For climate campaigners, California is a conundrum. It has the lowest carbon emissions per household of any state, but also hosts America’s largest gas-guzzling car culture. Transportation accounts for 40 percent (and rising) of the state’s total emissions. Californians own half of all electric vehicles in the U.S., but they also buy more cars overall than any other state — almost twice as many every year as Texas — and just 8 percent of them are EVs.
That’s what Gov. Gavin Newsom aimed to change with an executive order in September. Newsom mandated that no new gas-powered cars will be sold in the state past 2035. But the order had nothing specific to say about the problem of EV infrastructure, just that we need more of it. (Duh!) While it has more public EV charging stations than any other state (nearly 27,000), California only has the fifth highest number of chargers per person — behind Vermont, Hawaii, Oregon and Colorado, and only slightly ahead of South Dakota. Way more charging stations, 35,000, are in private buildings.
Every EV owner in California, myself included, knows the problem this causes. Unless you’re wealthy enough to own a Tesla — which has its own private network of supercharging stations — you’ve likely experienced some form of range anxiety. Charger locating apps like ChargePoint and PlugShare do their best, but much of their information is unreliable. Too many “public” chargers are stuck in expensive parking garages, or out of service, or being hogged by some jerk in a fully-charged Tesla (which can be set to blare an alarm if unplugged).
In 2018, Newsom’s predecessor, Jerry Brown, required installation of 250,000 public charging stations by 2025. A February 2020 report from California’s Public Utilities Commission warns we’re not going to hit that goal. “EV adoption today is limited in large part by insufficient charging infrastructure,” the report says.
No kidding. And the problem is going to get worse in a widening wildfire season. Take this story of a Chevy Bolt owner who had to evacuate his home during a 2019 wildfire, couldn’t find a public charger anywhere, and was only saved by a Bolt group on Facebook when he had six miles left in his battery.
But there’s a solution available in plain sight — the same one that makes life in the Golden State so easy for gas guzzlers. California already has a network of more than 10,000 gas stations. They are spread out, not concentrated in cities like charging stations. They are clearly signposted from every freeway exit and easily found on mapping apps. And perhaps most importantly, they have an economic incentive to attract customers who will spend money in their convenience stores.
California should mandate and subsidize every gas station in the state providing at least one electric charging spot for free.
Alongside its mission to provide more charging station locations, therefore, California should mandate and subsidize every gas station in the state providing at least one electric charging spot for free.
Such a move would be bold, but not unprecedented. Germany did the same thing earlier this year. As part of a $146 billion economic stimulus package, all of Germany’s 14,000 petrol stations will be required to provide chargers. The stimulus also provides a significant investment in battery technology and fast charging options, but the gas station measure is seen as an important stopgap that will encourage Germans to buy EVs right now.
Gas station owners, facing the long-term extinction of their main business, are starting to think along the same lines. Chevron has partnered with charging company EVGo on a pilot program in Northern California and Los Angeles, even though the numbers are pitifully small (five stations so far). Shell started to roll out charging stations in the UK and the Netherlands in 2019. That same year, a gas station owner in Maryland made national headlines by becoming the first in the U.S. to replace all his gas pumps with electric chargers.
To be clear, we should not only put chargers in gas stations. A national electric charging network along America’s Interstates, as envisaged in this House bill co-sponsored by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, should put charging stations in all currently existing Interstate rest stops (of which California has 88). Malls, old and new, can play their part. That report by California’s PUC says the state is targeting “plazas” near apartment buildings that don’t have their own charging stations: “We are testing whether a more gas station-like approach could serve the needs of those customers,” the report says.
It certainly could, and hopefully will. But a “gas station-like approach” that includes, y’know, actual gas stations would be even more effective. Sure, it’s nice to have a whole heap of shops to browse while you wait for your car to charge. It’s even nicer to place chargers outside libraries, as is the case with the nearest EV station to my house; that would encourage more of us to make use of the vital library resources our taxes are paying for anyway.
But let’s get real: Not everyone has easy access to malls or libraries, which tend to cluster in wealthier cities and suburbs. As a Sacramento Bee analysis of U.S. Department of Energy data shows, California zip codes where the median household income is over $100,000 have 115 charging stations per 100,000 residents. And zip codes where the median income is below $50,000? They get 55 stations per 100,000 people. You’d be especially hard-pressed to find a charger in California’s poorer central valley. No wonder the Bee found rural Californians shaking their heads at Newsom’s executive order.
Everyone with a car, however, knows where their nearest gas station is. Thanks to a century-old auto culture, these structures are already placed in optimal positions to prevent range anxiety for internal combustion engine users. Yes, they’re less exciting than malls. But we live in an age where endless entertainment is as close as that smartphone on your dashboard, and you don’t always need to charge your EV all the way. By the time you stretch your legs, grab a snack, grab a nap and watch a sitcom, even the slowest-charging car on the longest trip should have enough juice to make it through the next segment of the journey, where there will always be another gas station.
Besides, this is a case of “if you build it, they will come.” Not only will battery tech and fast-charging improve exponentially as more people adopt EVs, but gas station forecourts become places where people hang out while their cars charge instead of passing through for a few minutes. Simple economics suggests the area around them will start to offer more goods and services. You can picture each gas station hosting a different food truck, for example — not quite the taco truck on every corner we were promised in 2016, but close.
Most importantly, EV charging at gas stations would send a strong signal to every resident of the world’s most automotive state: The days of gas guzzling are over. There’s a new fueling system in town. Next time you buy a car, you’d best get on board while state and federal tax credits are a thing. (The California credit has limited funds; the federal credit has already expired for certain brands of EV; to get more income brackets into this brave new electric car world, we’re going to need more subsidies.)
It also sends a message to other states who tend to follow California’s lead on regulations. Gavin Newsom has made a good start with his EV order; now he needs to follow through. One simple tweak to the law could put this environment-loving, carbon-spewing state in the driver’s seat of the climate revolution.