The most exciting new electric vehicles aren’t sports or luxury cars. They’re off-roaders. But aside from a handful of short trails adjacent to major population centers, off-road travel remains largely inaccessible to EVs. That’s because our country lacks robust, widespread charging infrastructure. I talked to the Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm and Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, along with National Climate Advisor Ali Zaidi to find out what the Biden administration is doing to fix that.
Supporting electric overlanding isn’t just some ridiculously impractical demand I’m dreaming up.
“Americans buy cars for a use that may not be necessary or frequent, but they want that capability,” says Secretary Granholm. “I think people need to feel comfortable that they can charge during long distance travel.”
People who buy (or want to buy) electric trucks like the GMC Hummer EV, Rivian R1T and R1S, Ford F-150 Lightning, or Tesla Cybertruck may not need to use their full (and genuinely impressive) off-road abilities every day, but vehicles like these still sell on their ability to support camping trips and similar outdoor adventures. Without the infrastructure necessary to drive long distances on and off roads, consumers who want to participate in those activities can’t purchase EVs.
I know because I’m one of those people. I’d like to reduce my personal carbon footprint by switching away from internal combustion, but I live in Montana, a state that has only 80 total public charging stations. Relying on such a sparse network would severely curtail my ability to enjoy all the outdoor activities I’m helping to threaten by burning gasoline to get to them.
“EV drivers charge where they park, which is very convenient if you have a single family home with a garage, or if you work in an office that supports easily your ability to plug in,” explains Secretary Buttigieg. “But if you live in an apartment building, if you work in a rural area with fewer charging stations, or if you are routinely driving over longer distances, it’s not so easy.”
When President Biden took office in January, 2021, there were 96,143 public EV chargers in the United States, total. By the end of 2023, that number had reached 168,426. That’s a dramatic improvement, but it pales in comparison to the number of gas pumps, which is thought to be around 1.8 million
Granholm describes this as, “a chicken-and-egg-type situation,” and explains that EV adoption requires infrastructure, even in places that aren’t city centers or major highway routes. And that’s why the administration is today announcing $623 million in grant funding for EV charger construction in currently underserved areas. That money will build 7,500 new public charging ports across 22 states and Puerto Rico, and is part of $7.5 billion in funding for EV charging infrastructure included in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), which President Biden signed into law in 2021.
One of the states taking advantage of those grants is Maine, which is using $15 million of BIL money to construct 62 DC fast charging ports and 520 level 2 charging ports across over 70 towns and cities in the state. Since that’s federal money, every single one of those 582 chargers will be compliant with the Americans with Disabilities Act, and will remain functional and compliant with developing vehicle charging technology through National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Program oversight. That will be true of any project included in the grants.
On the other side of the country, Energy Northwest is receiving a $14.5 million grant to build 40 fast chargers in western Washington and northern Oregon. That area includes many popular destinations for outdoor recreation, and the investment will allow both visitors from nearby cities to travel there using their EVs, and residents who aren’t able to charge at home to purchase zero emissions vehicles. There’s 47 other projects elsewhere, funded just through this single round of grants, with more coming in the near future.
“We want to make sure all those gaps are filled by the federal government stepping in where the private sector is not yet inclined to go,” says Granholm. “You will now start to see those charging deserts be filled because of this program.”
All of this is part of President Biden’s goal of making 50 percent of new vehicle sales electric by 2030, and supporting them by building 500,000 EV charging stations by that time.
Granholm says we’re actually ahead of the curve in reaching that goal. The BIL’s $7.5 billion investment in EV infrastructure has enabled the private sector to announce more than $155 billion of its own spending.
“With the private sector combined with the federal government investments we expect that by 2030, we’re going to have a network of about 1.2 million public chargers,” the energy secretary tells Outside. “900 chargers per week are being installed. We’re on track to hit [500,000 chargers] by 2026.”
And all of that money is being spent in America, on American products and American workers.
“When the president took office, we barely had any capacity to manufacturer fast chargers here in the U.S.,” National Climate Advisor Ali Zaidi tells us. “Now we’ve got a line of sight to 26 factories across the country that will be able to manufacture these products. And when those chargers go into the ground, we’ve got the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers—good paying union jobs—being spurred in communities from coast to coast to do that work.”
Buttigieg also says that adoption of EVs themselves is advancing beyond the administration’s projections.
“The electric vehicle revolution ins’t coming, it is very much here,” the secretary of transportation says. “Just since President Biden took office, EV sales have more than quadrupled. 1.4 million were sold last year, representing about 9 percent of all vehicle sales.”
Buttigieg cites a study published by the University of Michigan last week that finds prices for EVs have fallen to within four percent of internal combustion engine (ICE) equivalents. “There’s been a remarkable drop in the prices that consumers face for EVs, and we believe we are fast approaching the point when EVs, on average, will be cheaper than ICE vehicle,” he says.
Want to see more chargers built in places you live, or want to visit? Put pressure on your state government. Granholm explains that BIL funding is being distributed to states through requests for proposal. “[We] put a funding opportunity out on the street and the states have to apply,” she explains.
And while a lot of those RFPs are coming from what Granholm says are, “states that are forward leaning on electrification,” both red and blue states are participating. The first EV infrastructure project funded by BIL was in Ohio.
“It’s citizens that are determining this,” concludes the energy secretary.