EV Charging Stations — Are They There Yet?

May 8, 2024
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An electric car charging station. For those hesitant to purchase an EV, access to charging is critical. Photo: Ivan Radic via Flickr Creative Commons (CC BY 2.0 DEED).

Issue Backgrounder: EV Charging Stations — Are They There Yet?

By Joseph A. Davis

Electric vehicle charging stations are popping up all over — and many of them make local news when they arrive. But are they enough?

Not yet. “Range anxiety” still plagues many EV owners. Can they get to the next charging station before their battery runs out and goes dead? What if it’s a dark, blizzardy night in the middle of nowhere? Do they dare to leave home without knowing?

For those hesitant to even buy an EV in the first place, the questions can be critical.


Many of the EV-curious are not yet

convinced that an electric vehicle

is the answer for them personally.


Many do know that an “energy transition” (from fossil fuels to renewables) is desirable and necessary if society is to prevent global heating from getting even worse. And it’s happening. But many of the EV-curious are not yet convinced that an electric vehicle is the answer for them personally.

So, solving the charging issue may well be the key to getting drivers to give up their gas guzzlers and buy cleaner EVs.


Tesla easing up on charging station dominance

Just ask Elon Musk. His Tesla brand EVs broke the path for what is now a whole industry.

Tesla Supercharger stall in Roseville, California. Photo: GameSyns via Wikimedia Commons.

There may be many reasons for Tesla’s success in the United States (such as having a big presence in the battery industry).

But one of the biggest was Musk’s ability to convince potential buyers that they could charge their cars. He did this by building his own charging network — and convincing potential owners that it was good enough to support them.

Today, Tesla still has a dominant position in the EV market in the United States, with more than half the sales in the U.S. But it is slowly giving up its grip on the EV charging networks.

Of course, there are many more reasons for Tesla’s success than its charging network. The user experience is sexier in more ways than we will try to recount.

Whether Tesla’s network is good or not, it was pretty much the earliest, which made it almost the only one.

Moreover, Tesla’s charging stations for a long time only worked for Teslas — giving it an advantage against its competitors and slowing their entry into the market.



EV charger standardization ahead

If you want to evangelize and sell EVs nationwide, charging-system standardization and accessibility are key. It’s the cure for range anxiety.

If you are old enough to remember the start of video recording, you may remember that for years the industry was divided between VHS and Betamax formats. It didn’t really take off until Beta makers dropped out and VHS became the standard. Then there was Blockbuster (and then VHS was obsolete and all the Blockbuster stores closed).

Today, the EV charging market is at a similar inflection point.

Until recently, the Tesla EV charging plug was different than other charging plugs. In early 2024, Tesla and other makers adapted, and now many parts of the industry are converging on an omni-compatible standard. Just for plugs. They now have plug adapters. Except not for all makers.


Charger levels matter

There are three standard levels of EV charging systems — Levels 1, 2 and 3. The lithium batteries in EVs ultimately need direct current to charge. The car has a device that converts alternating current to DC.

Level 1 charging works from a standard household three-prong, 120-volt AC outlet at one end, with an adapter cord and plug at the other end. It’s pretty slow, giving a charge time of 22 to 40 hours.

Then there’s Level 2 — which can charge you up in two to 13 hours.

If you run a delivery business with many vehicles out during the day, you can park them in a garage overnight and recharge them. Great. This also works for EV drivers who commute daily or just use their vehicle to shop around town. Home charging systems typically run a thousand dollars or more. Overnight chargers use electricity less intensely because they spread it over a longer time.

But if you are driving a long distance between cities, you probably want something faster than that. That’s where Level 3 (“fast charging”) comes in.


Level 3 systems can charge you up in

15 to 90 minutes. That’s short enough

for a rest stop on a long highway journey.


Level 3 systems can charge you up in 15 to 90 minutes. That’s short enough for a rest stop on a long highway journey — giving you time to eat lunch, call home, go to the bathroom or shop for postcards and then be on your way.

Tesla’s cars and charging systems give you Level 3 right out of the box. Finding Level 3 for other cars may be more of a challenge.

But there’s a lot more to it than that. More types of plugs, more charging standards and more variables. More range anxiety.


It’s all about the software

If you thought you might be able to charge your car without paying somebody, we want to disillusion you gently. There have been, indeed, some snappy stories about free charging, but these are typically promotional devices.

Instead, there are apps that run on your very smart EV or on your smartphone. There is a bewildering array.

In your electric car, there is probably a large screen with many capabilities, usually networked into an application from your maker that maps out all the charging stations along your route. Mostly.

One problem is that these finder-mapper apps have to be updated adequately (which means constantly) because new charging stations are always being added.

There are other problems. You may get to your planned charging station and find out that it is not working and unusable. Or you may find that someone is using (or waiting to use) all the charging stations.

A network mapper-finder app that will give you this kind of real-time information is worth a lot and harder to find.


In the end, you pay

It may help to remember that the electricity that powers people’s EVs is not free. In fact, charging stations are a business model whose operators hope to make money.


Companies create charging ‘systems.’

Typically, they want to enroll you in

their system … and get your credit card.


Companies create charging “systems” that consist of fleets of charging stations and the app that guides you to them and takes your money. Typically, they want to enroll you in their system … and get your credit card.

Tesla, of course, still has a bigger and better system than the others in the United States. It still has the lead in the number of fast chargers, although other companies are steadily gaining.

Others include Electrify America, ChargePoint, FLO, EVgo, blink, etc. Some charger companies specialize in systems for fleets.


Are we there yet?

All this suggests that the vaunted free enterprise system is chugging along and doing better every day. But the U.S. government — at least under President Joe Biden — has a stake in EV charging, too. Current U.S. policy is to encourage the transition to EVs.

The Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the Inflation Reduction Act offer billions in financial aid for EV charging infrastructure. It’s hard to figure an exact number because some is in the form of tax incentives. This money has various constraints, usually: requirements for Buy America or distribution to underserved communities, for example.

The Biden administration has declared a goal of “building out a convenient, affordable, reliable and made-in-America national network of EV chargers, including at least 500,000 publicly available chargers by 2030.”

The tank, er, glass is either half-empty or half-full. According to CleanTechnica, there is already one fast-charging station for every 15 gas stations in the United States.

But, according to The Washington Post, “Biden’s $7.5 billion investment in EV charging has only produced 7 stations in two years.” That’s hardly fair. Biden’s goal is a network that includes both federally financed and private sector stations in the 500,000 he seeks by 2030.

Standardization is key to a large, functional, national charging network. Sometimes, some companies allegedly have resisted standardization to boost their competitive edge against rivals in the marketplace (looking at you, Apple).

Are we there yet? Even today, range anxiety is like a kid in the back seat.

[Editor’s Note: For more on electric vehicles, see our special Backgrounder on EVs for the “2024 Journalists’ Guide to Environment and Energy,” along with the TipSheet, “Burgeoning National EV Trend Helps Drive Local Environment, Climate Stories.” We have additional Backgrounders including “Carmakers Map Out Shifting Road Ahead” and “Does Climate’s Future Depend on Better Batteries?” and a Feature, “Is EV-Driven Demand for Lithium on Collision Course With Environment Concerns?” Plus, get up-to-date EV headlines from EJToday.]

Joseph A. Davis is a freelance writer/editor in Washington, D.C. who has been writing about the environment since 1976. He writes SEJournal Online's TipSheet, Reporter's Toolbox and Issue Backgrounder, and curates SEJ's weekday news headlines service EJToday and @EJTodayNews. Davis also directs SEJ's Freedom of Information Project and writes the WatchDog opinion column.

* From the weekly news magazine SEJournal Online, Vol. 9, No. 19. Content from each new issue of SEJournal Online is available to the public via the SEJournal Online main page. Subscribe to the e-newsletter here. And see past issues of the SEJournal archived here.

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