Tesla Inc.’s deluxe electric vehicle charging network will start to serve other automakers’ EVs, the Biden administration said Wednesday, in a move that could drastically expand Americans’ options for plugging in.
‘It’s an instant closing of some gaps in the EV infrastructure market,” said Nick Nigro, the founder of Atlas Public Policy, which studies EV trends.
The news came in a flurry of administration announcements offering guidance on how the $7.5 billion that Congress appropriated in the bipartisan infrastructure law for EV charging infrastructure should be spent.
For example, the government said that to qualify for federal aid, installers of charging stations will by next year need to source more than half of components from the United States, with the goal of building a new realm of domestic manufacturing.
Meanwhile, key details of federal plans for an EV charging build-out remain vague. The administration’s announcement was silent on important points that states need to understand in order to spend the federal government’s money, like how reliable chargers need to be.
“It’s lacking completely on the detail of how that’s actually going to work,” said Loren McDonald, who runs EVAdoption, which parses EV data.
‘They have more experience’
But the news that Tesla — the company that has created a robust and exclusive charging network alongside its electric cars — will let its competitors use at least part of its Supercharger network could remake America’s charging network at a stroke.
The Biden administration also said that Tesla will triple the size of its overall Supercharger network.
The newly open platform matters because Superchargers are, to mix a metaphor, the Cadillac of charging stations. Tesla has the most and largest stations, generally in the best locations, and delivers high levels of power. And compared to its competitors, the stations are much more reliable.
“They have more experience building charging networks than any company to date,” Nigro said. “That’s going to be good for EV drivers, as long as they can serve all the vehicles that aren’t Tesla.”
Specifically, the government said, Tesla will open 7,500 charging points to non-Teslas by the end of next year. Of those, 3,500 might be Superchargers on highway routes, with the balance being lower-power “destination chargers” at locations like hotels and restaurants.
Tesla did not make its own announcement as of press time and did not respond to a request for comment.
Tesla operates 61 percent of all direct-current fast chargers in the United States. The next biggest network, Electrify America, is a distant second at less than 13 percent, according to federal data compiled by EVAdoption. Tesla averages almost 11 charging points per station, which is more than twice as many as any other network.
The opening of its network puts Tesla in an excellent position to win billions of dollars of EV infrastructure funding.
A key reason is the way the federal government prioritized its EV infrastructure plan.
A top Biden goal has been to put powerful charging plazas at 50-mile intervals along the nation’s interstate highways. Tesla’s stations are already at or near many of those locations. Unlike competitors, which would have to build a plaza from scratch, Tesla can convert some of its dispensers to work with other cars, or build a few additional ones.
But that doesn’t mean that Tesla is a shoo-in for a huge federal cash infusion.
Tesla “will have to propose on specific sites and win a specific bid,” McDonald said. “They’re not guaranteed.”
Biden-Tesla relationship defrosts
The alliance between the administration and Tesla is an about-face from the first year of the Biden presidency.
In 2021, Biden was reluctant to even mention Tesla’s name. A persistent champion of labor unions, Biden dismissed the anti-union stance of Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk. Biden’s silence led Musk to wage a public relations campaign against the administration (Energywire, Dec. 3, 2021).
But the relationship has warmed significantly.
Two weeks ago, Musk met with top Biden officials at the White House during a visit to Washington.
That turnaround started last year, according to Mitch Landrieu, the president’s point man on infrastructure spending.
“There was a meeting that was held last year sometime that the CEOs of all the companies, including Tesla, talked about all the challenges that we’re going to have early on when this rule was initially being developed,” Landrieu said on a call with reporters Tuesday. “Elon Musk was on that call. He was very open. He was very constructive.”
Can Tesla keep everyone happy?
The new role of Tesla as a potential watering hole for all EVs raises a number of new questions. The company will be under pressure to provide the same premium experience to both old and new drivers, with each group presenting its own challenges.
A key question is whether Tesla will be able to provide the same level of reliability to outside cars as it has to its own drivers.
“There’s several reasons Tesla’s network is the most reliable,” McDonald said. “One of the main ones is they build the car, they build the charger, they build the software. They built everything to work together.”
As other automakers follow Tesla’s lead and start to make their cars more like laptops and phones — able to be improved by over-the-air updates — providing the same level of service could be a formidable challenge.
“There’s going to be dozens upon dozens of EVs, and changes in over-the-air updates that are constantly happening,” McDonald continued. “How is Tesla going to keep up with that?”
Another constituency to be satisfied is Tesla’s existing customer base. It is unknown how Tesla drivers will respond to Chevy Bolts, Volkswagen ID.4s and Ford Mach-Es using a charging network that has always been their exclusive domain.
“They’ve had this great experience all to themselves all these years,” said McDonald. Now, he said, “some people might be upset.”
The rest of the Biden plan
States have received hundreds of millions of dollars to build charging networks, but until now they have been reluctant to actually put out bids for them to be built. The reason? The federal government hasn’t declared exactly how the money can be spent.
That may change this week. The Biden administration didn’t make those details available as of Wednesday morning, but watchers expect their arrival is imminent.
“The most important thing is that the money will start to flow for the EV charging programs,” Nigro said. It is, he added, “a critical signal to the market that it’s time to accelerate.”
The administration made several other announcements that are significant for EV infrastructure, including:
A new pot of money: The Biden administration announced that a substantial chunk of the money that Congress allocated to EV charging — $2.5 billion — is starting to be available for states, cities, tribes and other entities to competitively bid for.
Called the Charging and Fueling Infrastructure program, or CFI, the administration intends to release $700 million in its first round.
According to its fact sheet, the Biden administration said charging locations can be built “at schools, grocery stores, parks, libraries, apartment complexes, and everywhere else Americans live and work.”
“Buy America” gets specific: The Biden administration provided its first real guidance on how EV charging equipment will be dealt with under buy-America provisions.
Steel and iron enclosures and housings must be American-made right away. Starting in July of next year, the domestic content for equipment will be 55 percent.
Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, in comments to reporters Tuesday, said “we’re incentivizing companies to make more of the parts of the EV chargers here in America to build by American workers. We’re gonna provide a transition period for companies to onshore those supply chains back to the U.S.“
Money for heavy-duty fueling: The administration said it would spend $7.4 million of its charging funds to chart out networks of electric and hydrogen fueling station networks for medium- and heavy-duty trucks.
On the call, Secretary of Energy Jennifer Granholm said the initiative is “going to help spur the zero-emission charging and clean hydrogen refueling infrastructure along some of America’s busiest freight corridors from Houston to Los Angeles, Georgia to New Jersey, Illinois to Ohio and more.”
All in all, the announcements are a significant advance for EV infrastructure, said Ben Prochazka, the executive director of the Electrification Coalition, a nonprofit that advocates for EVs.
“This is not a niche effort, and it’s not nascent,” he said. “If anything, we’re getting to that tipping point that needs to happen.”
Reporter Zach Bright contributed.
This story also appears in Climatewire.