Electric Vehicles Are Entering a Transformational Era of Growth
Electrification is leading the automotive industry to a new transformational era. It is an exciting time to see new products and development of new infrastructure to support transportation needs. While a small number of Electric Vehicles (EVs) have been available for years, more recently, the list of electric models to choose from has grown as quickly as the wait list of buyers trying to purchase one. Today, half of U.S. adults (51%) say they are likely to consider purchasing an electric vehicle in the next decade, which is up from 43% in March-April of 2001. That is a significant increase. While car manufacturers continue to build and offer EVs to purchase, the infrastructure to support these vehicles has not kept pace. How will new EV owners charge their vehicles and where will chargers be located? Where do investments need to be made to support the infrastructure? What products need to be streamlined across the industry to create an ease of ownership? Those are just some of the questions being asked right now as the EV support space grows.
One prediction for the future of EVs shares that by 2040, 60% of all charging will take place away from home. (Note: This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the headline "Plugging the gap") Charging stations will need to become standard amenities in, for example, apartment complexes, in restaurant and shopping center parking lots and even rest stops along the highway to support mainstream use. Today, you might find the infrastructure prevalent in large cities. In some rural areas of the US there are currently no public charging areas at all. That could all change soon though as the U.S. government has pledged at the federal level to add a charging station every 50 miles along some major highways in Utah, Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico and Colorado. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg shared his opinion on charging stations. “Everyone should be able to find a working charging station when and where they need it, without worrying about paying more or getting worse service because of where they live. You shouldn’t have to sort through half-a-dozen apps on your phone just to be able to pay at a charging station. And no matter where you live or where you’re headed, everyone should be able to count on fast charging, fair pricing, and easy-to-use payment for their EVs.”
An interactive map, the Electric Vehicle Charging Stations and U.S. Interstates, was developed by Esri, using data from the U.S. Department of Energy Alternative Fuels Data Center. The map shows charging stations in the U.S. as of February 2022. What is very clear from looking at this map is there is not even distribution across the map. California’s dots representing charging stations come so close together they form blobs while the middle of the country looks bare from north to south. This brings up the question, are there not many EVs in the center of the country due to the lack of charging opportunity or are there not charging stations there because of the lack of EVs?
Putting the current lack of public charging aside, there are other issues that need to be addressed to modernize the infrastructure? First, what level of charge should be available at a public charging station? A level 1 charge will be similar to plugging your car in at home in a regular wall outlet. Charging at a level 1 will usually add 3-5 miles on the car each hour it charges. This is an extremely slow option that is not conducive to anyone who uses their EV on a daily basis. A level II has become the more traditional public charging method that will give owners a full charge overnight. This is the industry standard for a public charging station. Level III is the fastest option. Level III uses DC power and will add up to 20 miles to the vehicle each minute. This option uses high voltage and is extremely expensive to operate. However, the convivence of using a quick level III charging station would be more ideal for busy travelers.
How will charging stations operate for consumers? Today, if you go to a gas station, it really doesn’t matter what the name is on the sign because the process is the same. Pull your car up, swipe your credit card and then fill up your tank. Gas is priced by the gallon and while prices may vary slightly, most stations are close in price. Charging stations today do not have a standard operating procedure throughout the industry. Some charging stations will price by the minute and other per-kilowatt-hour (kWh). Some could be absolutely free. The different operators of charging stations could require a unique app for their specific brand making it somewhat inconvenient to find a hassle-free charge unless a universal app can be created.
The next hurdle in the process is what is powering the power stations themselves? According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, only about 20% of US power came from renewable energy in 2021. That means that anyone plugging in their EV to charge has a high chance of tapping into a non-renewable source. Extremely counterproductive to why many people purchase an EV, which is to be environmentally friendly. Will charging stations be required to let consumers know what is powering the station? Or will charging stations seek out areas of the country only where renewable energy can be guaranteed?
That brings us to the power grid itself. Our power grids were created in the early 20th century and were designed with a simple operator to consumer flow. When these grids came online, all energy came from fossil fuels with most energy directed to high demand cities (having fewer customers living outside the city limits). Today, these grids are functioning in ways in which they are not designed. For example, they are now powering technologies like charging stations, referred to as “grid edge tech” due to their position within the energy system. The charging stations are not only consumers of energy from the grid, but they turn around to also become providers. This extra usage could create energy shortages in some areas.
The Power Systems Engineering Center at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) estimates that by 2050, the U.S. generation capacity will have to double to keep up with the electrification of transportation. The US power grid will likely require updating to be able to handle this expanding workload. Some industry experts predict that our electric infrastructure may require a $2 trillion-dollar investment to overhaul it. A study from Princeton University puts the total at about 2.4 trillion. This cost will almost certainly result in rate increases to consumers eventually.
Creating the infrastructure to keep up with the amount of EVs that will be taking to the road is not going to happen overnight. This will be a very large time and financial investment aimed at increasing EVs while at the same time reducing the amount of vehicles that run on fossil fuels. Many industries will have to come together to streamline the experience of ownership and maintenance to make ownership as “easy” as most drivers are accustomed to. Any type of change, especially change on this large scale, is hard and growing pains are inevitable. But EVs are here and by 2038, according to Bloomberg, their sales will pass up gas powered vehicles. Clearly, the clock is ticking.