Subsidizing EV Charging Instead Of Electric Cars?

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I recently came across an interesting idea on Twitter that I think deserves further exposure and discussion. “Elonardo Muskaprario” on Twitter (I’m reasonably sure this isn’t the user’s real name) proposes that we subsidize EV charging instead of the purchase of vehicles. In some ways, this idea makes a lot of sense, and would solve some real EV challenges. On the other hand, there are some potential shortcomings and ways to improve upon this idea.

But first, here’s the initial tweet, so you can check it out for yourself:

In the thread, he goes on to point out a big potential flaw in the way everyone reports on and thinks about the industry. At present, most commentators talk about “percentage of new vehicles that are EVs” or some similar metric, like percentage of cars on the road that are electric. While this does tell us a lot about the composition of the vehicle fleet, it doesn’t tell us as much about emissions as we’d like to think.

Most cars get driven very little, often under 50 miles per day, and we tend to think about these people as adding up to emissions issues. This is at least partially true, but the top few percent of drivers drive far more than the rest of us. Most Uber and Lyft drivers I’ve talked to go 300-400 miles daily in the metro area they live in. Many other types of commercial and business drivers (delivery, handyman, real estate, and many other professional services at all income levels) drive significantly more than the rest of us.

You’d think that Uber drivers would have mostly switched to electric vehicles by now, given the cost savings, but that’s mostly not true. Hybrids dominate the rideshare and taxi game these days. Time spent charging is time not making money, and the charging networks even for Tesla are still not quite good enough for many of these drivers. Having to go 20-30 minutes out of your way for a charge kills a lot of useful time.

That’s why focusing on charging with government incentives and subsidies makes a lot more sense. If half of drivers switch to EVs, but the top drivers racking up most of the miles driven are still burning gas, we haven’t done much to help the situation. Getting the top drivers to switch would have a great impact.

The opposite is also true. Drivers who drive only occasionally, having an EV that they only drive a few miles per day or week, doesn’t do as much to help improve the environmental situation. In fact, these drivers taking up 100 kWh of battery supply at a time, but only driving occasionally, can be a net negative.

If we focus on getting the percentage of miles traveled on electric up instead, this more directly correlates with actual environmental benefits.

Reasons This Makes Sense

The US government is already considering improving charging infrastructure, with a specific Biden Administration promise to push for 500,000 charging stations added in the next few years. This is great, and something we desperately need in the United States.

The Top Drivers Aren’t Incentivized To Switch

The price of charging at public stations presents a challenge to getting the top drivers to adopt EVs, though. For the average driver, 90% of EV charging happens at home where electricity is cheap and the car charges while they sleep. The use of DC fast charging networks (Tesla Supercharger, Electrify America, etc) is only there for the occasions where you need extra range or for occasional road trips. They cost as much as gas in most cases (sometimes more), but when they’re only used a small percentage of the time, it doesn’t matter much.

High mileage drivers regularly exceed an EV’s range, though, and it’s more complicated than that in most cases. For example, say you’re a driver who takes people home from the airport. You’d start the day charging at home, but many rideshare and taxi drivers don’t live in a single-family dwelling, so they can’t do that. For the sake of argument, let’s assume the rideshare driver does have a place to charge at home, and has 300 miles of range.

  • 20 miles to the airport
  • 20 miles out on the first trip, then 20 miles back (60 miles so far)
  • 6 more passengers, 20 miles out, 20 back to airport

There’s the 300 miles, but you can’t show up to the airport with less than 100 miles of range because you might get a long-haul passenger, so in reality, this only covers the drive to the airport plus 3 passengers, plus some range to spare for getting to the charger. If you add all this up, it works out to at least half of the miles being driven on DC fast charging, 200 miles at a time.

Bottom line: the people racking up the most miles aren’t switching to EVs because they’re paying gasoline prices for half or all of their miles, and they aren’t getting paid for the time they’re charging. It’s a lose-lose proposition.

Free Charging Solves The PHEV Dilemma For The Rest Of Us

In theory, plugin hybrids are better for the environment than EVs for the average driver. I know this sounds counterintuitive, but hear me out.

Battery supplies are limited, so manufacturers can make a choice: give every driver 100 kWh of batteries, or give 5 drivers 20 kWh each. In the 100 kWh EV scenario, there’s one driver not burning gas and 4 drivers still burning gas. Assuming 15,000 miles per year, at 25 miles per gallon, that means 600 gallons are burnt per driver, so in this scenario that means 2400 gallons are being burnt still. If 5 drivers get a PHEV, and charge it at home for 90% of their miles, only 300 gallons of gas gets burnt for the 5 drivers that year. If the remaining miles are hybrid, the actual gas burnt could be as little as 150-200 gallons burnt.

The winner, in theory, is clear, right?

The problem in the real world is that many people buy a PHEV to get some government incentive (tax credits, HOV lane access, etc), but then don’t bother to charge it every night. This situation turns out worse than hybrids, because the plugin hybrid’s heavy battery causes it to get worse mileage on gas. This nets a small environmental improvement over the regular gas burner, but proves to not actually help the environment nearly as much as the one EV driver who has no choice but to charge.

Providing free charging helps solve this issue. If a driver is faced with free charging or paying for gas, there’s a lot more incentive to charge the thing up every night.

Improving Upon The Idea

I’d improve on this in three ways.

First, we need to make sure DCFC stations that are put in are free to charge at. This helps the high-mileage drivers feel like it’s a good idea to buy an EV and charge up. The cost of gas for these drivers can be north of $600 per month, and saving that money makes it make financial sense to trade the Prius in for an EV.

Second, we need to find ways to extend this to home. Getting a free charge at home is what would make the PHEV option make a lot more sense, and would allow that to become a real part of the solution. To do this, the federal government could provide a home charging install and work with the electric company to discount the bill for the kilowatt-hours spent charging the car, or do this through a provider like Electrify America or Chargepoint.

Third, it needs to respect privacy. Nobody wants to tell the federal government how much they charge and where they’re charging. One way to keep this comfortable for people who value their privacy would be to do the reimbursement for miles or payment for miles through third parties, who submit their invoices for large batches of drivers instead of one driver at a time. This allows everyone to get the benefits without giving them even more data to abuse.

Can you think of more ways to improve upon this idea, or reasons you think it doesn’t work? Tell us about it in the comments below, or on Twitter!

Featured image by Electrify America.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1956 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba