In a move hailed as a major step in the state’s climate battle, Massachusetts has approved a $400 million plan to install tens of thousands of electric vehicle chargers as part of an effort to encourage larger numbers of drivers to switch from gas cars to electric.
The order from the state’s Department of Public Utilities, issued last week, allows electric utilities Eversource, National Grid, and Unitil to put a surcharge on ratepayers’ electricity bills to support the build-out of needed infrastructure. Under the plan, the utilities over the next four years will upgrade and lay wires to support chargers and offer rebates to individuals and businesses looking to install them at homes, apartment buildings, workplaces, and public locations like retail parking lots. The plan reserves money for charging hubs in poor and minority neighborhoods, as well as for marketing the rebates.
The effort aims to knock down one of the biggest barriers consumers face in switching to electric: range anxiety. Experts say 80 percent of EV charging will take place at home. But worries about being able to find chargers when needed — for those on the road or for “garage orphans”— can make the prospect of owning an electric vehicle look less appealing.
“Right now we don’t see as many EV chargers out there as are needed, and we don’t see as many electric vehicles out there as are needed,” said Jake Navarro, director of clean transportation for National Grid. “Those two things are interrelated.”
By offering significant incentives to install chargers, Navarro said, the utilities are hoping to “improve the business case” for business owners and others to move ahead. He said they hope more people will feel comfortable buying EVs, eventually reaching a point where there are enough on the road to provide even more incentive for businesses to install chargers
Despite ambitious goals, Massachusetts has been lagging in its transition to electric vehicles.
As of September, there were 71,495 electric vehicles on the road in the state, and just 5,401 of the fastest kinds of charging ports. That’s compared to an estimated 21,000 public and workplace charging ports that National Grid estimated would be needed to support Massachusetts’ 2025 climate goal of having 300,000 electric vehicles on the road. The state has since amended the 2025 goal to 200,000.
Convincing drivers to switch to public transit or biking and getting the rest to go electric is a cornerstone of the state’s plan to get to net zero emissions by 2050, given that cars account for roughly a fifth of all carbon emissions in the state. But it’s easier said than done. Switching over to electric comes with a cost — not only are the vehicles more expensive, but electrical wiring upgrades and chargers can come with a high price tag too.
Beefed-up state incentives and federal rebates are intended to bring vehicle costs into parity with gas cars. And the federal infrastructure bill offered funds for charging stations along highways and rebates for electric school buses. But for widespread charging, advocates say the plan approved by the utilities commission represents the most significant investment and should put the state on track to meet its goals.
“This is what is going to enable the buildout of EV charging to the extent that we think is needed over the next four years,” said Larry Chretien, executive director of Green Energy Consumers Alliance, a Massachusetts-based clean energy advocacy group.
National Grid’s portion of the plan — some $206 million to be spent over four years — is the most expansive, calling for up to 32,000 new charging ports. Eversource, meanwhile, was approved to spend $188 million. The company’s plan as proposed would have enabled 8,286 new fast charging ports and 152 fast chargers. A spokeswoman said they are still calculating how those numbers might be affected by small changes made in the order as issued. Unitil, which has a much smaller service area in Massachusetts, was approved for $1 million in make-ready investments.
The last time the utilities offered rebates for charging infrastructure, they found themselves without many takers, in part because the business case wasn’t great. Without a ton of EV drivers on the road, there was little reason for companies to invest in chargers, even if the utilities were going to cover the costs of laying the wires.
That’s why this time, the utilities are also offering rebates for the installation of physical charging stations in public locations, in addition to the so-called make-ready work of laying the wires. When Eversource took a similar approach in Connecticut, said Tilak Subrahmanian, vice president of energy efficiency for Eversource, the program was very successful.
He thinks that success will be repeated in Massachusetts.
“We’re actually very bullish that we’re going to get a lot of interest in fast charging,” he said.
Another logjam that the order aims to clear up is the issue of so-called demand charges — extra fees charged to businesses that have installed the fastest type of chargers, which draw large amounts of electricity. On top of the cost of the electricity, demand charges can come to thousands of dollars a month to cover the expense of delivering so much power, even if the charger is used just once. This makes it too expensive to install fast chargers at service stations, parking lots, and other likely locations.
Under the new scheme, utilities will base demand charges for fast chargers on how much the charger is used. A little-used fast charger will pay no demand charge at all. But as more drivers plug in, the operator will begin to pay an increasing percentage of the demand charge.
The amount that ratepayers will be charged to support the program differs depending on service territory. Average Eversource customers will see a total of up to $0.82 cents annually in 2025, when the programs have ramped up. Average National Grid and Unitil customers can expect less than $4 in annual charges in 2026.
Amy Boyd, vice president of climate and clean energy policy for Acadia Center, a clean-energy advocacy group, said she was glad to see the order, but said she would rather “have it be more of a strategic, government-led, undertaking, as opposed to industry-led.” That would allow for the planning process to take into account the bigger climate picture, she said, like whether to co-locate solar or battery storage along with chargers, or to think about upgrading transformers at the same time to facilitate increased energy demands from the electrification of heating.
Looking ahead, she’s hopeful that the new Healey administration will take that approach, noting that the appointment of Melissa Hoffer as the state’s first-ever climate chief is a strong start. “Naming a climate chief is a good sign that the administration sees these problems as spanning departments,” she said.
Sabrina Shankman can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @shankman. Hiawatha Bray can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.