Ultrafast electric vehicle (EV) charging could open up electric mobility for vast swathes of drivers: those without access to home charging, those that frequently cover long distances, or those that need the peace of mind of a rapid top-up option. One of the biggest challenges in rolling out ultrafast charger networks relates to utility infrastructure. A typical gas station or convenience store today may use 50kW of power for its entire operation, including fuel pumps and lighting. One ultrafast charger alone may draw 200kW. A power upgrade is needed at these charging locations, but that can take time. In many places, transformer delivery alone could entail a 24-month wait.
FreeWire offers an alternative approach in the form of ultrafast EV charging technology that can be deployed anywhere at a fraction of the usual cost. The company claims a 20% saving on installation costs, with an estimated installation time of just two weeks. It also promises up to 70% savings in operating costs. The key: avoiding the usual electrical infrastructure upgrades by integrating a battery pack into the charger.
“That was a crazy idea when we founded the company nine years ago,” says Chief Executive Arcady Sosinov. “Back then, batteries were incredibly expensive but I saw where the market was going.” Battery prices have dropped dramatically in the intervening years, but utility infrastructure costs have not. “In 2019, it reached the point where it became more cost effective to deploy a battery rather than bring out all the necessary new utility infrastructure,” he points out.
Today, the company’s Boost Charger stations can be found across four countries, including 26 states within its home market of the US. Customers are typically the established charging and fuelling retailers, including Philips 66 and Chevron in the US, Parkland in Canada, and BP in the UK. On average, they will install two chargers per site.
“People find it hard to believe the cost savings we promise, but the addition of a battery in the setup doesn’t add as much expense as a transformer, switchgear and panel upgrades would,” adds Sosinov. The operating cost savings come primarily from flattening the demand curve on the utility side. Charging by nature is very peaky. The vehicle plugs in and draws a large amount of power for a short period. This is followed by dead time. Such patterns are not good for grid infrastructure and can be expensive in regions with demand charging, where higher prices are charged for instances of particularly high demand. The FreeWire charger avoids all that.
The unit is plugged into an existing low power grid connection on site, and targets what Sosinov refers to as the “golden ratio” of 10:1, meaning it inputs 20kW but outputs 200kW. “The battery acts as a buffer and naturally takes advantage of the dead time that would already exist in charging,” he says, likening it to a house’s water tank that stores hot water for use later rather than making it every time someone turns on the tap.
But this is just the surface of what FreeWire is tapping; Sosinov is keen to position the company as an energy services provider and not just a charging station supplier. “The charger is in fact just a Trojan horse for the battery inside of it,” he says. “Once installed we unlock energy services out of that battery.” This includes demand charge management, time-of-use arbitrage and bidirectional charging. It can also provide power for EV drivers during grid outages, which are not unusual in California, the largest EV market in the US. “Essentially we are creating a distributed virtual power plant on the back of growth in charging infrastructure,” Sosinov tells Automotive World. “For every charger we deploy we’re helping the grid rather than harming it… This is is a real energy services play.”
More to come
FreeWire is not the only company pursuing battery-integrated chargers but claims to be in the vanguard with its commercialisation and funding, raising about US$250m over four funding rounds. It was also named on Cleantech Group’s 2023 Global Cleantech 100, a yearly listing of the most innovative and promising companies working towards a net-zero society.
That’s not to say this strategy is without its challenges. For instance, there are limits in how many vehicles can charge in any given period. “What you’re trading off is how many vehicles in a day you can charge for lower cost and ease of installation,” he concedes. The way to solve that problem is to size the battery appropriately, meaning not too big because that will increase costs but not too small as it will run out of capacity in a day. He is confident FreeWire has the sizing just right, allowing for ten to 15 charging sessions a day.
That may not seem like much, but the time factor needs to be considered. A highly utilised gasoline pump serves about 60 vehicles a day, by Sosinov’s reckoning, but fuelling takes just 90 seconds. Charging, even ultrafast, takes ten to 15 minutes. “At six to eight charging sessions a day, your charger is generating about 20% unlevered internal rate of return over five years,” he estimates. “That’s a hell of a good return.”
Looking ahead, the Chief Executive expects more rivals to appear on the market: “I fully expect there to be many people doing this as battery prices continue to fall and infrastructure costs continue to increase. Batteries will have to be paired with ultrafast charging at scale. It just makes so much sense.”