastructure?
A self-driving, electric car car speeds down a highway while the occupants play a game of dominos.

The future was always going to be electric; the advertisements told us so. “One day your car may speed along an electric super-highway,” reads the caption of one, which appeared alongside others in the likes of the Saturday Evening Post and Life magazine throughout the fifties. They projected a thrilling future of flying cars, flat screen televisions, voice-activated lawnmowers, sleek microwave ovens, and electricity so cheap and abundant that kids would be able to swim in heated swimming pools in the dead of winter. All this—and more!—would be brought to the consuming public by “America’s Electric Light and Power Companies.”

But this electrified utopia, the advertisements warned, was imperiled by the specter of government intervention, which threatened to create in its stead a “socialistic USA” of scarcity and want. Private, for-profit companies “with money from millions of investors,” the ads decreed, should be left to do the job of meeting the growing demand for electricity.

The investor-owned utilities were not crying wolf precisely. The federal government had been in the power business at least since the New Deal, when it undertook the construction of massive hydro-electric plants such as the Hoover Dam in Arizona and the Grand Coulee in Washington state—the “biggest thing built by the hand of a Man,” in the lyrics of Woody Guthrie. In Appalachia, the government created the Tennessee Valley Authority to provide power and control flooding in the hollows and valleys. The government also began building socialist electrical distribution networks. At the time, 90 percent of farms lacked electricity, but the cost of stringing wires to rural communities proved prohibitive despite consumer demand. With passage of the Rural Electrification Act in 1936, the federal government decided to tread where private industry refused and began funding rural electric cooperatives through the Department of Agriculture. Fifteen years later, with the help of federal investment, 80 percent of farms had service. To this day, the USDA’s Electric Program continues to provide billions of dollars in loans and grants to electric co-ops that spurn a for-profit model.

Direct public investment continued under President Eisenhower. In 1957, as the investor-owned utilities were warning the public of encroaching socialism, Congress authorized the New York Power Authority to build the Robert Moses Power Plant to replace a collapsed private-sector plant at Niagara Falls. And the following year, Eisenhower fired up the nation’s first nuclear power plant to feed electricity to the grid. Located outside of Pittsburgh, the Shippingport Atomic Power Station was part of Ike’s “Atoms for Peace” program. “This plant,” he announced from the White House, “represents what can be done, not only in America, but throughout the world, to put the atom to work for the good of mankind, not his destruction.”

Electrification of the nation’s homes and businesses was the challenge of the first half of the twentieth century, and the federal government both supported and profited from meeting that challenge by investing in publicly owned power projects. The challenge for the first half of the present century is to fully electrify our cars. And we’ll need a comprehensive network of charging stations to keep our EVs rolling. But instead of pursuing direct public ownership of this charging network, the Biden administration has decided to underwrite private investment, absorbing the downside risk while giving the upside profits to private companies already benefiting handsomely from the country’s EV transition.

There are about 165,000 publicly available charging ports in the United States, twice as many as there were in 2019. Of these, only eighty-two are owned by the federal government, with just under five thousand owned by states, cities, and towns. Experts predict we will need nearly 1.2 million publicly available charging ports by 2030 to service the 33 million EVs that will be on the road. Private industry has signaled a reluctance to meet this demand, complaining the profit margins are too thin. This presents something of a chicken and egg problem: chargers can’t be installed profitably until more people drive EVs, but people won’t buy EVs until there are enough chargers available.

In the name of climate action, the Biden administration has stepped in to help with the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which earmarks $7.5 billion for EV charging infrastructure. But this cash will go not to grand, publicly owned projects—it’s going to private investors. Those billions are already sluicing through state transportation departments and straight to the bottom line of automakers like Tesla and GM, charger networks like EVgo and Electrify America, and, yes, purveyors of roadside burgers.

These giveaways to private industry under the auspices of “public investment” are being replicated across the country.

For example, as of February 12, the Pennsylvania DOT had allocated $34.1 million from the Act for fifty-five National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure projects. The family-owned Sheetz chain of convenience stores and “fresh food made to order” restaurants, most of which also sell gasoline, received $3.1 million. Wawa got $2.9 million. But that’s not all. Of the ten stations Tesla will install in the state (with $2.3 million in federal funds), six will go to Wawa and Sheetz. Sheetz locations will get three more from Electrify America, the charging company principally owned by Volkswagen. In 2022, General Motors and Pilot announced plans to add stations at five hundred Pilot truck stops. Pennsylvania’s given $2.27 million to the effort. Another $3.8 million will go to Applegreen, the operator of rest stops hosting Sbarro, Auntie Anne’s Pretzels, and Starbucks, among a dozen other brands. These giveaways to private industry under the auspices of “public investment” are being replicated across the country.

Conventional wisdom—supported by uncritical media reports and self-serving comments by Detroit automakers—holds that more chargers are needed to overcome range anxiety. As late as December 2023, the White House claimed, “Survey data reveal that lack of public charging availability is one of the main reasons causing people not to consider an EV for their next vehicle purchase.” The data cited was four and five years old, and more recent data is unscientific. More to the point, these surveys reflect consumer perception—the anxiety that EVs don’t offer enough range on a single charge. They are not a measure of either the availability of chargers or of the experience of owning an EV.

Automakers have already addressed range anxiety with longer range models. A decade ago, most of the EV models on the market were subcompacts with ranges of less than one hundred miles. The Nissan Leaf, then the global top seller, claimed one hundred. The Tesla Model S boasted 250 miles of range but also a price tag approaching $100,000. Today, 250 miles of range is table stakes, and many models provide it for less than the average price of a new gasoline vehicle. Higher priced models are available with 350, 400, and as much as 520 miles of range on a single charge, based on EPA figures.

People who do own EVs don’t suffer range anxiety. The vehicles themselves keep good track of range and the locations of available chargers. Based on my own unscientific local survey, EV owners are comfortably able to plan ahead and build charging into their journeys. Charging delays on long trips remain a pain point, but every vehicle purchase involves tradeoffs. Mom may want a roadster but has to drive the carpool; dad doesn’t need a pickup, but he’s willing to spend big bucks for the image it projects. One Tesla owner told me he just can’t do his usual eighty miles per hour cruising on long trips, which is probably a good thing.

A corollary to the argument for state investment in EV chargers is that automakers cannot build EVs profitably. Yet the world’s leading EV-only maker, China’s BYD, scored profits of more than $4 billion in 2023, an 80 percent increase over the previous year. In fact, producing EVs at scale will be more profitable than producing comparable gasoline cars, as industry forecasters are slowly starting to admit. For example, Sandy Munro had been a Tesla skeptic until 2018 when his Detroit-area consulting firm dissected the company’s Model 3, costing it out to the last nut and bolt. He concluded that Tesla could earn up to a 30 percent margin on each car. Mark Barrott, an automotive bean counter at the financial advising firm of Plante Moran who advises parts suppliers, urges his clients not to be distracted by the political noise about government incentives or even climate change. “The real impetus is that, at scale, EVs can be made at lower costs with less components and manufacturing complexity,” he opined in Automotive News, the industry’s leading insider publication.

It’s worth noting that in the current state and federal regulatory environment, even EVs that lose money support profits in the end. Ford’s chief financial officer John Lawler told investors in February that, although the company loses money on its electric F-150 Lightning pickup, each sale offsets twelve internal combustion F-150s for the purposes of meeting fleetwide emissions standards.

Like fuel economy standards, Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) calculates emissions on a fleetwide basis. In order to sell internal combustion vehicles in California and any of the fourteen other states that follow its rules, a certain percentage of sales must emit zero tailpipe emissions. ZEV states account for nearly 40 percent of all new vehicle sales. By 2035, 100 percent of the vehicles sold in these states will need to be zero emission. California already met its 2025 ZEV target in 2023, two years ahead of schedule. That indicates the tipping point has been reached: automakers are profitably selling electric vehicles that consumers want to buy, above and beyond what the government requires, and in absolute numbers EV sales are rising, despite industry panic about stagnation.

Not every charging station does or will turn a profit, but the business can certainly succeed without a federal subsidy. A 2023 McKinsey and Company study ran the numbers on a typical California EV charging station. The study’s authors found that raising the price per kilowatt by 18 percent from her base case would put her station in the black. With a bump in utilization, from about seven thirty-minute charging sessions a day to nine or ten, her typical station would break even.

Moreover, McKinsey calculates that with a mere $12,000 a year in related revenue its theoretical charging station would start to make money. That’s why Sheetz and Wawa and Applegreen put in for federal money. Gas station profits already come overwhelmingly from soda, snacks, cigarettes, and lottery tickets, not gasoline sales. The profits aren’t necessarily in the charging but in the cinnamon buns and soda pops sold to customers tethered to charging stations for a half hour or more. Tesla has begun building 1950s style diners/drive-in movie theaters with its stations.

The argument against federal spending on EV charging infrastructure is precisely the opposite of the one voiced by the likes of the Wall Street Journal. “The Biden Administration keeps throwing around billions in subsidies for electric vehicles,” the Journal’s editors gripe, “but consumers don’t seem to want them. The evidence is building that this green industrial policy is a bust.” In fact, the opposite is true. EV sales continue to grow in absolute numbers and as a percentage of car sales. Ever more buyers, whether motivated by climate concerns, cost of ownership, or the sexiness of the product, are going electric. And EV prices are continuing to fall rapidly.

In short, consumers do seem to want them, and the market can provide them profitably. All of these EVs will need charging, and there are good margins to be made installing and operating stations, especially, as Tesla has shown, along the nation’s freeways. Perhaps it’s time to stop handing out money and instead charge companies for the benefits they accrue from being situated along the Dwight D. Eisenhower Interstate Highway System. It is, after all, and with apologies to Woody Guthrie, the largest public works project in American history.