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Electric vehicles can rule the road—if charging stations keep pace

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As EVs get cheaper, and range increases, charging infrastructure has become one of the last barriers to widespread adoption, says new report

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For environmentalists and electric vehicle evangelists, it’s a mixed blessing. The technology powering the new generation of electric vehicles is moving so fast, that by 2025, EVs are on track to beat gasoline cars on price, without incentives or subsidies, according to From Gas to Grid: Building Charging Infrastructure to Power Electric Vehicle Demand, a new report by the Rocky Mountain Institute.

But the sector is also moving so fast—U.S. sales alone were up 36 percent in 2016—that without sustained national and local investment in charging infrastructure, the potential gains in emissions reductions and efficiency may be lost. It’s gone from “if” to “when” to “can we be ready in time.”

“Without a vigorous and sustained construction program of EV-charging infrastructure, the US is likely to see its vehicle electrification ambitions stifled,” says Chris Nelder, a manager in RMI’s mobility and electricity practices and the author of the new report.

The rapid growth in the market—by 2020, consumers will be able to choose from 39 models of plug-in electric hybrid vehicles and 44 models of EVs in North America—has gone beyond the chicken-and-egg situation where consumer purchases won’t grow without additional charging capacity and vice versa. EVs are already cheaper to refuel, in some cases cheaper to own, and with many models going 200 miles or more on a single charge, becoming a smart alternative to a conventional internal combustion engine (especially for city managers running large fleets).

Rocky Mountain Institute

Instead, the growth of EVs should be seen as a serious infrastructure challenge that should concern cities and utilities: the report says a reasonable prediction, based on current growth forecasts, would see 2.9 million EVs on the road within five years, which would generate roughly $1.5 billion in additional annual electricity sales (EV adoption is showing compound annual growth rates of 30–40% a year).

It should also be seen as a closed case, according to the report’s analysis of EV cost savings and benefits versus internal combustion engine vehicles:

“The evidence from this research and analysis shows that vehicle electrification provides benefits that are so numerous and overwhelmingly positive for the public that we should no longer doubt the value of it, or become distracted to the point of inaction by arguments about equitability and best practices. Even non-drivers will benefit from the drastically reduced air pollutants of vehicle exhaust, the lower total cost of maintaining mobility infrastructure, and synergistic effects that can put downward pressure on the price of all goods and services, including the price of electricity and climate change mitigation measures.”

The current state of EV charging infrastructure suggests the country needs to move fast. Right now, California, not surprisingly, has the most EVs of any U.S. state, a little shy of 300,000. But it also has the fewest number of chargers available per EV—only one public direct current fast charger (DCFC) per 196 EVs and one Level 2 charger per 27 EVs. Hawaii, Colorado, Texas, and Ohio all have similar ratios of EVs to charging stations, suggesting that anticipated growth may be stifled without investment. While local initiatives have accelerated, including New York City’s recent pledge to build 1,000 new charging stations by 2020, the report suggests a national effort will be required in addition to local strategies.

In addition to environmental gains and cost savings, the report makes the case that there’s a certain image advantage to states and municipalities taking the lead on charging infrastructure.

States that are ahead of the curve on EV integration will enjoy lower total transportation costs, lower emissions, and a more efficient grid, and will likely be perceived as more favorable business climates able to attract a high-quality labor pool seeking high-quality lifestyles.