Infrastructure for Electric Vehicles is a Critical Part of the Segment’s Growth – and We’re Still Trying to Figure It Out as a Business
The first question anyone asks when thinking of diving into the electric vehicle market is, “Where do I charge it?” The easy answers take care of most folks – at home at a 120-volt (Level 1) wall plug or a 240-volt (Level 2) “fast” charger – or if you’re lucky, at work, usually at 240 volts. But what if you venture out of the comfort zone of the home-work orbit? What if you want to take a trip beyond the range of a single charge? What if you want to use your EV the way Americans have traditionally used their cars?
This is not an isolated issue. A Volkswagen executive, Reinhard Fischer, told the trade journal Automotive News that “range anxiety has now been replaced by charging anxiety. A hundred years ago, gasoline was sold at pharmacies,” he said. “Today, we have 122,000 gas stations in the United States. It’s transformed from a bottleneck to a commodity. Electric charging is going to be exactly the same.”
As posed by this automaker – it’s a quantity issue. But he also noted another aspect: anxiety. That’s not always addressed by quantitative answers. If it were, there would be no fear of flying.
Building an extensive network of EV charging stations is both a matter of physically putting the stations in place and also making sure folks know they’re there. The economic opportunity has garnered the attention of several companies, but some have chosen different paths toward the same goal.
Then some are thinking on an even grander scale. One current legislative proposal that has yet to gain much traction in Washington, D.C., is for the country to commit to developing a nationwide fast-charging network. The prototype for such an action is analogous to President Eisenhower’s call to build the Interstate Highway System in 1956. Bills have been introduced in Congress proposing such an EV network, but so far they haven’t progressed beyond the talking stage. Meanwhile, private companies are diving into what they see as a growing market.
Doing Good After Doing Bad
Unlike the early days of gasoline, where Henry Ford had reduced the price of the automobile to where it was affordable by the masses and John D. Rockefeller and his allies had discovered economic ways of extracting and refining petroleum to power those vehicles, the number of EVs on the market is not going to guarantee the kind of return that will allow EV charging stations to hand out free dishes with every charge as a promotion (trust me, it’s a thing).
The whole idea of building a ubiquitous network of charging stations and making money on those stations may be at odds. Unlike their petroleum-powered predecessors, EVs can charge at home and work. Most current owners can do their daily commute without having to think about finding a charging station, turning refueling with publicly available electrons into an occasional operation.
Enter Electrify America, a division of Volkswagen created as a result of two things:
- Volkswagen being caught cheating on the emissions systems on its diesel vehicles and having to commit to spending billions of dollars to rectify the environmental damage done by those deeds.
- Volkswagen realigning its future product plans to turn it into a major electric car-producing company.
Electrify America is tasked with spending those penalty dollars on two related projects – building EV charging infrastructure and promoting EV sales. They’re getting some traction, focused on putting in DCFC’s (480-volt, three-phase fast-charging capable of adding fresh juice in minutes rather than the hours it takes at the Level 1 and 2 chargers). That’s part of more than 2,000 chargers in 500 locations planned by the end of 2019. The company is also running ads promoting EVs as “normal now,” clearly addressing the anxiety called out by the VW exec.
In addition to installing the chargers – mainly at destination locations like malls or on major highway locations – Electrify America has also signed a partnership with EVgo, another fast-charger installer, so that users of the two networks could pay without having to sign up for new memberships or payment plans. First, a little history. Many of EVgo’s DCFC chargers installed in California were done as a settlement in a lawsuit against EVgo’s parent company, NRG, going back to the Enron scandal of 2000. At least in part, the modern EV infrastructure is built on the backs of diesel emissions and energy trading scandals.
The interoperability agreements between Electrify America and EVgo expanded on existing agreements the two networks had with other main charging networks – ChargePoint, Greenlots, EV Connect, and Sema Connect. Almost all of the EV charging world is moving toward a system where, like a gas station stop, your credit card should be able to ensure you get your battery filled. But it’s still not all the way there.
The lack of interoperability with EV charging doesn’t just apply to the different brands. Unlike the gas world, the EV world has three competing charging systems at the DCFC level (Levels 1 and 2 are standardized). DC goes some of the way toward making charging both fast – though still not the five-minute fill you get with gasoline or diesel – which is why they’re typically located near shopping, dining, or other places where an EV owner can spend a half hour while their car charges.
Still, it’s not so simple when it comes to an EV. The cars come in a couple variations – some can only charge at the L1 and L2 level; others can accommodate DC fast charging. But there are three different, incompatible types of DC charging – CHAdeMO, SAE CSS, and Tesla’s proprietary system. It’s a bit like the days of VHS and Beta tapes – for those old enough to remember that confusing era – with a third system thrown in for good measure. The good news is many of the DC fast chargers have plugs that can service both the CHAdeMO (mostly Asian EVs) and CSS (European and American) types. Tesla’s chargers don’t work with non-Tesla vehicles, but Teslas can charge at the other two with an adapter. The other good news is that non-Tesla drivers now have a network that is roughly equivalent to the widely touted Tesla Supercharger network. It may not be as identifiable (there’s that pesky anxiety issue again, based on lack of visibility).
While car companies are careful not to attribute sales to things like a supportive infrastructure, it is a strong reinforcement to a purchase decision.
If you remember the numbers quoted by the VW exec – there are 122,000 gas stations dotting the countryside. At present, there are fewer than 40,000 public charging stations in the U.S. with almost one-fourth of them in one state: California. Not coincidentally, that’s where the most EVs are. The portion for DC fast-charging stations is even lower, about 10,000 – though Electrify America, EVgo, and Tesla seem determined to ramp up these numbers.
Even though the network’s still thin, competition is building about the speed of charging (Electrify America is touting its faster chargers designed for the latest EV models coming out, and Tesla is also rolling out upgraded, faster versions on its network).
Finally, technology innovations like robot chargers designed to deal with coming autonomous electric cars may also been on the horizon.
New Business, New Business Models
Scott Mercer, a Cal Poly grad (the school model is “Learn By Doing”), worked his way through college doing classic car repair. He considered that as a potential career until realizing he wanted to change things in the automotive world. He flipped some disheveled classic cars to put together seed funds for Volta, his vision of providing EV charging that would maximize the “electric miles” of the growing plug-in fleet.
His idea: charging should be free, paid for by advertising on the charging kiosks. Rent the space for the chargers in the highest EV traffic areas, which in turn attracts more usage and leads to an expanded network.
“We want to be where the cars are – and be free. It’s basic economics,” said Mercer. Volta is now working to add a reservation system that should serve to enhance the utilization of its chargers. “We are not trying to recreate the gas station experience,” Mercer added. “We want to match the wait time at the venue to the charge.” Their goal is to partner with venues where the station is used 80 percent of the retail day.
The Government’s Role
While the idea of a national EV charging network is being discussed in Congress and at competing private companies, at the state and local level the EV charging discussion takes a different twist. In California – ground zero for the current charging infrastructure – the state government is pouring its well-stocked treasury in support of an EV charging infrastructure that not only meets the needs of current EV purchasers (so far heavy on the relatively wealthy early adopters), but potential lower-income buyers of used EVs, those who don’t live in the tiny coastal communities, and a just-beginning heavy-duty electric truck market.
Right now, the EV infrastructure industry seems to be caught between “build it and they will come” and “how can we sell EVs if there’s no public infrastructure.” Charging station usage is solid in some areas while it lags in others. Business models are taking users and installers in different directions. If this were a roadmap for the EV future, it’s fair to say we’re at a crossroads.