TANSTAAFL (There Ain’t No Such Thing As A Free Lunch) is an established economic principle. In short, if a business or other organization is giving you something, you’ll probably end up paying for it sooner or later. It dates back to the once common practice of saloons offering people free lunch if they’d purchase at least one drink, but what the bar didn’t tell you was that the lunch was high in salt and other ingredients to make you thirsty. So, the lunch was free, but you end up paying for it as part of the price of the extra beer.
Even if you don’t pay for the free thing, somebody somewhere does. It may be other customers of the business today, and it may be you covering the cost another day, but someone covers it. Or, it could become what economists call an externality, or a cost that society ends up paying. Either way, someone pays.
It’s this sound principle that drives a recent bill in North Carolina, H1049. It aims to force businesses to disclose what the average cost is for each customer if the business offers free EV charging:
“Any person who is engaged in a business where electric vehicle charging stations are provided for use by the public at no charge shall ensure that each customer of the business, without regard to whether the customer uses the charging stations, is informed of, on the receipt for purchases, the percentage of the amount of the customer’s total purchase price that is a result of the business providing electric vehicle charging stations at no charge.”
The idea here is obviously to discourage businesses from offering free EV charging. When their customers who don’t own an EV see that it costs them something for those “rich people” to charge their cars, they’ll be mad about it and complain to the business. So, the business will have to either start charging for charging or they’ll have to shut the stations down.
What the bill doesn’t make clear is how they’d expect a business to calculate this. Unless a business can determine exactly how much business came in as a result of the free charging, it’s impossible for them to actually calculate the cost of free charging. It could be that they’re actually money ahead (which is likely), and that the cost to each customer is on average below zero, as the EV drivers are fully covering the cost. I’m sure that if this bill were to pass, there would be arguments over points like this in court, because it’s just not a very well thought out bill.
Even if there was a bulletproof way to make businesses lose face over this, it wouldn’t be hard for the business to bypass it by charging a penny annually for access to the chargers, and they could do it by an honor system or by putting a “tip jar” on the charging station for people to deposit their penny. Because it’s not longer technically free, the business would no longer have to worry about such a law.
The Bill Would Keep NCDOT From Offering Charging At All
While the bill doesn’t outright prohibit installing chargers on NCDOT property, or otherwise installed by NCDOT, it would make it basically impossible. Regardless of whether users are charged for the station, any location that has an EV charger also has to give away free gas and diesel fuel.
“Except as provided in G.S. 136-18.02, the Department of Transportation shall not use public funds to provide electric vehicle charging stations on property owned or leased by the State or to fund or install electric vehicle charging stations on property owned or leased by a person or entity unless the Department or the person or entity provides gasoline and diesel fuel for motor vehicles through a pump to the public at no charge.”
This puts all EV charging at a disadvantage, with free fuel for drivers of ICE cars even if EV drivers are paying for electricity. The real goal is obviously to get NCDOT to not install charging stations at all in places like rest areas.
The Bill Also Targets Local Governments
Anyone who’s taken any trips in an EV knows that it’s often a local government that hosts a charging station. The bill’s author also wants to target these government stations and keep them from offering free charging. Because local governments don’t have as many economic rights as businesses, they can get away with a lot more to make life hard in this case.
How? By prohibiting any public funds from going toward the installation of any charging station station where gasoline and diesel is not given away for free (like the NCDOT provision above):
“A county shall not use public funds to provide electric vehicle charging stations on property owned or leased by the county or to fund or install electric vehicle charging stations on property owned or leased by a person or entity unless the county or the person or entity provides gasoline or diesel fuel for motor vehicles through a pump to the public at no charge.”
There’s also a similar provision for cities, and it’s worded the same as the text above for counties.
Finally, this bill would appropriate $50,000 of state money for the removal of charging stations on any public property where gas and diesel isn’t free. This would obviously be a big waste of taxpayer funds.
Kneecapping Disguised As Equity
The truth is, governments give the public services all the time. Police and fire services are the obvious one. Parks, recreation facilities, and other things are often run by cities. Even roads, which can be very expensive to maintain come from municipal funds and drivers aren’t charged a toll every time they leave a driveway. To call out EV charging like this, and liken it to providing free gas or diesel makes little sense.
The reality is that this bill is designed to garner support from gullible people who think EV charging is expensive and doesn’t have larger benefits than costs, and then kneecap electric vehicles as much as possible.
Fortunately, this is just a bill, and hasn’t become a law. If you live in North Carolina, or if you frequently travel there, go to the bill’s page and let NC legislators know what you think of it. Let them know you can see through the illusion here. Hopefully we can stop them from playing these stupid games.
Featured image: a 2011 Nissan LEAF at a free municipal charging station. Image by Jennifer Sensiba.
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