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Driving Change

Fed money starts flowing for EV charging

Here are five takeaways from the new grant program.

A public charging station in Bangkok, Thailand.

A public charging station in Bangkok, Thailand.

The U.S. government is kicking off its plan to spend billions of dollars building out hundreds of thousands of public electric vehicle chargers across America.

Last week, the Biden administration opened up applications for cities, states, tribes and other public entities to try to tap into the first round of $700 million in grant funding to deploy EV chargers, and other alternative fueling infrastructure, within communities and alongside highways. This first round of applications is due in a little over two months.

Ultimately the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, which passed last summer, aims to deploy $2.5 billion across five years to help install public EV chargers as well as hydrogen, natural gas and propane fueling networks. The Biden administration has a plan to help deploy 500,000 public EV chargers by 2030. 

While 80 percent of EV charging is commonly done at home, a lack of publicly available chargers is a barrier to the greater adoption of electric vehicles. Drivers need public EV chargers in order to travel long distances beyond the range of the battery, typically 300 miles in the U.S. Public chargers can also provide electricity for drivers who lack access to chargers at home. Renters and families in multi-tenant dwellings face challenges when trying to install or access residential EV chargers.

Currently there are only about 80,000 public level 2 chargers in the U.S., which can fill an EV battery in between 8 to 12 hours. Fewer than a quarter of those — or 17,000 — are DC fast chargers, which can charge an EV between 20 minutes and 1 hour. The Union of Concerned Scientists predicts that the U.S. will need between 170,000 to 330,000 public DC fast chargers and between 3.7 million and 6.2 million public and workplace level 2 chargers by 2035 if Americans will make the transition to 100 million electric vehicles. 

The federal grants for EV charging — called the Charging and Fueling Infrastructure Discretionary Grant Program, or CFI — are split into two buckets: funding for underserved communities and funding for "corridors," or regions that stretch along popular highways. Public entities, such as cities and states, can apply for both types of grants through one application, and awardees must match the grant with funding for 20 percent of the cost of the project. 

Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm said in a post on LinkedIn announcing the CFI program: "We know that access to chargers is a big concern for people considering making the jump to electric vehicles. This program is going to ensure that EV charging infrastructure is built to be equitable and available to drivers in every community and every state."

Here are five key takeaways from the new grant program:

Equity focused

The CFI Program is particularly focused on funding EV chargers in rural and low income communities and maintaining a lens of environmental justice. Its funds will adhere to Justice40, the White House’s initiative committing 40 percent of the benefits of certain federal programs to "flow to disadvantaged communities that are marginalized, underserved and overburdened by pollution."

CFI funding will also focus on communities with many multi-unit family homes and few private parking spots. Grants can be awarded for publicly accessible chargers to be installed at multi-unit dwellings. 

"The program is prioritizing the right groups," Sam Houston, senior vehicles analyst, Clean Transportation Program, Union of Concerned Scientists, told GreenBiz. "It will target gaps in accessibility."

Electrification Coalition Executive Director Ben Prochazka had similar thoughts in a statement: "This funding opportunity will dramatically increase the number of charging stations in communities that need them most." 

Level 2 chargers

Much of the CFI grants are meant to fund level 2 chargers, which charge EVs more slowly than the DC fast chargers, but they’re also much cheaper and more easily installed. 

Michael D. Farkas, CEO of Blink Charging Co. said in a statement that level 2 chargers, which his company makes, are at the community level "an essential and economical way to ensure equal access to all Americans."

Open standards

Charging industry groups such as CharIN applauded the release last month of the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure (NEVI) Standards and Requirements, which will govern the technical aspects of the EV charging projects eligible to receive the CFI grants. The NEVI standards specify to use a specific open standard for the charging connector, the interoperability of the communication system and the testing system.

The chair of CharIN North America, Oleg Logvinov, in a statement compared the importance of open standards for EV charging to the open standards that enabled the growth of WiFi and cell phones. "The exponential growth of EV adoption was just unlocked by these NEVI requirements."

Remain zero emissions focused

One underreported aspect of the CFI grants is that more than EV charging is eligible for funding. Projects planned for the deployment of natural gas, hydrogen and medium or heavy-duty vehicle propane fueling can also apply.

However, natural gas and propane are fossil fuels with associated carbon emissions, and hydrogen is most commonly made by using natural gas. Still, natural gas and propane have smaller carbon footprints than traditional diesel or gasoline.

At the same time, the CFI grants are highly focused on climate change and lowering greenhouse gas emissions, so it remains to be seen how much they will fund fossil fuel-based projects. 

Houston of the Union of Concerned Scientists said: "We want to emphasize that this infrastructure should be zero emissions. Infrastructure is relatively long lived and we want to avoid sinking more money into fuels that will not maintain zero emissions."

Application help

Many cities, states and communities that are relatively new to EV charging are likely to apply for these grants. A variety of nonprofit groups can help potential awardees. 

Oregon-based Forth, an electric transportation advocacy nonprofit, has raised funding from automaker GM to provide free help to CFI applicants.The Electrification Coalition offers a variety of resources for communities on its website.

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