This EV charger map shows how the climate change infrastructure problem

By Paul N. Edwards 5 minutes Read

Most of America’s 107,000 gas stations can fill multiple cars every 5 or 10 minutes at multiple pumps. This is not the case for electric vehicle chargers, at least not yet. Today, the United States has approximately 43,000 public charging stations for electric vehicles, with approximately 106,000 outlets. Each outlet can only charge one vehicle at a time, and even quick charging outlets take an hour to provide a charge of 180-240 miles; most take much longer.

The existing network is acceptable for many purposes. But the chargers are very unevenly distributed; nearly a third of all outlets are in California. This makes electric vehicles problematic for long trips, like the 550 miles of sparsely populated desert highway between Reno, Nevada and Salt Lake City. “Range anxiety” about longer trips is one reason electric vehicles still make up less than 1% of passenger cars and trucks in the United States.

This uneven and limited charging infrastructure is a major obstacle to the rapid electrification of the US vehicle fleet, considered crucial to reducing greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change.

It’s also a clear example of how climate change is an infrastructure problem – my specialty as a historian of climate science at Stanford University and editor of the “Infrastructure” book series.

For many decades, the United States has built transportation, heating, cooling, manufacturing, and agricultural systems that rely primarily on fossil fuels. The greenhouse gas emissions that these fossil fuels release when burned have raised the global temperature by about 1.1 degrees Celsius (2 degrees Fahrenheit), with serious consequences for human life and livelihoods. , as demonstrated by the recent report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

The new assessment, like its predecessor Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 ° C, shows that minimizing future climate change and its most damaging impacts will require a rapid move away from fossil fuels and shift to sources instead. renewable and sustainable energy, such as wind, solar and tidal energy.

It means reinventing the way people use energy: how they travel, what and where they build, how they make goods and how they grow food.

Gas stations were also transport infrastructure

Gasoline vehicles with internal combustion engines completely dominated American road transport for 120 years. It’s a long time for trail addiction to take hold, as America has put in place a nationwide system to support vehicles powered by fossil fuels.

Gas stations are just the ends of this massive system, which also includes oil wells, pipelines, tankers, refineries, and tankers – a full-fledged energy production and distribution infrastructure that also supplies manufacturing, agriculture, fuel oil, shipping, air travel, and power generation.

Without it, your average gas sedan wouldn’t get from Reno to Salt Lake City, either.

The burning of fossil fuels in the transportation sector is the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions responsible for climate change in the United States today. Converting to electric vehicles could significantly reduce these emissions. A recent lifecycle study found that in the United States, a 2021 battery-powered EV – charged from the current electricity grid – only creates about a third of the greenhouse gas emissions that a car makes. 2021 gasoline similar. These emissions will decrease even further as more electricity comes from renewable sources.

Despite higher upfront costs, today’s electric vehicles are actually less expensive than gasoline cars due to their greater fuel efficiency and far fewer moving parts. An EV owner can expect to save between $ 6,000 and $ 10,000 over the life of the car compared to a comparable conventional car. Big companies like UPS, FedEx, Amazon, and Walmart are already turning to electric delivery vehicles to save money on fuel and maintenance.

All of this will be good news for the climate, but only if the electricity to power electric vehicles comes from low-carbon sources such as solar, tidal, geothermal and wind power. (Nuclear is also low carbon, but expensive and politically problematic.) Given that our current electricity grid relies on fossil fuels for about 60% of its generating capacity, this is a tall order.

To achieve maximum climate benefits, the power grid will not only need to power all cars that once used fossil fuels. At the same time, it will also have to meet the growing demand for other transitions to fossil fuels, such as electric water heaters, heat pumps and stoves to replace the millions of similar devices currently running on fossil natural gas.

The infrastructure bill

Princeton University’s 2020 Net-Zero America Study estimates that engineering, building, and delivering a low-carbon grid that could replace most uses of fossil fuels would require an investment of around $ 600 billion by 2030.

The infrastructure bill currently being debated in Congress was originally designed to achieve this goal. It initially included $ 157 billion for electric vehicles and $ 82 billion for power grid upgrades. In addition, $ 363 billion in clean energy tax credits would have supported low-carbon electric power sources, as well as energy storage to provide backup power during times of high demand. or reduced production of renewable energies. During negotiations, however, the Senate completely ditched clean energy credits and cut EV funding by more than 90%.

Of the remaining $ 15 billion for electric vehicles, $ 2.5 billion would be used to purchase electric school buses, while an electric vehicle charging network project of some 500,000 stations would get $ 7.5 billion. dollars, or about half of the amount needed, according to Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm.

On the power grid, the infrastructure bill includes around $ 27 billion in direct financing and loans to improve grid reliability and climate resilience. It would also create a Grid Development Authority under the US Department of Energy, responsible for developing a national grid capable of moving renewable energy across the country.

The infrastructure bill may still be amended by the House before it reaches President Joe Biden’s office, but many things that have been dropped have been added to another bill heading for the House: the $ 3.5 trillion budget plan.

As agreed by Senate Democrats, this plan incorporates many of the Biden administration’s climate proposals, including tax credits for solar, wind and electric vehicles; a carbon tax on imports; and the requirements for utilities to increase the amount of renewable energy in their energy mix. Senators can approve the budget by a simple majority vote at “reconciliation”, although by then it will almost certainly have been cut again.

Overall, the bipartisan infrastructure bill looks like a small but real down payment on a more climate-friendly transport sector and electricity grid, which will take years to develop.

But to claim global leadership to avoid the worst potential effects of climate change, the United States will need at least the much larger commitment promised in the Democrats’ budget plan.

Like an electric car, this commitment will seem expensive at first. But as the recent IPCC report reminds us, in the long run, the potential savings resulting from avoided climate risks like droughts, floods, forest fires, deadly heat waves and sea level rise would be much more important.


Paul N. Edwards is a William J. Perry Fellow in International Security at the Center for International Security and Cooperation in Stanford University

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