'Another radical idea': Rep. Levin calls for nationwide EV charging network

James David Dickson
The Detroit News

Royal Oak — Congressman Andy Levin held a town hall Sunday at Royal Oak Middle School before dozens of Metro Detroiters, and used the occasion to tout his bill that would create a nationwide infrastructure of electric vehicle charging stations.

With a global move toward electric vehicles, Levin's plan is to "establish a national network of electric vehicle charging stations."

U.S. Rep. Andy Levin holds a town hall meeting about the EV Freedom Act at Royal Oak Middle School in Royal Oak, Mich. on Mar. 1, 2020.

"I'm a Detroit guy from Berkley who grew up with cars all my life," Levin said at the start of the forum. "Does anybody, as a patriotic American, doubt we can do this?"

In a video that played to start the forum, Levin cited the inspiration of late President Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican whose "radical idea," to implement a nationwide highway system, allows people to "get from any point in the country to anywhere else."

“We have to transform our transportation system, and end our reliance on fossil fuels," Levin said in the video. 

The effort, he admits, would require the public and private sectors to work together. If it were to be established, Levin envisions a scenario where stores like Kroger and restaurants like Panera Bread would compete for the opportunity to host charging stations. 

U.S. Rep. Andy Levin holds a town hall meeting about the EV Freedom Act at Royal Oak Middle School in Royal Oak, Mich. on Mar. 1, 2020.

Levin, along with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, introduced the EV Freedom Act last month. 

More:Levin, Ocasio-Cortez bill would create national network of EV chargers

If passed as written, it would would direct the secretaries of Transportation and Energy to make a plan to create the network, submit that plan to Congress, and create the network within five years of passage.

After Levin introduced the bill, HR 5770, it was immediately referred to the committee on energy and commerce, as well as the committee on transportation and infrastructure. The next day, the transportation and infrastructure committee referred it to a subcommittee on highways and transit. 

While Ocasio-Cortez was a co-sponsor from the beginning, the seven other co-sponsors joined later, including Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit. The bill announcement touts endorsements from the United Automobile Workers, the Sierra Club, the Ecology Center, the League of Conservation Voters, and the Blue Green Alliance, among others. 

"The unified coalition behind this bill is made up of labor, climate and environmental justice groups that see both the urgency and potential of another radical idea," the statement continued. 

Said Ocasio-Cortez, in the statement: "Cars, above all else, have historically represented America's problem with dirty oil."

As of Sunday, the Congressional Budget Office cost estimate for the bill had not been received, according to the website for the U.S. Congress. 

The problem the bill is trying to address is that demand for charging stations will soon be massive, requiring anywhere between 343,000 and 447,000 plugs, at more than 100,000 charging stations, by 2050.

"Failure to expand access....will prevent the wider adoption of electric vehicles and, therefore, hinder progress towards a more sustainable transportation system," reads a portion of the six-page bill. 

If passed as written, the bill would establish a nationwide network of electric vehicle chargers along "eligible roads," or those on the National Highway System. 

More:Shift to electric vehicles will radically change auto factories

Levin's bill is an effort to create the charging infrastructure needed to allay concerns about "range anxiety," or the fear that a driver won't have charging resources necessary during long trips. 

In 2019, the UAW released a white paper called "Taking the high road: Strategies for a fair EV future," which evaluated the coming shift in the auto market, from 1% electric in the U.S. market, to projections as high as 10% electric globally by the mid-2020s, as government subsidize and companies invest in more energy-efficient, environmentally-friendly options.

More:Payne: UAW-GM fight exposes fears of an EV future

And while some consumers fear the electric trend may not catch on, and that costs are too high in the early going, by 2030 electric vehicles are expected to reach cost parity with their fuel-powered counterparts, according to the UAW paper. 

More:Opinion: Will electric vehicles ever become affordable?

As Quinton Perea, a team leader at GM Orion Assembly said in the study: "The industry is changing more in the next five years than the last 100 years."

Levin spent the first 40 minutes of the forum walking through the EV Freedom Act, other climate change-related legislation, and even the coronavirus, which killed its first American this weekend, in Washington state. 

Then Levin opened up the floor for questions. People asked about the constitutionality of the U.S. Selective Service, the rise of Tesla in the electric vehicle market, the safety of nuclear energy, and, in the case of one middle-aged man, what a classic car lover would have to do if and when the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energies were to take place during his lifespan.

“That is a Detroit question! That’s us! That’s who are are!” Levin said. "I don’t think we’re going to be around when there’s no gasoline left. Even in the best circumstance, there’ll be some of it around for decades."

Mary Beth MacDonald said after the forum that range anxiety — the fear that an electric vehicle owner wouldn't have ready access to charging resources on a long trip — is holding back demand. 

"If you want to drive to Chicago for the weekend, if you can't find a charging station along the way, and you don't think you're gonna make it, you're gonna seek out a gas powered vehicle instead," said MacDonald, 54, of Bloomfield Township. "It is crucial to have that infrastructure in place."

A boy from Ferndale asked Levin if he thought President Donald Trump would be amenable to tackle climate change. 

The room chuckled politely.

“Personally, I don’t," Levin said. "I think we’re going to have to get a new president if we’re going to tackle climate change. Trump's been pretty straightforward on this. He doesn’t like EVs. He doesn’t like solar and wind energy. He thinks climate change is a hoax. I don’t think he would support this.”