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The number of electrical car charging stations is rising, but does that mean wider adoption of electrical cars will follow?

Marketplace Contributor Dec 11, 2017
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A new electric vehicle charging station is seen near San Francisco city hall. Will the proliferation of charging stations lead to more electric cars in the West?
Justin Sullivan / Getty Images

A recent ribbon cutting in downtown Denver gave a snapshot of electric vehicle charging in the U.S.

The event, dubbed “Ride into the Future,” brought in several car companies with EVs for people to test drive around the block. There were electric bikes too. But, the real highlight was the unveiling of the first electric car fast charger in Denver’s LoDo neighborhood.

While there are already more than 150 charges citywide, Cindy Patton, who runs parking and mobility services for the City of Denver, said the new installation is a win against climate change. 

“Milestones like this celebration today really are benchmarks in that fight, in that pursuit,” she said.

But all the fuss is really to launch the equivalent of a single gas pump.

The American West is known for its wide open spaces. Those open spaces can make for some pretty epic road trips, unless, that is, you have an electric vehicle and you’re stuck hours away from a charge.

At the National Governor’s Association Energy Innovation Summit in Denver this fall, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper announced a plan to put electric vehicle charging stations along Interstate highways in seven Western states — as a way to combat this so-called “range anxiety.”

“We’re gonna start out at every 50 miles,” Hickenlooper said, “so that people, no matter where they’re driving can feel pretty comfortable that they’re not gonna run out of fuel, as it were.”

Officials expect the highway charging stations, dubbed the Intermountain West Electric Vehicle Corridor, to be up and running in three to five years.  

Sales of EVs are climbing and some forecasters predict half of the vehicles sold worldwide will be electric by 2040. But, in present day, a lack of charging stations is still holding back this transportation revolution.

“The whole network of user experience issues are something that continue to somewhat inhibit adoption, widespread adoption of electric vehicles,” said Sam Ori, executive director of the University of Chicago’s Energy Policy Institute.

The western charging network adds to an increasing list of efforts by governments and industry to improve EV infrastructure. Companies are producing faster chargers and entering into deals with the likes of grocery chains and hotels. Even oil giant Royal Dutch Shell recently announced a plan to install charging stations at its gas stations in the U.K.

While, of course, more chargers will help allay drivers’ range anxiety over time, Ori said it’s not the biggest factor holding back EV sales. Even if chargers were everywhere, gasoline vehicles are still just a better financial deal, especially with oil prices where they are now. Incentives already exist for buying electric cars in many states, yet Ori said without serious policy penalizing carbon emissions — like with higher gas taxes — EVs will remain at a disadvantage for a long time.

Until then, Ori said the EV market will be largely confined to those who care more about environmental action than whether or not they break even over the life of the vehicle. This includes himself. Ori owns an electric car, and said it wasn’t necessarily the best economic move.

“But, it wasn’t why I wanted to buy the car,” he said. “I wanted to drive it for different reasons, but I don’t think that is a pathway to mass adoption.”

Even if there are a lot more ribbon cuttings for new charging stations. 

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