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Colorado Mayor Wants All Electric Car Chargers To Be Universal

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

A gas-powered car can refuel at any pump, but electric vehicles need special chargers. Tesla, for example, built fast chargers for its own drivers, and another luxury brand, Rivian, is planning its own exclusive network of chargers. But all this has created concerns that electric vehicle drivers are going to have to deal with a frustrating patchwork of charging stations. Sam Brasch of Colorado Public Radio reports on one small-town mayor who's decided to push back.

SAM BRASCH, BYLINE: I meet Mayor P.T. Wood at a distillery he owns in Salida, Colo., a mountain community famous for its bike trails and whitewater rapids. A few years ago, Wood landed on one more way to draw people into town for a cocktail. It's a small electric car charger mounted just inside the front door.

P T WOOD: It was the only EV charger in central Colorado that was free and public.

BRASCH: And Wood says it was probably his best marketing idea ever.

WOOD: People were literally buying, like, a case of spirits from us just to say thanks for the charging.

BRASCH: Wood expanded on the strategy after winning the mayor's office. The city installed another bank of chargers near a skate park downtown.

(SOUNDBITE OF STREET AMBIENCE)

BRASCH: And like his original charger, the plugs fit almost every electric car model, and drivers don't need to pay a penny.

WOOD: The economic return of people stopping in town, spending money here, has paid for the electricity multiple, multiple times.

BRASCH: Last year, Rivian, a luxury electric car company, approached Wood with an offer. It wanted to build Salida eight superfast car chargers at no cost to taxpayers.

WOOD: It was like, heck yeah, let's do this.

BRASCH: Then Wood heard the catch. Thanks to some special software, the hookups would only work with Rivian's ultra-pricey trucks and SUVs set for release this summer. That part he didn't love.

WOOD: If you can only charge at specific places, it divides that kind of world up in a really awkward way.

BRASCH: Rivian is installing thousands of universal chargers, but only slower ones that can take hours to recharge a car. Some agree with Mayor Wood that all fast chargers should work with all vehicles. Costa Samaras of Carnegie Mellon University says that would help drivers feel comfortable on long road trips, no matter what they're driving.

COSTA SAMARAS: If you want the same functionality as today's gas station network, we'll need something that's more standardized.

BRASCH: And Samaras says the U.S. can't wait to act. Transportation is the country's largest source of climate-warming gases. To help shrink it, President Biden has proposed half-a-million new chargers as a part of his infrastructure package. Most carmakers have agreed to one fast-charge standard, sort of a USB cord for cars. But Samaras says Rivian and Tesla could complicate the whole landscape.

SAMARAS: You might find yourself in a situation where you need to charge, but the only stations available are ones that don't fit your car.

BRASCH: Not all experts are worried. Chris Nelder with RMI, a clean energy think tank, says the U.S. needs lots of chargers fast.

CHRIS NELDER: The more that people see public, especially high-speed, chargers out there that they can access, the more comfortable they're going to be with buying an EV.

BRASCH: So if a luxury brand wants to build plugs just for its customers?

NELDER: This is private enterprise, baby.

BRASCH: As for Mayer Wood, he eventually worked out a compromise with Rivian. The company will make half of the new chargers in Salida slower public hookups, and in a decade, they'll consider opening up the fast chargers, too. Wood says it's a small way to make sure all drivers can enjoy his little piece of paradise.

For NPR News, I'm Sam Brasch in Denver. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.