With gas prices headed back up toward $4 per gallon nationally, interest in electric vehicles is on the rise. The New York Auto Show highlighted EVs, and in March Ford announced that its new Focus Electric sedan will deliver the equivalent of 105 miles per gallon, beating out Nissan’s 99-mpg Leaf EV and Chevy’s Volt plug-in hybrid, at 60 mpg. Many governments, including China, the United States, and the European Union, have unveiled ambitious goals for electric vehicle production and penetration for the coming decade. These goals have industry and government researchers collaborating on the world’s best EV cars and charging networks.
Here in the U.S., the private sector has responded to policy signals by creating an innovation cycle for EVs and the EV-related infrastructure. The market-driven race is now on to develop a five-passenger sedan with enough range that is able to meet the day-to-day needs of regular American drivers more conveniently and at a lower cost.
With announced EV models multiplying fast, the next big challenge is to scale up the national charging infrastructure and ensure grid readiness. Indeed, for EVs to hit a virtuous cycle—where more sales help lower the price, and the lower price begets more sales—plug-in vehicles must appeal to mainstream drivers, beyond the early adopters who have bought so far. Steady progress in battery and systems management technology is delivering more convenience, higher driving range, better performance, and lower sticker prices. Ultimately though, a more extensive recharging infrastructure is essential if we are to increase and sustain consumer demand.
This is where cities play a vital role. By establishing charging stations throughout communities—whether at malls, office buildings, hospitals, or supermarkets—more plug-in points will extend the appeal of EVs and offer drivers a truly reliable alternative. Only then will most consumers have the confidence to make the switch from the pump to the plug. The good news is this process is well underway.
On the West Coast, significant infrastructure has been built in big population hubs in and around Los Angeles, the Bay Area, Portland, and Seattle. On the East Coast, the key clusters are Washington, D.C., New York, and Boston. Other centers are in Texas and in Michigan.
The Electric Drive Transport Association (EDTA) recently identified leading city-level efforts helping to spur the growth of EV charging sites. Austin, for example, is home to the nation’s first charging station network powered solely by renewable energy. On Mercer Island, near Seattle, the city council has streamlined permitting for home chargers while also installing charge points in public spaces. In San Diego, Time-of-Use electricity pricing encourages users to schedule their vehicle recharging after the afternoon peak period for electricity passes.
Some of the more ambitious charging network initiatives have been driven by a combination of government underwriting and technological advances from equipment suppliers in the market. One of the most aggressive projects is a six-state network with a total of 15,000 chargers being led by Ecotality. This public-private partnership received a $100 million boost from the federal government.
Another $15 million in public money was granted to Coulomb’s Charge Point America project, which is using public and private investment to set up 5,000 public plug-in points across nine states. The effort has been intentionally broad in its reach. This initial seed capital is creating an investment climate favorable for future private sector players to leverage and build out similar networks.
It’s a great start, but much remains to be done and the private sector will have to take the lead in identifying profitable, market-based business models. Charger-maker Ecotality has estimated that, near term, each EV will need roughly 1.5 chargers: one for the home garage, and access to half a charger, on average, in public. Thus, while there are tens of thousands of public chargers on the grid or being built today, hundreds of thousands of chargers will be needed if the U.S.’s fleet of EVs is going to exceed 1 million in the coming years.
To expand charging networks in an effort to tempt more drivers to go electric, companies are experimenting with a variety of business models. In Hawaii, for instance, EV-pioneer Better Place has put up 130 charge spots and is offering those who join its EV network free recharging for the remainder of the year. Given Hawaii’s high cost of gas (the nation’s most expensive), joining an EV network offers drivers a way to lower the risk of oil price spikes. Power on the island is increasingly being drawn from solar, wind, and geothermal sources that won’t rise in price over time. Back on the mainland, Walmart and Ikea, which are building out charge points at select West Coast sites, are examples of how chain stores, restaurants, and others see recharging stations as a way to make EV driving more convenient and attract EV drivers to shop. Some stores are even offering discounted or free power.
As incremental changes come together to help extend charging networks, EV stakeholders must work in parallel to ensure that their back-end systems and infrastructure are ready to meet the challenge—from the power transformers to utility meters and from billing to user-friendly iPhone apps that help locate charging sites.
As EV numbers grow, utilities see a sizable opportunity to provide more electric power; they also face a challenge in assuring that power can be delivered safely and reliably. In aggregate, studies show that U.S. utilities have the capacity to generate all the energy EVs will need to recharge, but that doesn’t mean local grids are resilient enough to always handle the flow. After all, a single EV can boost household load by about a third. If a sufficient number of EVs simultaneously "fuel up" within the same block, cables and transformers may not be up to the task. Continuous focus from leading industry associations like the Electric Power Research Institute and other technical standards-making bodies such as the National Institute of Standards and Technology is needed to help guide the industry on planning the proper sizing of the distribution network to handle this "clustering" effect noted by utilities and demonstrated in early adopting markets like Berkeley, CA.
The grid must also be adapted to support new technology developments around faster EV charging. Fast-chargers, which work at twice or more the voltage of home chargers, can deliver more power to EVs at a quicker rate, and thus are an attractive option for public charging sites. But while they’re more convenient, they also will be more expensive, and most grids are not currently prepared to support them. Consider that, today, a car’s tank can be refilled with gasoline in roughly four minutes. For tomorrow’s EV rechargers to match that experience, it will mean delivering the same amount of electric power used by a grocery store during that recharge time.
In cities, all of the technical challenges related to EV charging are concentrated and commingled. High population densities mean that EV charging infrastructure must be abundant, consumer friendly, durable, and interoperable: from the ability to link with different types of vehicles, to accurate billing capabilities, to support for a variety of payment methods. This will require unprecedented collaboration between local governments, private businesses, and utility companies.
To help more communities begin to develop the charging infrastructure needed to broaden the consumer appeal of EVs, the EDTA offers these tips for utility, business and public leaders:
- Partner with a local utility to offer rebates for customers who use home charging systems for their EVs, or offer overall reduced rates for customers who are charging EVs at home;
- Offer a variety of incentives to consumers who purchase and drive an EV, such as tax credits, access to HOV lanes, fast-tracking permitting processes and/or free parking benefits;
- Identify code changes for new construction to make it easier to install public charging stations; and
- Provide education about maintaining grid stability, including charging during off-peak hours, using clean sources of energy and advocating for renewable sources.
High-mileage EVs are ready to help soften the blow of high-priced gasoline. However, to realize the vision of having affordable, user-friendly EVs rolling on U.S. roads in big numbers, it needs to be easier to find a plug than a pump, as convenient as buying an app on iTunes. The challenge now is to accelerate the growth of the smart charging infrastructure by developing more sites and fortifying local grid capacity to deliver the juice EVs will need.