James Challou, MJLST Staffer
Last week President Biden contributed to the already growing hype behind electric vehicles when he heralded them as the future of transportation. Biden touted that $7.5 billion from last year’s infrastructure law, Public Law 117-58, would be put toward installing electric vehicle charging stations across the United States. This mass rollout of electric vehicle chargers, broadly aimed to help the US meet its goal of being carbon neutral by 2050, constitutes an immediate effort by the Biden administration to tackle pollution in the sector responsible for the largest share of the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions: transportation. The administration’s short-term goal is to install half a million chargers by 2030. However, not all are as confident as President Biden that this movement will be efficacious.
The “Buy America” Obstacle
Despite President Biden’s enthusiasm for this commitment to funding widespread electric vehicle charging stations, many experts remain skeptical that supply can keep up with demand. Crucially, Public Law 117-58 contains a key constraint, dubbed the “Buy America” rule, that mandates federal infrastructure projects obtain at least 55% of construction materials, including iron and steel, from domestic sources and requires all manufacturing to be done in the U.S.
Although labor groups and steel manufacturers continue to push for these domestic sourcing rules to be enforced, other groups like automakers and state officials argue that a combination of inflation increasing the cost of domestic materials and limited domestic production may hamstring the push towards electric vehicle charging accessibility altogether. One state official stated, “A rushed transition to the new requirements will exacerbate delays and increase costs if EV charging equipment providers are forced to abruptly shift component sourcing to domestic suppliers, who in turn may struggle with availability due to limited quantities and high demand.”
Proponents of a slower implementation offer a slew of different solutions ranging from a temporary waiver of the Buy America rules until domestic production can sustain the current demand, to a waiver of the requirements for EV chargers altogether. The Federal Highway Administration, charged with oversight of the EV charger program, proposed an indeterminate transitional period waiver of the Buy America rules until the charger industry and states are prepared to comply with requirements.
Domestic Manufacturer Complications
Domestic manufacturers are similarly conflicted about the waiver of the Buy America rules, with some thinking they may not be able to meet growing demand. While many companies predict they can meet Buy America production requirements in the future, the Federal Highway Administration specified in its waiver proposal that a mere three manufacturers, all based in California, presently believe they have existing fast charger systems that comply with Buy America requirements.
Predictably, the waiver proposal is divisive amongst domestic manufacturers. Some companies are onboard with the waiver and requested even more flexibility. This includes automakers like Ford and General Motors, who say that a process of moving all supply chains to the US demands more time, particularly at the scale necessary to match the surge in federal funding. This is largely seen as the most stakeholder friendly move as it offers companies the opportunity to use the duration of the waiver to see if a clear competitive market materializes which in turn benefits stakeholders.
Contrarily, others have asked for the waiver period to be shortened to allow them to quickly recoup their investments into Buy America compliant manufacturing upgrades. Some companies are even more aggressive; they oppose the waiver altogether and argue that the waiver would disadvantage manufacturers that intentionally put money into meeting the Buy America requirements. These companies posit that domestic manufacturing provides immediate benefits like augmenting supply chain security and electric-vehicle cybersecurity and warn against dependency on foreign governments for electrical steel needs. They further add that the Buy America rule will fuel growth in the US market and create manufacturing jobs. Labor groups and some lawmakers have adopted this stance as one lawmaker from Ohio commented, “[f]ederal agencies should implement the new Buy America provisions as quickly as possible to give American companies the certainty they need to move forward with investments.”
Other Implementation Difficulties
The inclusion of the Buy America rule in this legislation is not the only aspect of the EV charging project that has generated considerable debate. Regional challenges pose more of an issue than originally anticipated. Although many states reported common potential hurdles like vandalism, range anxiety, supply chain, and electricity challenges, unique geographic problems have also arisen. For example, Nebraska reported in its plan that a shift to electric vehicles could decrease revenue collection from gas tax. Iowa aired out concerns about stations being hit by and damaged by snow plows. Michigan cited rodent damage as a potential concern. Finally, Oklahoma flagged political opposition to the chargers as a problem that could be both pervasive and fatal to the overall electric charging process.
Moreover, the law caught a substantial amount of flak for a curious decision to skip interstate rest stops when installing the EV charging stations. Although at first glance this would appear to be a pivotal oversight, it stems from a 1956 law that restricts commercial activity, in this case including electric car charging, at rest stops. The Federal Highway Administration, to alleviate these concerns, issued guidance that says electric vehicle chargers should be “as close to Interstate Highway Systems and highway corridors as possible” and generally no more than one mile from the exit. Furthermore, some of the older rest stops are excluded from the 1956 guidance. However, this is not enough to sate critics as many continue to fight for the 1956 law to be changed. They claim that the existence of the restriction drastically inconveniences drivers, planners, and vehicles while potentially creating a wealth disparity by forcing low-income families, who traditionally rely more on public rest areas, to avoid purchasing electric vehicles.
President Biden deserves to be lauded for his ambitious plan for electric vehicles which attempts to square combating the effects of climate change with preserving American manufacturing while simultaneously improving infrastructure. It is worth questioning whether the law would be more effective if it simply focused its efforts on one of these areas. As a commentator at the Cato Institute noted, “The goal of infrastructure spending should be better infrastructure — and if you’re trying to pursue policies to mitigate climate change, well that should be the overall goal … Anything that hinders that should be avoided.” Only time will reveal the answer to this question.