President Biden’s infrastructure bill provides nearly $5 billion over 5 years under the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Formula Program for states to build out a national electric vehicle charging network along designated Alternative Fuel Corridors – particularly along the Interstate Highway System – and another $2.5 billion for competitive grants. The irony, however, is that existing charging stations have a huge maintenance problem. One academic study found only 72.5 percent of 657 public fast chargers in the San Francisco Bay area were in working order. Drivers of electric cars and analysts said that the companies that install and maintain the stations need to do more to make sure those new chargers and the more than 120,000 that already exist are reliable. Problems include broken screens and software issues. Some stop working during the charging, while others never start in the first place or would not accept payment. In other cases, screens went blank, were not responsive or displayed error messages.
This is not a major problem today because most electric vehicle owners primarily charge at home, using public chargers far less than people with conventional cars use gas stations, unless the driver is in dire need of a charge away from home. And most battery-powered vehicles on the road today are made by Tesla, which has a proprietary charging network that analysts and drivers say tends to be reliable. But with EV sales growing, some of those cars will be bought by Americans who cannot refuel at home because they lack the ability to install a home charger, either living in apartments or in homes without garages or with street parking. For those who can afford the higher cost of EVs, broken public chargers will quickly put a damper on those sales if home charging is not available. Besides public charging, buyers are worried about how far an EV can be driven on a full charge, which can vary greatly depending on weather conditions (extreme heat or cold) or mission (such as towing).
Biden’s money supposedly comes with a requirement that chargers be functional 97 percent of the time and adhere to technical standards for communicating with vehicles. Fast charging stations are quite complex since charging batteries too rapidly can shorten their life significantly, and replacement costs are extraordinarily high. Stations must also have a minimum of four ports that can charge simultaneously and not be limited to any one automotive brand.
The following provides examples of the broken charging station problem and the frustration an EV driver encountered when his EV could not go the distance and the nearby charging stations were broken.
Examples of Broken Charging Stations
In the winter of 2020, Mr. Zuckerman was commuting about 150 miles each way to a job at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Because cold winter weather can reduce the driving range of electric cars, Mr. Zuckerman found himself needing a charge on the way home. He checked online and found a charging station, but when he pulled up to it, the machine was broken. Another across the street was also out. In desperation, Mr. Zuckerman went to a nearby gas station and persuaded a worker there to run an extension cord to his car. He sat there for two and a half hours in the freezing cold, getting enough charge so that he could get to the town of Lee, Massachusetts, and use another charger.
Last year an EV user in Maryland reported, that both fast chargers at Kenhill Center in Bowie, Maryland, were faulty, and another user indicated that both fast chargers at the District Court in Essex, Maryland, were inoperable. Lanny Hartmann of Columbia, Maryland, who drives both a Tesla Model S and a Think City EV, posted information on his state maintenance problems. “The issue of broken EV chargers is underreported, and not realized by people unless they are the EV drivers who depend on them. If you look at the utility-run stations here in Maryland, they are down far more than the companies say. One station in a community college parking lot was out for months. The chargers should have the same reliability as the electric grid the utilities maintain. As EV drivers, we’re disappointed when we see stations used as photo ops with the governor, then forgotten about.”
The Columbia Maryland driver may not be familiar with the increasing unreliability of the electrical grid, as intermittent wind and solar are mandated and subsidized into the system by federal, state and local governments. Biden’s new Climate and Tax bill will only exacerbate the grid problems.
A Truth About Cars reporter staying in a “swanky hotel in downtown Seattle” discovered that four of six of the hotel’s chargers were inoperative.
Many EV drivers are disturbed by the lack of maintenance at EV charging stations. Problems with existing EV charging stations include deferred maintenance, absent operators, decommissioned software, stickers over the operating/payment instructions and broken charging wands. While many drivers own Teslas that have their own charging networks, for Biden’s EV goal to be met, many more charging stations need to be built and made reliable through regular maintenance for EVs from other automakers. Today, many EV drivers charge at home, but that is not possible for folks who live in apartments or homes without garages. If EVs become more common, charging availability could be a significant problem for purchasers.