Is the infrastructure ready for an electric vehicle future?

On paper the industry has the capacity to recharge tomorrow's EV fleets, but in practice ensuring a reliable service will require careful planning and upgrades, writes Sam Abuelsamid

Special report: Is the infrastructure ready for an electric vehicle future?

The simple answer to the question posed by the title of this article is yes and no. Okay, maybe it’s not quite so simple. But the reality is that it depends on the specifics of what is being asked. The infrastructure needed for an electrified vehicle ecosystem is not monolithic. There are many aspects to the value chain and they are currently at widely varying states of readiness.

Back at the turn of the 20th century, the automobile was still a new and comparatively rare piece of technology. A mere 14 years after Karl Benz first drove his Patent Motorwagen, fuel stations were still relatively uncommon. Most people that had cars bought cans of gasoline from blacksmith’s shops and pharmacies. The first drive-in fuel stations didn’t appear until 1915.

We’re now about a decade into the modern era of plug-in electric vehicles (PEV) and in many respects we’re probably further along in the development of a charging ecosystem than we were with gasoline infrastructure in 1900. In 2019, approximately 375,000 PEVs were sold in North America and 2.5 million globally. Guidehouse Insights projects those totals to grow to 2.6 million and 23.1 million respectively by 2030.

More and Faster

However, PEVs and the infrastructure needed to make them useful is in many ways more challenging than developing a network of gasoline production and distribution was. A car’s gas tank can be refilled in a few minutes. At a DC fast charging station, a full charge of most long-range EVs takes 30 minutes to an hour. Even new ultra-fast DC chargers at 350kW can take 15 to 20 minutes.

“In 2019, approximately 375,000 PEVs were sold in North America and 2.5 million globally. Guidehouse Insights projects those totals to grow to 2.6 million and 23.1 million respectively by 2030”

In normal times, even on a holiday weekend when many people are going for a road trip the lines at a busy petrol station rarely last more than 15 to 20 minutes. On those same holiday weekends, it’s not uncommon for Tesla drivers at certain high-traffic Supercharger locations to wait for two to three hours for a plug.

Automakers and charging service providers are well aware of this challenge and they are working along multiple pathways to address them. Availability of charging locations is growing and the speed of charging is getting faster. As of 2016, there were approximately 111,000 gas stations In the US. According to the US Department of Energy Alternative Fuel Data Center, there are currently about 31,100 EV charging stations with more than 95,000 charge points in the US and Canada. However, of those, only 4,700 are DC fast charging locations with 16,700 charge points. Among those more than 7,600 are 50kW or less which means that they can take one to two hours to charge a longer range EV fully.

At a larger scale, there is enough electrical generation capacity to support the expected PEV fleet needs in the coming decade. However, it will take careful planning and upgrades of many elements in the supply chain to reliably fuel that fleet

In order to support the projected growth in the PEV fleet over the coming decade, plenty more charging locations will be necessary. The latest Guidehouse Insights EV Charging Equipment Forecast projects that the number of DC fast charging points in North America will grow to approximately 144,000 by 2030 and an increasing proportion of those will support at least 150kW charging. In many cases they will also support 350kW charging rates or more.

Fueling up at home

A key differentiator of PEVs relative to internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles is that you do not actually have to go to a special vendor to fuel it up. Using the charging cord that comes with virtually every PEV, it can be charged from any electrical outlet. Anyone with a home and electrical service can fuel up their PEV whenever they are at home. At least in theory. This works well for those that live in single family homes with dedicated parking.

Those that live in multi-unit dwellings or apartments often do not have access to a plug and aren’t able to install a dedicated 240V Level 2 charger. Even in many older cities, many single family homes rely on street parking and running a charging cord out from the house isn’t practical. Given that cities are where PEVs can have the most benefit on air quality, the inability to conveniently charge one puts an artificial cap on usage.

“The latest Guidehouse Insights EV Charging Equipment Forecast projects that the number of DC fast charging points in North America will grow to approximately 144,000 by 2030 and an increasing proportion of those will support at least 150-kW charging”

Fortunately, cities are recognising this challenge and in many cases are updating building codes to require new homes to account for PEV charging and mandating that apartment managers also provide PEV charging in their parking facilities.

There are other alternatives to charging at home or using public charging, most notably workplace charging. Increasingly employers are installing charging facilities in their parking lots and garages for the use of employees during the workday. Tesla is notable for providing valet parking at its headquarters in Palo Alto, California. Since many of its employees drive PEVs and the parking capacity is often overloaded, employees can drive up to the door and the valets will rotate cars through the chargers during the course of the day.

It’s not as simple as dropping a charger in place

Operators of gas stations have long had to go through permitting processes before installing underground storage tanks. However, once the tanks are in place, a tanker can come by periodically and replenish the supply that is fed to the pumps. Until customers fill their vehicles, the fuel just sits in the storage tank.

It gets a bit more complicated for charging stations, especially those with multiple DC fast chargers. If multiple chargers are installed, there is an expectation that many or all of them may be used simultaneously. There must be sufficient electrical capacity to feed all of the chargers simultaneously. Some Tesla Supercharger locations now have as many as 18 chargers and they are in the process of being upgraded to 250kW output. That’s a potential draw of 4.5 MW.

Electric trucks like Tesla’s announced Semi may potentially draw 1.5 MW or more each. This supply requirement can place additional limits on where chargers can be located. In some cases, installation of a charging station may require substantial and costly upgrades to the local grid.

In normal times, even on a holiday weekend when many people are going for a road trip the lines at a busy petrol station rarely last more than 15 to 20 minutes. On those same holiday weekends, it’s not uncommon for Tesla drivers at certain high-traffic Supercharger locations to wait for two to three hours for a plug

This can be particularly problematic for commercial fleet operators that are increasingly interested in decarbonisation. Following its investment in EV start-up Rivian, Amazon ordered 100,000 electric delivery vans and has big plans to electrify much of its fleet. To support this, it will need to install charging facilities at its many warehouses.

However, there are solutions to this as well. A recent Guidehouse white paper, The Road to Fleet Electrification, provides guidance for fleet operators, utilities and regulators on how to collaborate to enable fleet decarbonisation. In addition to utility upgrades, charging facilities can be upgraded with electrical “storage tanks,” stationary battery systems. Electrify America has equipped many of its more than 400 locations with Tesla battery systems to buffer electricity from the grid at a rate that can be supported and then feed it to PEVs at up to 350kW.

At a larger scale, there is enough electrical generation capacity to support the expected PEV fleet needs in the coming decade. However, it will take careful planning and upgrades of many elements in the supply chain to reliably fuel that fleet.


About the author: Sam Abuelsamid is a Principal Research Analyst at Guidehouse Insights where he leads Guidehouse’s E-Mobility research

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