The dash for power: As electric vehicle sales surge, public charging stations in the U.S. lag

In California and New Jersey, there are more than 50 EVs for each available public charging station. As electric vehicles continue to gain market share, will there be enough charging stations?

Before a cross-country trip in her electric car, Nikki Gordon-Bloomfield does her homework.

She studies a pair of apps to determine the best places to recharge her Chevrolet Bolt's batteries along the way.

She likes stations that are clustered near others to make sure she has options in case one is on the blink. She prefers to charge near interesting restaurants. She'll call ahead on the route to order takeout meals, then picnic while the car soaks up electrons for the next leg of the journey.

Gordon-Bloomfield said the availability of public-use charging has vastly improved over the past decade as the network gets built out. But with so much recent interest in EVs, the question now is whether there will be enough to go around when hundreds of thousands of new EV converts get behind the wheel for their first road trips.

It could be a close call.

Installation costs are high and utilization overall is low. Business owners who take the plunge and install chargers have to hope that the EV drivers will eventually come.

EV proponents say, however, that far-sighted businesses are seeing the potential and don't want to be left behind. The effort is also getting a huge boost from the $7.5 billion that the Biden administration tucked into its infrastructure bill for up to 500,000 new chargers, including many in rural areas lack of a place to a power up could be more than an inconvenience.

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An EV turning point

The charger installation boom is a bet on the EV future.

After humping along for the past few years, EV sales are finally surging. They doubled last year compared to the previous year and dealers say they can’t get enough of them to meet demand. Their market share, which has been running at 4% of new car sales, is expected to continue to grow.

And despite ominous economic signs, there's no indication demand will soften. Nearly every major automaker – and some new startups – is promoting new long-range electric models with some reporting yearslong waiting lists.

General Motors promises its lineup will be composed of only zero-emission vehicles by 2035.

A man charging a Bolt at an EVgo charging station.

One expert says a massive installation wave is underway.

“Right now, it’s the wild, wild west,” said Loren McDonald of EVAdoption, which analyzes EV and charging trends.

So many new installations are going in, McDonald said, that he's concerned that EV drivers may get lost in the mix.

“Everyone is trying to get chargers in the ground but nobody has been focused on the customer experience,” such as whether they are maintained and not offline, he said.

Long waits

Tesla, which was early and has set a standard for interstate charging with its Supercharger network, has experienced the growing pains. 

Some Tesla owners have reported long waits at the automaker’s high-speed recharging locations. That's an ominous sign given that Tesla is leading the EV revolution. Seven out of 10 electric vehicles on the road are Teslas, Experian Automotive found.

Congestion issues, meanwhile, haven’t been as big a factor at other charging networks.

For the most part, there are enough chargers to go around as seen by low utilization rates, McDonald said. Many are being used as little as 5% of the time in a day – meaning only one or two charging sessions. Some locations, of course, are more popular than others.

Billions more for chargers

With sales of EVs expected to double every couple of years, 40 million EVs could be on the road by the end of 2030, McDonald forecasts. If enough public chargers aren't available, that could sour EV buyers.

To foster the move to EVs, the Department of Transportation is creating a network with the goal of having at least one charging station that can accommodate up to four EVs at a time every 50 miles along major highways. They would be required to be no more than a mile off the road.

At the same time, a host of private charging companies continue to install more stations in anticipation of the wave that’s coming.

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EV being plugged in ChargePoint chargers in store parking lot.

One, for instance, is Electrify America, created and funded by Volkswagen in the wake of a scandal in which it was caught in a scheme to cover up emissions from its diesel-powered cars. Electrify America says it is investing $2 billion to install 10,000 chargers in the U.S. and Canada over 10 years.

Another is ChargePoint, which says it has more than 174,000 chargers.

In seeking to grow, charging companies are forming alliances with automakers and seeking out roadside businesses that see charging as a way to pull new business from affluent EV-driving customers who will have more time to kill while the vehicles recharge.

So, for instance, ChargePoint recently signed a deal in which Volvo-branded chargers will be put at up to 15 Starbucks locations on a 1,350-mile route from Seattle to Denver.

ChargePoint is “really recasting what a road trip looks like and what it means to make a stop along the way to refuel,” said Colleen Jansen, the chief marketing officer. “We’re seeing all kinds of businesses that are expressing interest in charging solutions.”

It could be office complexes, hospitals, shopping centers or trucking companies or transit operators that want to electrify their fleets.

What's to become of gas stations?

Then there are gas stations, which would seem to have the most to lose in a transition to electric transportation. In the hopes of not being left out, they are searching for strategies to stay relevant at a time when just about any other roadside business becomes a rival for charging EVs.

The process has involved asking some tough questions, said Jeff Lenard, vice president of the NACS, a trade group that represents fuel station and convenience store operators. Among them:

  • Should charging stations be installed in the most desirable parking spots on the lot, or the least?
  • Is it wise to install canopies and offer food that could be delivered directly to cars while customers stay inside as they recharge?
  • Will drivers completely fill their cars' depleted batteries or treat them more like their cellphones, grabbing a little bit of charge over the course of a day whenever they can?

One of the bolder moves was undertaken in 2020 by Wawa, a Pennsylvania-based gas station and convenience store chain. It opened its first location without fuel pumps in Vienna, Virginia, in 2020. It offers electric recharging only. 

Wawa has also added Tesla Superchargers or other recharging units at more than 50 of its conventional fueling locations.

Evolving tech may doom the charger boom

For all the effort of trying to meet public-charger demand for new electric cars, much of the planning could fall victim to evolving charging technology.

With so many new EV models coming to market, makers are competing to offer longer range that would allow them to skip charging stations. Some are focusing on shortening charging times, meaning drivers would spend less time lingering for a meal or to shop at a roadside business. 

A person at a car charging station, about to plug the charger into their electric vehicle.

Mercedes-Benz, for instance, just touted its Vision EQXX prototype car for having achieved a range of more than 620 miles. Kia Motors boasts its EV6’s “ultra fast charging’ can go from a 10% charge to an 80% charge in 18 minutes. If revolutionary new battery technology shows up later this decade as has been predicted, charging times will fall further.

Advance planning can pay off

For now, EV drivers who want to avoid charging difficulties while driving cross country could learn a thing or two from Gordon-Bloomfield, who lives near Portland, Oregon, and is founder of a business that promotes electric cars and green technology called Transport Evolved.

A little advance planning can take the worries of running out of battery power on long-distance jaunts in an electric car. There are several apps that can help point the way. Gordon-Bloomfield said she likes Chargeway and A Better Routeplanner.

She says she will typically recharge her Chevrolet Bolt EV two or four times a day on long trips, usually about a half hour at a time, long enough to reach the 70% or 80% level. Charging speed tends to drop off after that, she said. "The newer the car," she said, "the faster it will charge."

She said she's only run her battery dry once, due to a charging station that was out of service. And she blamed herself for not having more carefully checked an app, in which case she would have discovered the station was offline.

There are so many charging stations cropping up on some corridors, particularly along the Eastern Seaboard and West Coast, that Gordon-Bloomfield said she doesn't have to scrutinize her routes along there as closely anymore. 

It's a testament to how far the charging network has come – "very different compared to 10 years ago," she added.

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