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Your Electric Vehicle Can’t Get There from Here—At Least, Not Without a Charge

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

I pulled 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 fast charger. Damn.

We’ve finally reached a stage in the climate crisis when, as a nation, we’ve decided to give up on denial. Now, having made a commitment to act quickly, we need execution. My Mother’s Day weekend drive across New England was a reminder of just how far we have to go. Thanks to excellent vaccine technology, I was finally allowed to go see my mom for the first time in a year, to belatedly celebrate her ninetieth birthday. But first I had to get there, from my home in rural Vermont to her retirement community in the suburbs of Boston. There’s not a bus or a train that makes the journey, so I had to figure out how to do it in my electric car, a Kia Niro. Normally, I charge it at home, from a plug connected to the solar panels on my roof. A full charge can cover a range of some two hundred and fifty miles, which is more than enough for ninety-five per cent of the trips I make in a year. Maybe ninety-nine per cent.

But it’s not enough to get to Boston and back; I was going to have to use a public charging station along the way. If you take a casual glance at the various apps designed to help you find chargers, it appears to be no problem—pins pop up on the map all along the obvious interstate highway routes. Further investigation, however, shows that most of them are, essentially, useless: they’re slow chargers designed for overnight use, or they’re in lots next to businesses where employees park in the spaces for the day. I’d been experimenting the week before, visiting a charger a few towns away from my home. After twenty-three minutes (I got bored of waiting), it had added only enough juice to drive me fourteen miles, and at a cost of $4.13, which is equivalent to buying gasoline for twelve dollars a gallon.

So I called ChargePoint, the company whose name was on the charger. A helpful representative explained that the charger didn’t actually belong to them, any more than a Shell station actually belongs to Shell—it was just associated with their network. She kindly offered to help me plot a strategy for my trip, and we centered it on the fast charger at the Whole Foods, because there was nothing else along the route. But, since the Bolt driver was already using the station when I got there and fast charging takes half an hour or so, it would likely have been an hour before I was back on the road. The charger actually had two cables, and if I’d been willing to park in the handicapped spot on the other side of the charger, I could have made it work. But I wasn’t.

If we’re going to deal with the climate crisis, electric vehicles are a crucial part of the task. We badly need electric trains, buses, bikes, and scooters, too, but, because America was laid out in the postwar years with private automobiles in mind, E.V.s are going to play a large role in the transition. Transportation accounts for almost a third of U.S. carbon emissions, and cars and trucks make up the bulk of that. E.V.s, over their lifetime, produce less than half the emissions that gas cars do, and those levels can be driven steadily lower as the electric grid becomes more renewable. Cars, in other words, are some of the lowest-hanging fruit in the carbon orchard. But just because they’re low-hanging doesn’t mean that they will drop of their own accord. Apart from the early adopters, people will not buy E.V.s as long as the charging situation remains a mess.

Tesla owners have it slightly better. In an early moment of clarity, undistracted by virtual coinage or tunnel boring, Elon Musk recognized that he needed to build a network of chargers for the cars. There are now more than ten thousand Tesla “supercharger” outlets strategically placed across the country. He wasn’t able to persuade other carmakers to join him in the effort, perhaps because the terms he offered were onerous. Whatever the reason, non-Tesla models don’t even use the same plugs. So now there’s a confusing mix of nozzles, and far fewer stations that can quickly charge anything other than Musk’s fleet. By the Department of Energy’s count, there are only about seventy-eight hundred non-Tesla charging outlets, scattered across four thousand stations. (Compare this number with the estimated hundred and twenty-eight thousand gas stations providing the gasoline that is melting glaciers and fuelling forest fires.) A few countries are showing the way—drivers in South Korea, where my car was designed, can access a fast charger, on average, every twenty-eight kilometres. Yes, South Korea is densely populated, but then so are the highway corridors outside Boston.

All this explains why the Biden Administration is proposing to spend fifteen billion dollars to build charging stations—or, at least, “through a combination of grant and incentive programs for state and local governments and the private sector,” attempt to “support a transformational acceleration” in the build-out. It’s not impossible to imagine the Administration finding lots of willing partners; if it takes thirty minutes to charge a car, restaurants with parking lots would be natural allies. But these stations are expensive enough that they’re not going to spring up automatically. And there’s also a great need for plugs for people who park on the street in cities.

Still, building E.V.-charging stations is one of the easier parts of the execution task that lies ahead, because it doesn’t involve going into anyone’s house. The other crucial jobs include changing out oil and gas furnaces for air-source heat pumps and other kinds of electric heating and cooling, and converting gas cooktops to induction or other electric heat. By necessity, those changes will be invasive. At the moment, even the most aggressive proposals foresee mandating the changes only on new houses, or during major renovations. Yet to make the carbon numbers work, these are the kind of changes that must happen, and within a decade.

I had, it turned out, enough juice in the tank to make it to a shopping mall near my mom’s house. In the vast parking lot, there was one fast charger, and, miraculously, it was available. So I filled up, and we had our celebration. The next day, on the way home, I tried again to stop at the Whole Foods in New Hampshire. The plug was in use once more, so I swallowed hard, did a little math, and drove on, arriving home with red lights flashing on the dashboard and a display indicating that my range was down to two miles. That’s cutting it close—almost as close as we’ve cut it on climate change. It’s time for our leaders to step up their game.



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