It just won't happen: Biden's EV mandate relies on pure infrastructure fantasy

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If you pay, will they build it?

That’s one question the Biden administration should have asked itself regarding the electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure needed to accommodate the goal of an all-EV future.

One well-publicized infrastructure failure is public EV charging stations along U.S. highways, for which the Inflation Reduction Act allocated $7.5 billion. That federal largesse has resulted in just eight charging stations being built since the IRA was signed almost two years ago.

Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg has claimed the U.S. will need 500,000 such stations by 2030. To build the remaining 499,992 stations, we will need to build almost 90,000 of them annually — that’s almost 250 daily or more than 10 per hour — for the next five-and-a-half years.

Perhaps sensing the absurdity of this pace of construction, Buttigieg claimed that most people will charge their EVs at home. Maybe, but numerous states, including California and New York, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency, have decreed that all heavy trucks, which transport the bulk of our products, including the food we eat, must go electric, too. Thus, under the envisioned EV future, a lack of public charging stations will not be a mere inconvenience for holiday travelers. Indeed, it could be a matter of life and death.

The lack of public charging stations is just one aspect of the dearth of EV charging infrastructure that will be required. The secretary has also said that building charging stations is “more than just plunking a small device into the ground.” He’s right. There is a lot more involved, much of which is rarely discussed.

For example, even assuming we can build enough new generating capacity to produce the electricity those EVs will need, we will also need hundreds of thousands of miles of new transmission lines to deliver it. They will stretch not only to public charging stations along highways, but also to the local distribution utilities that provide electricity to homes and businesses. For context, only 500 miles of new transmission lines were completed in the U.S. in all of 2022.

To handle the increased loads from millions of EV chargers, the nation’s approximately 3,000 local electric utilities — which operate the poles and wires running down streets that deliver electricity to individual homes, apartments and businesses — will require major upgrades. That means millions of miles of local power lines will need rebuilding with higher-capacity wires. It will require replacing most of the estimated 60 to 80 million electrical transformers with larger and heavier ones. It will mean installing larger utility poles to handle the extra weight.

Thousands of new transformer lines will need to be built along U.S. highways to accommodate the electricity demand of the individual EV charging stations — each requires as much as a modern steel mill.

Transformers are perhaps the least understood infrastructure component of the electrical grid, but they are the most critical and the component most likely to hamper EV charging infrastructure development. Transformers adjust electricity voltage. At the plants that generate electricity, transformers increase the voltage so that electricity can be moved along transmission lines with minimal losses. At the customer end, transformers reduce voltage to levels needed for homes and businesses to operate lights, appliances and EV chargers.

Transformers, however, are in short supply — especially the large ones that public EV charging stations will require. Some utilities report waiting up to five years for these large transformers to be delivered, most of which are manufactured in Asia, raising a national security issue. The transformer shortage will be heightened by the Department of Energy’s requirement that new transformers use a new (and more costly) form of specialized electrical steel.  

Transformers also require copper. (So do EVs — almost four times more copper than conventional vehicles.) The U.S. already imports about 80 percent of its copper. The need for new transformers will require either vastly increasing domestic copper mining, which has been declining for years and is opposed by many environmentalists, or increased reliance on foreign suppliers. Either way, copper prices will increase.

Finally, electricians will be needed to install upgrades to homes and businesses, and linemen will be needed to build the new transmission lines and upgrade local distribution systems. These workers are already in short supply.

Perhaps EVs are the future of transportation. If so, consumers will adopt them by choice over time, and the necessary infrastructure will be developed in due course, just as it was for automobiles a century ago. But putting the mandated EV cart before the charging infrastructure horse is a prescription for an expensive policy that is doomed to fail.

Jonathan Lesser is a senior fellow with the National Center for Energy Analytics and author of the new report “Infrastructure Requirements for the Mass Adoption of Electric Vehicles.”

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