Dems push fed investment in EV infrastructure but GOP's not on board
Washington — Rep. Andy Levin, D-Bloomfield Township, and New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez re-introduced legislation Wednesday that seeks to build a nationwide electric vehicle charging network within five years.
The renewed effort came the same day that a House subcommittee met to discuss the electric vehicle provisions of a climate bill that would seek dramatic emissions reductions, during which Republicans — including Michigan Rep. Fred Upton of St. Joseph — argued against tilting the market scales in favor of electric vehicles.
The contrasting priorities are a window into the coming battle in Congress as Democrats with razor-thin majorities attempt to pass legislation that would carry out President Joe Biden's priorities to spur transportation electrification.
Biden has promised to roll out half-a-million new public charging stations nationwide at the cost of at least $15 billion in federal investment. The bill, dubbed the EV Freedom Act, is what's needed to make "Biden's request a reality," Levin said.
"This network needs to be in place. Friends, we are not messing around," he told reporters Wednesday. "We are talking about something that's comprehensive, national, up to the scope of saving our planet from the way we've been frying it in the industrial revolution, and doing it in a way that's fully just."
There are just under 103,000 electric vehicle charging outlets in the country, according to the Department of Energy, and experts have estimated it will cost $50 billion to $60 billion to reach the president's goal. Industry analysts have also found that range anxiety — concern that they wouldn't be able to go longer distances in an EV — is one of the main barriers to people buying electric vehicles.
The bill directs the Departments of Transportation and Energy to create a plan to build a network of public electric vehicle charging stations placed far enough apart to allow drivers to go anywhere in the country without their battery running out.
The plan would be due to Congress within one year of the bill passing. A funding plan would be due two years after passing and the plan would have to be completed five years afterward.
At least half of the funding made available through the program would be required to go to vulnerable communities, and grant recipients would be required to pay at least prevailing wage. Priority would go to projects in "frontline, vulnerable and disadvantaged communities" and to projects that hire workers trained in EV charger installation by labor organizations.
The Department of Transportation would be able to set minimum charging speed requirements every two years based on the best available technology. Levin told The News the bill seeks to enable high-speed charging "as we look toward a future where you can charge your vehicle in the time it takes to fill up your gas tank."
Current charging speeds are far from that: The fastest and most expensive chargers can bring an EV battery up to around 80% in less than an hour. The second-fastest and most common charger does the same thing over the course of several hours and is most frequently used by EV drivers overnight.
Experts say ready access to both types of chargers, placed in locations that fit easily into people's lives, would be needed to prompt widespread EV adoption.
"It's not about waiting for markets, because it's not necessarily in anybody's economic interest to provide that charging capacity right now. But it can unleash the automakers ... to sell all those EVs if we provide high-speed chargers throughout the national highway system," Levin said. The goal, he said, is to push down prices and make EVs more accessible to low- and middle-income consumers.
"Getting to mass production is everything, and this is exactly the role of public policy."
As Levin and Ocasio-Cortez announced their plan, their House colleagues in an Energy and Commerce subcommittee were discussing another multi-billion-dollar effort to spur electric vehicle adoption.
The CLEAN Future Act, congressional Democrats' marquee climate bill, would set a national target for 50% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by 2030 and a net-zero emission economy by 2050.
It includes billions to be spent over the next 10 years to spur the electrification of U.S. transportation, including $100 million annually on electric vehicle charging equipment, $96 million annually for charging equipment in underserved communities, and $4.5 billion annually for other electrification projects.
It would also appropriate $2.5 billion annually to accelerate EV part manufacturing (including batteries) and would set minimum requirements for electric vehicles in the federal fleet.
That's going too far too fast, Republicans on the committee argued.
The bill "contains billions of dollars in subsidies and mandates in an attempt to push electric vehicles on the American public, whether they are ready for them or not," said Upton, ranking member of the Energy subcommittee.
"I have concerns that the CLEAN Future Act puts the cart before the horse by mandating electric vehicles, because there is no consideration for American workers or car buyers, our growing reliance on China for critical materials and minerals to make batteries, and certainly the strain that EVs will place on our grid."
Michigan automakers are "hard at work" building electric vehicles, he said. "We need to let the market and consumer choice drive the adoption of EVs."
Policymakers should work on securing the electric vehicle supply chain in order to support their market expansion, he argued, adding that if that doesn't happen first, the U.S. will only become more reliant on China. Democrats have argued waiting for consumers to adopt EVs on their own would cede the growing market to China, which already dominates production and sales.
Other Republicans echoed Upton's concerns, also arguing that the cost of rolling out charging stations would be borne by utility customers, disproportionately affecting low-income people and rural residents who may not want or be able to afford an EV themselves.
Ocasio-Cortez responded to that critique directly Wednesday, arguing her and Levin's bill directs funding at infrastructure accessible to low-income and rural Americans.
The contrasting narratives illustrate the wide divide as Democrats in Congress attempt to pass their EV priorities.
Democrats have a six-vote advantage in the U.S. House and a one-vote advantage in the Senate, forcing bipartisan compromise or continued use of the reconciliation process — a rare procedural move that allows the majority in Congress to pass budgetary legislation without securing the 60 votes needed to overcome a Senate filibuster.
Democrats used reconciliation to pass a coronavirus relief package earlier this year, though Biden has said he hopes to find a bipartisan path forward on jobs and infrastructure.