Luring electric vehicle buyers with swift charging, roller-skating

Source: By Camille von Kaenel, E&E News reporter • Posted: Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Would-be electric vehicle buyers still suffer from “range anxiety,” the fear that engines will sputter as drivers scramble to find charging stations. Another turn-off: Charging those vehicles can take hours.

Automakers and technology companies are trying to kick all that stigma to the curb.

The industry is ramping up efforts to blanket U.S. highways and communities with easy-access outlets, and cars and chargers that can fill up in 20 minutes or less are in the works.

The goal: to make the experience of refueling an EV more reliable and more pleasant — similar to that of a gasoline car. While sales of battery-powered cars continue to grow, they remain a tiny 1 percent of national sales. The charging experience is seen as one of the last barriers to more mainstream adoption.

With the drop in battery prices, EVs on the market or in development have a longer range than ever before at a lower price than ever before. The Chevrolet Bolt, for example, can go 238 miles on a single charge and can cost less than $30,000, including all tax rebates. Automakers are now selling more than 30 models of EVs in showrooms; 2018 will see at least six new models.

As the electric fleet has grown, utilities, states, charging companies and automakers have been gradually building out a network of public chargers near freeways and in parking lots, often providing the juice for free.

Nationwide, there are now 47,114 public EV charging outlets, according to the Energy Department’s Alternative Fuels Data Center — up from 25,602 at the end of 2014.

But they’re not all the same, and not all cars can use them all. Tesla Inc.’s Supercharger Network, for example, only works for Tesla drivers. Charging at home on a Level 1 or 2 charger can take all night; charging at a public fast-charging station can take 30 minutes or less, depending on the power provided and technology.

One of the key technology developments has been increasing the power — and speed — of the charging stations. Tesla’s Supercharger Network of 8,496 stations provides up to 120 kilowatts per car, but it is proprietary.

Other automakers have increased the capacity of their latest models, and an increasing number of stations are planning to deliver more than 100 kW, a change from the earlier 50 kW. ChargePoint Inc. has developed a 400-kW charging technology. EVgo, another charging company, is installing up to dozens of high-powered fast-charging stations of 145 to 350 kW. Automakers and technology startups have developed technology that would fully charge a car in five minutes or less, although it’s not yet widely available.

“It’s just what we see as the future,” said Terry O’Day, EVgo’s vice president for development. EVgo has started building charging “plazas,” with several stations available to drivers near a shopping mall or other recreational or commercial center.

Elon Musk, Tesla’s CEO, teased a similar concept earlier this week. A new Tesla Supercharger location in Los Angeles could include an old-school drive-in movie theater and roller-skating, he wrote on Twitter.

Movement ‘in the right direction’

Among the states, California has been leading the way in electric vehicle sales, with nearly a third of total sales nationwide. Last week, the state’s Public Utilities Commission approved plans by three big investor-owned utilities to spend $43 million on electric vehicle infrastructure (Climatewire, Jan. 12).

The projects are part of a broader $1 billion investment in hundreds of thousands of electric vehicle stations that the three utilities — Pacific Gas & Electric Co., Southern California Edison, and San Diego Gas & Electric Co. — have proposed following a state law passed in 2015 that requires utilities to help electrify transportation to meet state climate targets. Among the first wave of approved projects are electric vehicle charging stations in disadvantaged and low-income communities and charging infrastructure for heavy-duty equipment like trucks and buses.

The trend isn’t limited to California; utilities across the country are proposing and building out infrastructure for what they see as a new source of revenue. State governments have also pledged to build out the chargers.

“The trends in the industry have all just combined to demonstrate to states that this is a technology that is becoming much more mature, and there are lots of good options out there,” said Sue Gander, Environment, Energy and Transportation Division director for the National Governors Association (NGA) Center for Best Practices. “It’s a very bipartisan effort that sees the value in this investment.”

California and Oregon have laws on the books tying renewable energy goals to transportation electrification and requiring electric utilities to help build out the infrastructure.

One of the key drivers of the growth will be a Volkswagen AG subsidiary, Electrify America LLC. As part of its settlement with U.S. regulators after VW was found to have cheated on emissions standards, the automaker agreed to invest $2 billion over the next 10 years in charging stations. Its initial plan includes 240 stations along highways that will deliver 150 or 350 kW, allowing up to 300 miles’ worth of power to be added in only 15 to 20 minutes for some of the newest models. It will also build community-based stations that are slightly less powerful in 10 metropolitan areas.

The subsidiary has already built dozens of the stations, and more will come this year.

EV “fast charging used to be somewhat niche, and now it’s gained a lot of investment,” said Lisa Jerram, an analyst at Navigant Research. “We’re still a long way from having enough fast charging out there to fulfill the needs of all drivers were they to be electric, but the movement is all in the right direction.”