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The $400 million federal push to steer Texas drivers toward an electric future

Experts are weighing how best to build $400 million in vehicle charging stations in a way that could spur more Texans to ditch their gas-guzzling trucks and SUVs.

The U.S. has never been more serious about transitioning to clean energy on roadways. But is Texas serious about it?

A Biden administration plan aims to shift 50% of passenger vehicle sales in the U.S. to electric vehicles by 2030, rather than cars and trucks running on fossil fuels. To accomplish this, the administration has pushed legislation providing a slew of tax credits for EV purchases as well as funding for infrastructure.

It’s an ambitious plan — the success of which will depend partly upon the buildout of a $7.5 billion nationwide network of charging stations with funding from the recent infrastructure bill passed by Congress.

Texas will receive $408 million of that funding for charging stations, and could apply for additional grants from a $2.5 billion pool. Experts see additional, faster-charging stations placed strategically around the state as a way to persuade more consumers to buy electric.

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, about 80% of electric vehicle charging happens when the car is parked at home and plugged in at night.

Still, one of the biggest perceived roadblocks for consumers considering the shift is something called “range anxiety.” It’s a term used to describe the fear of setting off on a trip only to be stranded with a dead vehicle and nowhere to charge it.

In Texas, reaching U.S. goals will mean overcoming anxieties and getting millions more electric vehicles on the road.

‘A classic economic paradox’

California leads the nation in EV adoption, followed by Florida and Texas. The states with the most EVs on the road also happen to be the country’s most populous.

Texas had 52,190 electric vehicles registered by the end of June 2021, according to the latest data from the U.S. Department of Energy. That’s fewer than 1% of the 22 million total vehicles registered in the state, according to data from the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles.

The state needs more than 14,000 charging stations to support the number of electric vehicles projected to be on roads by 2030, according to a 2018 report from environmental research nonprofit Environment Texas.

Whether that estimate holds true for Texas in coming years is dependent on how fast adoption grows — especially considering the switchover to electric is happening faster than previously anticipated, said Tom “Smitty” Smith, executive director of the Texas Electric Transportation Resource Alliance.

Smith was active in crafting policy during Texas’ renewable energy boom in the 1990s and early 2000s. His nonprofit organization TxETRA brings together private business leaders, public utility companies, academics, automakers and EV owners pushing for sustainable transportation policies.

And the appetite for development among private businesses is growing as battery technology becomes cheaper, and more electric vehicle models are announced by automakers and emerging startups almost monthly.

Texas recently received an infusion of funding for charging infrastructure, and experts say it was awarded rapidly, underscoring market demand for fast charging solutions.

The fallout from Volkswagen’s emissions scandal resulted in a settlement that included $30 million for Texas to put toward mitigating the environmental impact of vehicle emissions statewide. That included funding for electric vehicle charging stations, according to the North Central Texas Council of Governments.

The money set aside specifically for direct current fast chargers, which can power an EV battery from 0% to 80% in 45 minutes, was committed in less than seven hours after offering the funding, NCTCOG DFW Clean Cities coordinator Lori Clark said.

Applicants for that funding included Austin-based Tesla, Irving-based 7-Eleven, Buc-ee’s and others.

“We’re looking at 10-times that amount of money coming to the state to be spent over a course of five years,” Clark said.

Still, the federal money is anticipated to cover just 15% of the country’s anticipated charging needs by 2030, making it all the more important that stations are built where they can have the most impact, experts said.

Smith’s organization TxETRA has been pushing for new charging station development in areas with low-income residents as well as in apartment complexes and rural areas generally.

Densely populated Texas metros are already becoming saturated with charging stations. D-FW has the most charging stations compared to any other metro in Texas at more than 1,300, according to charging station finder PlugShare.

“It’s a classic economic paradox. Until there’s enough demand, private capital is not going to invest,” Smith said, referring to the history of unequal broadband internet development in rural areas as one example.

The Texas Department of Transportation is expected to develop a plan for use of the federal EV charging funding.

“With our state’s population booming, funding for transportation is as vital as ever,“ TxDOT spokesman Bob Kaufman said in a statement to The Dallas Morning News.

The infrastructure bill passed by Congress will help address transportation needs in Texas as the state could receive nearly $1 billion per year of additional funding for project development, construction and improvements to our roads and bridges over the next five years.”

Shifting public perception

Roughly 7% of Americans report owning an electric or hybrid vehicle today. In Dallas, Tarrant, Collin and Denton counties this year, leading EV maker Tesla has sold 5,769 vehicles through Oct. 31, according to the Freeman Metroplex Recap. That represented about 3.5% of all cars sold locally through 10 months.

In a Pew Research survey, just 39% of Americans said they’re considering an electric vehicle for their next car purchase.

“We’re talking about a technology that works really well and that costs less to own over time,” said Clark, who owns a Toyota Prius.

American adoption of electric vehicles is expected to continue climbing as infrastructure is built out and tax breaks help alleviate the cost of buying an EV. There is a rough correlation between the areas in Texas with the most EV charging stations and those with the highest rates of EV ownership, she said.

Clark, however, still sees other hurdles in Texas that don’t have to do with so-called range anxiety.

In particular, Clark thinks consumers across the state will need to reframe how they think about electricity in similar terms to how they think about their relationship with conventional fuels.

“There’s nothing necessarily patriotic about driving vehicles that use fuel that was dug out of the ground in another part of the world,” Clark said. “In Texas, we make our own electricity. What’s more Texan than driving an electric car when you make your own electricity?”

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