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EVs could save the climate, so what's the holdup? Anxiety about where to plug in, for one thing

A row of Electric Vehicle chargers are nearly ready to ship from EVSE LLC to cities across the United States. EVSE is an electric vehicle charger manufacturer based in Enfield, Connecticut. Recent federal investments have ramped up demand for EV charging services. December 13, 2023.
Dave Wurtzel
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Connecticut Public
A row of Electric Vehicle chargers are nearly ready to ship from EVSE LLC to cities across the United States. EVSE is an electric vehicle charger manufacturer based in Enfield, Connecticut. Recent federal investments have ramped up demand for EV charging services. December 13, 2023.

Forty-five years ago, the Iranian Revolution had cratered the global oil market, setting off a national gas shortage.

In Connecticut, residents were allowed to buy gas only on certain days and special 24-hour hotlines were set up to answer questions. Tourism suffered. School officials feared students would be forced to walk to class as school bus tanks ran dry.

Gasoline anxiety was high. So Ella Grasso, Connecticut’s governor, announced it was time for her to try something new: For a week, Grasso would drive an electric car.

Electric vehicles may seem like a new idea, but the technology has been around for more than a century. For decades now, EVs have seemed like the next big thing, a way to cut ties with planet-warming fossil fuels subject to the whims of international markets.

But the road to building out a reliable charging network has been bumpy.

In 1979, Grasso was taught how to drive the boxy-looking EV from General Electric, according to the Hartford Courant. (So were her husband and state trooper chauffeurs.) The governor said she’d take the EV to and from work each day.

“This trial period will give me the opportunity to test the effectiveness of the electric car as a means of saving gasoline,” Grasso said in a statement.

For a week in 1979, Connecticut governor Ella Grasso drove a fully electric General Electric Centennial (above) to and from work each day.
Library of Congress
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Library of Congress
For a week in 1979, Connecticut governor Ella Grasso drove a fully electric General Electric Centennial (above) to and from work each day.

The car, called the “Centennial Electric,” was even featured in a promotional video from GE in the late ‘70s. In it, the EV putts along on a racetrack as gas cars whiz past.

Connecticut racing legend Sam Posey pointed out what makes the car unique.

“You see, when I roll this car into the pits, they don’t gas it up like other cars, they plug it in,” he explains.

For EVs, that plug has been both a blessing and a curse.

No tailpipe means cleaner, less-fussy engines. But no gas also brings with it a persistent psychological hurdle for many consumers: anxiety about where to charge up.

While Grasso’s EV had a highway range of up to 75 miles, batteries in EVs today can do more than four times that.

Still, “range anxiety” persists. Nationwide, a lack of reliable charging has some potential buyers concerned about the ability to take long trips, pulling the plug on an EV purchase.

“It's that presence of public charging that seems to be a sticking point for a lot of people,” says Nick Nigro, founder of Atlas Public Policy, a climate research firm.

“They just don't see as many chargers out there as they see gas stations, so it’s hard for them to feel confident,” Nigro added. “But the reality is there are chargers nearly everywhere at this point and most people could be accommodated by the charging that’s even present today.”

Feds dump billions into EV chargers

But if you can’t charge an EV at home, or take a lot of road trips where you’d have to plug into a public charging station, America’s lack of widespread, functional charging infrastructure is still a concern.

The federal government is trying to change that.

Nationwide, the Biden administration is spending billions to build out a reliable charging network. Tens of millions of those dollars are coming to Connecticut.

On a sunny afternoon near the Barkhamsted Town Hall in northwest Connecticut, First Selectman Nick Lukiwsky walks through the parking lot. Gas cars idle by a nearby traffic light. Soon, this spot could be an oasis for EVs.

“It’s modernizing,” Lukiwsky says. And it gives “an opportunity for our residents and our visitors that have electric vehicles – a place to charge.”

Barkhamsted was among several Connecticut towns recently awarded a $15 million federal grant to install EV chargers. Lukiwsky says Barkhamsted, a hot-spot for nature lovers, is a charging desert.

In California, where adoption of electric vehicles has outpaced most states, Electrify America, has opened an indoor DC Fast charging station.
Provided
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Electrify America
Millions of federal dollars coming to Connecticut to build out electric vehicle charging could be used to build stations to those in California (above), where adoption of electric vehicles has outpaced most states

“We are pretty rural,” he says, “and we have a lot of people who come through town here for fly fishing and for our parks.”

The hope is for two dual-port EV chargers to be built in this parking lot. Lukiwsky says there’s a future for EVs, but acknowledges it’s taking a while for those chargers to get built.

“Maybe it's my inexperience as a politician here in Connecticut, but I expected a follow up from the state pretty quickly,” Lukiwsky says.

In a statement, Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection said it hopes to start soliciting bids for this EV charger project this year. Another state project using federal money to install fast-chargers on highways likely won’t get built until 2025.

A sense of urgency

Nigro, with the climate policy research firm, says there’s a reason it takes a while.

“Modern transportation programs have a lot of steps you have to go through in order to ensure the public dollars are being spent well,” he says. “That takes time.”

Meanwhile, Connecticut’s air quality is only getting worse. A new report says state greenhouse gas emissions are going up and transportation is the biggest polluter.

“The sooner we can get more EVs on the road, the better it is for the climate,” Nigro says. “You’re going to emit fewer greenhouse gas emissions than a comparable conventional vehicle.”

And while the paperwork may move slowly, there’s a sense of urgency, Nigro says.

“We know it's going to take a long time, we know it's going to cost a lot of money, but it's going to be significantly less costly than the alternative, which is to stick with fossil fuels,” he says.

CT company sees opportunity in EV charging

Daniel Shanahan Recent federal investments have ramped up demand for EV charging services. EVSE LLC is an Electric Vehicle charger manufacturer based in Enfield, Connecticut. December 13, 2023.
Dave Wurtzel
/
Connecticut Public
Daniel Shanahan of EVSE, an Electric Vehicle charger manufacturer based in Enfield, Connecticut, says his company sends out hundreds of chargers each month.

In Enfield, Dan Shanahan walks across the factory floor of Control Module, which runs EVSE. The company makes EV chargers. Shanahan, a sales director for the company, greets workers fiddling with wires and other machines.

Surrounding him are the kind of EV chargers you’d see in a parking lot. Shanahan says the company sends out hundreds of these, and other chargers, each month.

“Right now, there's obviously a lot of activity here, with our electric vehicle charging stations,” he says.

Chargers are lined up, ready to be shipped. Nearby, a ceiling-mounted machine drops a charging cable to the floor. It’s a stress test. Chargers break, so this cord will be dropped tens of thousands of times to see how well it holds up.

“This thing just goes day and night. We haven't been able to break it yet,” Shanahan says with a chuckle.

Nearby, a machine sands and smooths the finish on the casing for a charger.

“Deburring they call it,” he explains. “And this will be shaped and formed into the housing for the 3704 charger and the utility pole charger.”

Shanahan says his company has sent out thousands of chargers nationwide, including hundreds in Connecticut.

When it comes to chargers, there’s been a lot of progress across Connecticut. About a decade ago, there were only about 300 chargers in the entire state. Today, there’s 10 times that.

For Shanahan, the future is clear: EVs are the next big thing. Manufacturers are making them, federal investments are growing and states are gearing up as climate change gets worse.

“There's nothing holding this thing back,” Shanahan says.

Except maybe, for now at least, enough spots to plug in.

Patrick Skahill is a reporter and digital editor at Connecticut Public. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of Connecticut Public Radio's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached at pskahill@ctpublic.org.