Electric vehicles need more—and faster—charging stations. How do we get them? – EQ Mag

Brian Burns / November 13,2022
  • What can be done to get things moving?
  • Speed and amenities
  • As the car industry plans a major rollout of electric vehicles, the project faces serious gridlock: There aren’t enough places to charge the vehicles, but there aren’t yet enough customers to justify a widespread expansion of charging stations.

    What can be done to get things moving?

    The Biden administration has set an ambitious goal: Half of all vehicles sold in 2030 must be zero-emission, and 500,000 charging ports must be in place to service them. But experts put the number of chargers much higher. To accommodate all those new vehicles, they say, more than a million new ports will need to be installed in public places over the next eight years. Currently, there are only about 150,000, not counting the 11,500 or so in Tesla Inc.’s private network, according to EPRI, an independent, nonprofit energy research and development institute.

    Not only do there need to be more chargers, but they need to be faster. The majority of public stations have what are called Level 2 chargers, which add about 25 miles of driving for each hour of charging. Some 38,000 are Level 3 fast chargers, according to EPRI, which can add about 100 to 200-plus miles of driving per 30 minutes of charging, depending on the vehicle and charger power. Newer electric vehicles can travel 200 to 300 or more miles on a full charge, depending on the model.

    The uncertainty and complexity feed consumers’ fears of running out of juice along a desolate highway—and no doubt keep many motorists from going electric.

    Then there’s the problem of home charging. Most of today’s home chargers are Level 1, which use standard 120-volt current and provide only about 5 miles of driving per hour of charging. Access to chargers is a particularly thorny challenge for apartment dwellers.

    Charger funding in last year’s infrastructure law will help, as will tax credits for charger installation in this year’s Inflation Reduction Act. But the rollout of new charging capacity will be costly and complex. What is the best way to meet the challenge?

    The Wall Street Journal gathered three experts to discuss the issue: Dan Bowermaster, senior program manager of electric transportation at EPRI; Samantha Houston, senior vehicles analyst for the Clean Transportation Program at the nonprofit Union of Concerned Scientists, which develops and advocates for environmentally sustainable technologies and strategies; and Philipp Kampshoff, a senior partner at McKinsey & Co., who leads the McKinsey Center for Future Mobility in the Americas.

    Speed and amenities

    WSJ: What are today’s limitations on EV public charging and how can it be made faster, easier and more convenient?

    MS. HOUSTON: For drivers who need public charging regularly, public charging needs to be physically accessible at places near where drivers live, work and play, affordable and fast enough to give a meaningful charge in the amount of time the driver will be stopped at a location. For public charging on long-distance routes, charging needs to be relatively faster and offer amenities like snacks and restrooms.

    DR. KAMPSHOFF: There is a tendency for EV-charging-infrastructure players to wait until car ownership is larger. This is where government incentives can play a big role to get the ecosystem to a state of sufficient adoption to work on its own.

    MR. BOWERMASTER: One of the challenges today is that there are more than 65 public-charging networks, and each is an independent business. A customer needs an account, an app, a key fob, etc., to use a charging station, and each company has a unique one. There is no way for an EV driver to easily get a comprehensive picture of which network’s stations are working and which aren’t. It also means that an EV owner gets a bill from each charging network.

    MS. HOUSTON: The challenges with making fast-charging stations viable while use of those stations is modest must be overcome. Government can provide upfront funds to subsidize these costs and require interoperability at stations that receive those funds.

    WSJ: Is it feasible that the U.S. can install the number of chargers needed to meet the 2030 goal that half of all vehicles sold have no emissions?

    DR. KAMPSHOFF: The U.S. will need about 28 million private chargers (home plus workplace) and about 1.2 million to 1.5 million public chargers (on-the-go fast chargers plus lower-speed destination chargers) to spur EV sales to hit the 2030 goal. This requires a substantial investment of up to $35 billion to $40 billion for public charging. Government incentives will certainly help, but substantial private investments will be required to achieve these numbers.

    MS. HOUSTON: Scaling up is feasible if governments, utilities and private industry plan now for that future. That means including appropriately ambitious EV forecasts in energy, transmission and electricity-distribution plans, and resourcing the planning and implementation appropriately.

    MR. BOWERMASTER: It is important to look at solutions that worked in other places. For example, Europe uses a “bring your own charging cable” model for Level 2 charging that our electric code prohibits. This reduces upfront cost of the stations as well as maintenance costs. There also are major barriers that impact the rate of installation of EV charging. These may be interconnection issues. These may be permitting issues.

    DR. KAMPSHOFF: We need a supply chain that can provide the necessary hardware in large numbers with sufficient economies of scale to reduce costs. We need sufficient technicians/electricians. We need the right incentives that allow for a build-out of charging infrastructure where the business case might be difficult. We need a collaboration between charging-infrastructure players, utilities, regulators, etc.

    Finding the money

    WSJ: Will the infrastructure law’s $7.5 billion for EV-charging infrastructure be enough to pay for the law’s goal of 500,000 chargers by 2030?

    MR. BOWERMASTER: The $7.5 billion is largely only for highway fast charging. It’s a needed step, but in parallel the industry also needs to examine how to scale up home and work charging as quickly, cost-effectively and reliably as possible.

    WSJ: How many charging stations should target long-distance and medium-distance driving? How many should be in places where people linger near home, such as shopping centers? And how many at residences?

    MS. HOUSTON: Home is a really key place to charge for consumers. Breaking down the barriers to home charging is critical, and special attention must be paid to apartment and condo buildings.

    DR. KAMPSHOFF: We will need a good mix between private and public charging. We currently estimatethat roughly 750,000 stations will be needed at retail and destination points (malls, grocery stores, etc.), and 450,000 stations could be on-the-go chargers. Many of those will be fast chargers along the main highways. Most chargers, however, will be home and workplace chargers.

    MR. BOWERMASTER: Most private cars sit parked 21 hours a day, largely at home and work. That’s where the bulk of charging stations should go. And since cars sit parked for so long, charging power can be quite low. In parallel, there are places where cars are only parked for 10-20 minutes—a quick lunch stop or grocery store—where fast charging makes sense.

    Bringing it home

    WSJ: What could be done to get more and faster chargers—which for Level 2 chargers can be $1,000 or much more depending on the electrical work required—into homes?

    MR. BOWERMASTER: For new construction, the time to install home charging is during the design and build phase. It’s the least expensive and easiest to include from the beginning. For retrofits, it’s tougher. There is some opportunity to examine current electric code. Also, sharing of existing electric circuits could be examined such that a customer could safely run a home EV charging station off the same circuit that supports, say, an electric dryer.

    DR. KAMPSHOFF: Several companies are working on making the home-charger installation easier. Some vehicle makers already offer partners who perform the home installation with the purchase of their EV. However, we should not forget that this is still quite expensive. Everything that helps to bring down the cost will accelerate adoption.

    WSJ: Do we need more utility-company incentives to consumers to install home chargers? Government subsidies or tax rebates?

    MR. BOWERMASTER: Cost is only one part of the process. The industry also needs enough people to do the work. How does the industry incentivize a contractor to respond to a request for a job that is relatively small, but takes a similar amount of effort with permitting, approvals, etc., as a larger, more-profitable job?

    MS. HOUSTON: Low-income drivers, in particular, need help installing home charging. For example, if a driver doesn’t have the tax liability to take advantage of a (nonrefundable) tax credit for EV charging, then it won’t help them. In addition, if an incentive covers part of the cost of a charger, and a low-income driver can’t afford the rest, then the driver can’t move forward with the installation.

    WSJ: What could prompt more rental apartment and condo buildings to install charging stations?

    DR. KAMPSHOFF: The availability of charging infrastructure will become a key differentiator and an important decision criterion for new residents. It might become an additional source of revenue for the building, such as charging extra for “EV-enabled” parking spaces.

    MS. HOUSTON: With low-income households and households of color having higher rates of renting and of living in multiunit dwellings, access to home charging in apartments and condos is important to unlocking the ability to drive an EV for all.

    WSJ: Will charging an EV ever be as quick and easy as filling a tank with gas?

    DR. KAMPSHOFF: Over time, we will see faster and faster chargers and batteries. While the fastest chargers currently available are at around 350 kilowatts of power and can fully charge some high-end EVs in as little as 15 to 20 minutes from empty, we already see announcements of 500 kilowatt chargers and even discussions on 1 megawatt chargers for the commercial-vehicle space. Customers will be able to fully charge their vehicle in less than 10 minutes.

    MS. HOUSTON: It is important to think about when and why fast speed is needed because it comes at a cost and puts additional demand on the electric grid. The majority of charging for consumer drivers can be done at longer dwell-time places, such as home or work, at relatively low power. Consumer drivers will need faster charging in some cases, such as road trips. Even then, charging for slightly longer than 10 minutes may be advantageous for eating, catching up on messages and the like.

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