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The Road to Electrification is Paved with Convenient Chargers

We need more and better charging infrastructure to win over electric vehicle skeptics.

BidenPhoto

“Excuse me, do you know the way to the clean energy transition?” Source: ABC

The best way to get the American consumer to participate in the energy revolution is to ensure that it requires no effort on their part.

People love renewables, as long as they remain invisible. They are happy to vote for aggressive renewable portfolio standards, as long as they don’t notice an impact on their bill. The less we ask people to change their behavior, the easier it is to make progress.

Unfortunately, it will be hard to electrify personal vehicles without drivers noticing. We won’t be able to swap people’s conventional cars for shiny new EVs while they are looking the other way. Instead, Americans have to be lured out of their fossil-mobiles voluntarily, and that requires the promise of something demonstrably better.

That is exactly what led to Tesla’s initial success. Tesla buyers don’t feel like they are compromising on quality to save the environment—they think they are getting something better. With a Tesla, you get to feel morally and materially superior at the same time.

Deep decarbonization requires this sort of product quality across the board: we need an electric vehicle “for every purse and purpose” that is not just on par with its fossil counterparts, but is actually an upgrade. This is a tall order on many fronts, but I think the biggest challenge lies not with designing or marketing the next generation of vehicles, but with ensuring a charging infrastructure that makes EVs seem like the easier, more convenient option to nearly all Americans.

Which is more important, the chicken or the egg?

Conventional analysis highlights two main barriers to EV adoption: sticker price and concerns about charging, that is, range anxiety.

Battery price declines are solving the first problem. BloombergNEF projects EV cost parity with conventional vehicles in the next two or three years, with EVs enjoying a cost advantage going forward, even before subsidies are figured in. Policy can help by juicing tax credits (as the Biden administration proposes) and tightening fuel economy regulations (like in the EU). Product offerings remain uneven across categories, but diversity is expanding rapidly.

BatteryPriceGraph

Battery prices continue declining by double digit percentages per year. BNEF

But, the second problem—range anxiety—still needs work. If we focus on the goal of making EV charging feel “effortless” and “easier than gas” to the broadest possible swath of the American consumer, then the magnitude of the challenge starts to take shape.

Can EV charging be better and more convenient than gas?

The Biden administration is touting a target of 500,000 public charging stations by 2030. This is meant to be a mix of public and shared private (i.e., workplace and multi-unit dwellings), with probably a couple of plugs per station (DOE currently estimates that there are roughly 43,000 stations with 105,000 plugs).

Would this overcome our collective range anxiety? A number of high quality studies (here, here, here, and here) have estimated the charging infrastructure needed to support significant EV penetration. (Others show how advances in ride sharing and automation could greatly reduce infrastructure needs.) These studies suggest that the Biden target is adequate to support a fleet that was around 20% electric by 2030, which is broadly consistent with a target of full electrification of new vehicles by 2035.

But saying a public charging network is viable is still a long way from saying it is superior to refueling with gas, which is what will be needed to win over millions of Americans who are skeptical of EVs.

Fortunately, EV charging is already more convenient most of the time for many people. Once you have a home charger setup, charging at home is easier than having to refuel at the gas station. Ditto charging at work, if you can secure a spot.

If you add to that ubiquitous public charging at retailers, integration of parking fees and charging in both lots and street meters, a common platform for vehicle to grid communication, and a unified, simple billing system with low prices, then you can start to imagine a utopian future where charging your EV is a passive, effortless activity that drivers hardly notice, vastly preferred to stopping at a gas station (unless you like inhaling the fumes).

But, there is a lot of hard work and innovation between here and there, and EV charging has some structural weaknesses compared to gas.

EVs cannot, and will never, outperform fossil vehicles in refueling speed.

As Andy explained in a previous post, a gas pump in the US is limited to pumping 10 gallons a minute. At that rate, a vehicle with average fuel economy (25 mpg) can add 250 miles of range per minute.

A level two charger (the kind you find at retailers and install in your home) adds range to an EV at about 25 miles per hour. Put differently, after a minute of charging, you get enough juice to drive a Chevy Bolt twice around your high school track, while a Chevy Equinox sips enough gas in that minute to drive from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. (East Coasters could drive from New York to DC, then loop back and do a few donuts around Baltimore.)

GasStation

This Chevron station in Jean, NV has 96 pumps, which can provide range per hour equivalent to more than 50,000 level 2 plugs, or about 75% of Tesla’s entire US supercharging network. Source

And EV infrastructure has to compete with a fully mature incumbent fossil network. There are around 115,000 gasoline stations in the US, with something like 10 pumps per station. This means our fossil infrastructure has the capacity to pump out 17 billion miles of range per hour, equivalent to servicing the entire 3.2 trillion annual miles of personal vehicle travel in under 200 hours. That is convenient, ubiquitous power.

EVs can’t compete, at least not directly (assuming battery swapping remains niche). Suppose you wanted to service the aforementioned 20% of vehicle miles traveled in 2030 with EVs, and you wanted the same flow capacity in terms of range per hour across the fleet to match the current gas infrastructure, so you can fill up in 200 hours. Assuming 80% of charging is done at home, you’d still need more than 25 million public level two plugs, or 2.5 million DC fast chargers, which are the fancy (and expensive) kind.

This matters mostly for facilitating road trips. Only 5% of vehicle trips are longer than 30 miles, but I think these trips play an outsized role in the psychology of EV adoption for many.

The solution is to build a network of DC fast chargers along highways, as the Department of Transportation intends. These chargers add more like 250 range miles per hour. Even then, refueling will take 30 minutes or an hour. This is hardly insurmountable, but it still fails on the “entirely effortless” metric.

But even beyond road trips, there are fundamental hurdles facing millions of drivers. Most people can’t charge at work, and even charging at home is a problem for many, including the roughly one-third of Americans who live in multi-unit dwellings, and a substantial number who will need panel upgrades to install a level 2 charger at home.

For these households, going electric is a hassle. Some of them will be “EV curious,” and they might find a way to make it work. But others will be “EV hesitant,” and for them, these barriers are all the reason they’ll need to stick with the fossil-based status quo.

It pays dividends now to think about rolling out a network that not only aims to service drivers who are going electric in the near term, but also thinks ahead about looming barriers to mass adoption. The administration’s plan calls for special attention to highway corridors, as well as multi-unit dwellings, so they seem to be on the right track. But these challenges will only be met with sustained investments over a long period, and we are all still waiting for the US Senate to fully embrace infrastructure week.

Can we travel the long road ahead, and quickly?

California has a goal to sell 100% electric (or other non-fossil) new vehicles by 2035, and a number of countries have expressed similar aspirations. To get there, EVs can’t just be on par with gasoline incumbents, they have to be better, cheaper and more convenient.

A robust charging network is a necessary step for overcoming EV hesitancy, but it is certainly not sufficient.  Widespread adoption likely requires not just making EVs as appealing as possible, but also throwing roadblocks in the way of fossil vehicles—like pricing externalities, or perhaps using low emissions zones that exclude all fossil vehicles from central cities, and eventually an outright ban.

Our future depends on our collective ability to reimagine transportation in a way that makes electric vehicles the default choice for everyone. This undoubtedly requires at least a dash of behavior change from consumers, but policy would do well to focus on minimizing the effort required of consumers if we are serious about converting the entire US fleet.

Keep up with Energy Institute blogs, research, and events on Twitter @energyathaas.

Suggested citation: Sallee, James. “The Road to Electrification is Paved with Convenient Chargers” Energy Institute Blog, UC Berkeley, June 14, 2021, https://energyathaas.wordpress.com/2021/06/14/12201/

James Sallee View All

James M. Sallee is an Associate Professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at UC Berkeley, a Research Associate of the Energy Institute at Haas, and a Faculty Research Fellow of the National Bureau of Economic Research. He is a public economist who studies topics related to energy, the environment and taxation. Much of his work evaluates policies aimed at mitigating greenhouse gas emissions related to the use of automobiles.

15 thoughts on “The Road to Electrification is Paved with Convenient Chargers Leave a comment

  1. To short sighted, the charging will be built into the roads, charging lanes on the interstate, charging while stopped at signal lights etc. Satelites will keep up with what we owe for charging and use. We will never get out or think about refueling in the future. Phones cqn be charged wireless, why not a automobile? Those bumper cars at the amusment park has been running off of the ceiling for 70 years or more. Why not the same thing for the road?

  2. Sound article, but the intro was rather yikes. It’s a really dire and basic depiction of modern Hunan nature.

    “They are happy to vote for aggressive renewable portfolio standards, as long as they don’t notice an impact on their bill. The less we ask people to change their behavior, the easier it is to make progress ”

    … great.
    The fight since the late 80s to bring emissions standards and electric vehicles to fruition was long fought and politically battled, and political was every hurdle electric cars and alternative fuel vehicle advocates faced every turn of the wheel. So too was acquiring public effort to accommodate space and investment for public charging.

    So the feeling is a tad sour to hear such a benal consumerist hedonistic message for the greater adoption of EVs . Especially when such elements have been the commerical drivers for mineral and natural extraction and exploitation globally; bananas, copper, oil (a major political contention for EV advocates)

  3. 1.Range anxiety is a symptom of Charging anxiety. A gas car with 200 miles of range doesn’t cause a driver anxiety because they know they’ll be able to find a gas station to fill up when they need it. There are still major transit corridors with only one Fast Charging station per 100 miles. Charging anxiety is the result of public lack of knowledge about the presence of fast chargers, how to find them, and how long charging takes. Stop pushing the ‘range anxiety’ narrative and start addressing Charging anxiety.
    I’m contemplating a road trip from CA to TX this fall in my 2017 Bolt EV. I’m not concerned about the range – my car has 3+ hours of driving range, and there’s a DC Fast Charger every 1.5 hours of driving along the route. For every 2 hours of driving, I’ll need to make a 30 minute charging stop and bio break. It’ll take about 25% longer to drive the distance in my EV than it would in a gas vehicle, but charging will cost significantly less than gas. What concerns me is that there’s ONE DC Fast charger station every 1.5 hours along the route. ONE. If all its plugs are occupied, or it’s out of service, I’m stuck waiting or looking for a public L2 charger to get enough range to make the next DC Fast charger on the route. CHARGING anxiety, not range anxiety.
    2. “Public charging isn’t necessary for EV adoption” is a skewed metric based on current surveys that show that most people charge at home. This metric is skewed because most people who buy an EV, bought their EV because they were able to charge at home. If you can’t charge at home, and there’s not an adequate fast charging network along your travel routes.. you don’t buy an EV. This means EVs are selected against in high-density urban areas with low opportunity for home charging. Suburban and rural housing, with better home charging availability and options for home solar generation and storage, actually select for EV adoption. Meanwhile, both these scenarios ignore the fact that on any given day there will still be a large number of drivers travelling further than their vehicle’s range that will need public fast charging (y’know, like someone taking a road trip from CA to TX).
    3. The future is EV. Which means if your EV plans don’t account for ALL driver niches and vehicle usage, then your plan is doomed. “Just rent a gas car for long range trips” works NOW while gas cars and stations are still available. When was the last time you tried to make a long distance journey on a horse? Welcome to the future of gas vehicles.

  4. “EVs cannot, and will never, outperform fossil vehicles in refueling speed.“
    Remember when IBM didnt buy xerox, because the copier market was ‘maximum’ 5000. Maybe.
    Olson of DEC: who wants a computer on his desk.
    Balmer, microsoft, iphone will be a big failure.

    NEVER bet against technology [and I mean REAL technology, not Google Facebook Amazon etc]. It may take longer than you expect from first tries.
    The first ‘video’ recorder was not much smaller than a ‘smallish’ microwave is today.

    It WILL require huge infrastructure investment. I bet that is what the buggy companies said about the gas-automobile.

    • “EVs cannot, and will never, outperform fossil vehicles in refueling speed.“

      James is correct, and it has nothing to do with technology. It has everything to do with energy density.

      To expand on his illustration: each gallon of gas contains 130,680,000 joules of energy. Thus, to transfer the same amount of electrical energy in the same amount of time you’d need a cable with the capacity to transfer electricity at the rate of 21,823,560 watts, or 21.8 MW (megawatts), of power.

      Thatsa lotta power.

      At the voltage of a typical distribution line (36kV), drivers would need to plug in a cable that’s 2.55 inches thick and weighs 18.5 lbs. to recharge. But 36kV is seventy-five times the voltage of the fast chargers being used by Tesla now (480V).
      A short in a 36,000 volt circuit would not only destroy you, it would destroy your new Electric Vehicle. Behold this video of shorts on distribution lines:

      There is no technology, and there never will be a technology, which violates the laws of physics. Ergo, EVs cannot, and will never, outperform fossil vehicles in refueling speed.

  5. Speaking as an EV owner, this article gets a lot right, but also gives a nod to something that has received _way_ too much attention in EV policy up to now: “If you add to that ubiquitous public charging at retailers, integration of parking fees and charging in both lots and street meters, a common platform for vehicle to grid communication, and a unified, simple billing system with low prices, then you can start to imagine a utopian future where charging your EV is a passive, effortless activity that drivers hardly notice, vastly preferred to stopping at a gas station (unless you like inhaling the fumes).”

    Specifically, there is almost no use for level 1 or 2 EV chargers at retail locations or parking meters where people will only park for a couple of hours. No one will head out in the morning without enough charge to get home, hoping they can get a couple of hours of charging at one of these locations, and no one should buy an EV with that as their plan.

    The most important thing is getting level 1 or 2 chargers in the places where people park routinely for long periods of time: homes (fortunately, people can self-supply, and often level 1 is enough, with no upgrades needed), residential streets in urban areas (we should probably be talking a lot more about this), and workplaces (we should definitely be talking more about this).

    Fast chargers along highways are also very helpful for reducing range anxiety and for long day trips or some longer road trips. But we should also be open to renting more suitable vehicles for those rare road trips, where you really need long range, fast fueling and maybe more cargo space (i.e., use a small electric vehicle for 99% of your driving and rent something bigger and less efficient for the road trips, instead of driving a road-trip-capable vehicle every day).

  6. Most of career has been focused on enacting The Green Industrial Revolution (GIR) due my working at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) in Northern California just about 40 miles east of CAL where I earned my PhD. My point is that aside from being the first Manager of Technology Transfer (due to Bye-Dole Act from the US Congress in the late 1980s) whereby federal research funds should be used for researchers who want to get the inventions out into companies, public-private groups and newcos. The key is that the missing difference in technologies that LLNL and other R&D Labs (like at Haas Business School and other areas at CAL, Stanford University and others in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was in the 1970s when Silicon Valley was started. The point is that LLNL was able to contract with companies and academic resources for The Green Industrial Revolution (GIR) . Case in point: EV and Hydrogen powered vehicles. Both of these technologies then and even today are what created a new world order. Another case is that car companies were no longer mostly in the US (Detroit) or the EU (Germany). Instead Toyota made the Prius Car which in the early part of the 21st Century was a hybrid powered car along with EV and gas plus more today. I recommend that you get some research on what is next for traveling? As well as the names of companies and universities (around the world) with NO OIL OR GAS for powering travel. There is much much more. Stay tuned.

  7. “The solution is to build a network of DC fast chargers along highways, as the Department of Transportation intends. These chargers add more like 250 range miles per hour. Even then, refueling will take 30 minutes or an hour. This is hardly insurmountable, but it still fails on the ‘entirely effortless’ metric.”

    James, I don’t know if anyone ever expected EVs to make highway travel entirely effortless. it seems the only drivers who view highway charging as essential to EV adoption are those who don’t own one.

    As a driver who is currently shopping for his fourth electric vehicle, I speak with some authority on this subject. Though I’ve belonged to ChargePoint for over a decade, I charge remotely at most 3-4 times per year. In practice, my cars have been charged every night at home, and as battery capacity has expanded it’s rarely necessary anymore to have to worry about whether a station will be open and functional when I’ll need one.

    So it’s a different mindset – and combined with the lack of maintenance, faster pickup, zero noise, and zero emissions, having only 230 miles of range in my car each morning is something I can’t get that anxious about.

    For the occasional road trip my wife and I also own a Ford Escape hybrid. Though new-generation Teslas could easily drive cross country with 2-3 fast charges between metro centers, I don’t see EVs ever becoming the vehicle of choice for road trips. Needing an EV for road trips makes about as much sense as needing an RV to drive to work each day.

    • Well, you certainly know what works for you as an ev owner. However not everyone can own two cars as you do, nor do they all only make two or three road trips a year as you do. As for those who work at home in a condo with no garage, ev ownership is an issue. And for those who do lots of traveling, maybe you are right that that is not the environment for an ev. However, if ice are mandated out of existence what is a high mileage car traveler to do? These are difficult issues to deal with and perhaps that is why there are hydrogen vehicles if co2 isn’t your bag.

  8. My daughter bought a Bold, and she loves it!!!
    She is in Sacramento, and showed me all the local chargers on her cell phone. Her only complaint is that she needs to have several “refueling” accounts because the different charging stations are from different vendors, and they have not integrated their payment structures….

    Also, my wife was under the false impression that any vehicle with a plug has a limited range. She did not understand that a plug-in hybrid vehicle’s range is limited by the fuel tank, not the battery. I did not realize the had this false understanding until it was too late… since it was a vehicle for her, we got a hybrid rather than a plug-in hybrid. Now she understands, but it is too late!

  9. Question is: do electric cars need to weigh 20-30 times more than the usually single occupant (the driver)? Electricity companies are worried about the growing demand on the grid – exacerbated by bulky vehicles (SUV trend)with large battery packs. The lighter the vehicle, the less kWh are needed and’the better the range squeezed out of 1 kWh. Downsize and reformat the EV, and Mobility can be taken to a whole new level.

    • Sure, get an electric skateboard. Or bike. For some reason north Americans like large transport: suvs, trucks, whatever. Because energy is so cheap, we don’t seem to mind the extra cost of those pounds on the cost per mile, whether it be electric or gas. As soon as we change our preferences the car companies will follow with the appropriate vehicle.

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