It has been observed that the best science fiction is predictive. Nowhere is this more evident than in the realm of transit. While 1960s cartoon dad George Jetson and his flying car may not be in our future, other forms of imaginative and innovative transportation certainly are.
For example, take electric vehicles, or EVs. There is no question about it. EVs are surging. What was only a few years ago considered by many to be a futuristic possibility (i.e., fantasy) is very quickly becoming an everyday reality. And it’s not just for the rich and famous or those who live in a space bubble.
While Tesla made EVs attractive for the well-to-do, there are options for the everyday driver on an everyday budget. And electrification is taking over more than just passenger cars. Vehicle fleets, buses, and trucks are all going electric. Electric scooters are revving up, too.
All these electric vehicles on the road have one thing in common. They need to be charged. The surge in electric vehicles has fueled an equally rapid expansion of charging infrastructure around the globe. Growth will continue, and more needs to be done. Whether governments and other stakeholders are poised to keep up with the rising demand is an issue that warrants a closer look.
Electric Vehicle Popularity Continues to Skyrocket
Electric cars and the charging infrastructure that supports them make up a growing industry. As it continues to expand, we can wonder: Does the availability of chargers increase the demand for consumers to go out and buy EVs, or does the rising demand for electric cars create a need for more chargers?
A true causal relationship may be hard, if not impossible, to determine. According to the Fuels Institute’s 2020 Electric Vehicles Adoption report, "There is no single ratio that accurately captures the relationship between EV charging stations and EVs."
Although it may be difficult to characterize the nature of the relationship between the two, there is no disputing that one exists. First, there is the matter of EVs and their rapidly growing numbers. According to the BloombergNEF Electric Vehicle Outlook October 2021, "There are 12 million passenger EVs on the road globally today." This is an increase from just 170,000 in 2010. That's an average of more than one million new EVs on the road per year over the last ten years.
Analysts expect this growth to continue. Varying scenarios forecast anywhere from 145 million to 230 million EVs on the road globally by the year 2030. That's a tenfold to twentyfold increase over the next decade.
Demand for Chargers Is Met by Three Main Types
As EV numbers grow, so does the volume and diversity of chargers that serve them. There are a variety of chargers to support the needs of EV owners. Currently, there are three types of chargers which are distinguished by how fast they can charge up a car's battery.
A Level 1 charger uses (in the United States) a standard 120-volt outlet. The same kind of plug you would use for your household appliances, like a television or a toaster. It is the slowest kind of charger and adds about three to five miles of driving range per hour of charging.
Level 2 chargers are significantly faster and must be installed separately in the home or office. They can deliver between 12 to 80 miles per hour of charging depending on the output of the charger and the charge rate of the car. An EV plugged into a Level 2 charger will almost certainly be fully charged overnight, even if the battery was empty when charging began.
Level 3 chargers, also called fast chargers or superchargers, can deliver a whopping 3 to 20 miles per minute. Unlike Level 1 and 2 chargers, which rely on Alternating Current (AC), a Level 3 charger relies on Direct Current (DC) to deliver a charge to the EV's battery.
In slightly more technical terms, Level 1 chargers rely on a 120-volt setup. Level 2 utilizes a 208-volt to 240-volt circuit. Level 3 chargers rely on a setup that delivers 400 to 900 volts of current.
There is also the question of standards. In North America, all EVs use the standard J1772 or "J-Plug" for Level 1 and Level 2 chargers. Level 3 charging has more options. Most EV manufacturers use the Combined Charging System, CCS or “Combo” plug. Some manufacturers use the Asian standard called CHAdeMO. Tesla uses its own proprietary charger for all three levels of charging.
Price and Efficiency Can Make EVs a Better Deal Than Gas Cars
Part of the cost of keeping an electric car running is determined by the price of electricity where it’s charged. That can make a difference depending on where the owner lives. For example, charging up an EV in California, which has almost half of the EVs in the entire country, requires drivers to pay one of the highest average rates for electricity.
The calculation will also reflect the fuel efficiency of the car, or how much electricity is used to drive a certain distance. One way to make the calculation is to measure the number of kilowatt-hours (kWh) per 100 miles driven. In California, in the United States, for example, electricity rates average 16.89 cents per kWh. If an EV in California consumes 33 kWh to travel 100 miles, or .33 kWh per mile, that's a cost of about $0.05 per mile.
At a cost of $6.75 per charge, a driver would pay about $400 per year to charge an electric car. That’s easily a fraction of the typical amount spent on gasoline for a standard car.
Making a similar calculation for a gasoline-powered car shows the difference between the two. For example, a gasoline car that gets 22 miles per gallon and fuels up in California, where fuel prices average more than $4.00 per gallon, will cost about $.20 per mile.
Another way to evaluate the cost of an electric car is to calculate how much it costs to charge the vehicle. Take for example, a typical EV with a 40-kWh battery. If this car were to be charged in California, with its average rate of 16.89 cents per kWh, the owner will pay about $6.75 every time the car is charged.
According to the American Automobile Association, US drivers average about thirty-one miles of driving per day. The range of EVs varies from less than a hundred miles to over 250 miles per charge. Taking an average of 200 miles, that equates to about six days of use per fully charged battery. That means an EV owner would have to charge up his or her car about sixty times per year. At a cost of $6.75 per charge, that equates to about $400 per year to charge an electric car. That's easily a fraction of the typical amount spent on gasoline for a standard car.
There is No Place Like Home for Charging
These days, everyone is doing things from home. EV charging is no exception. Studies show that over 80% of EV owners prefer to charge their vehicles at home, where they can plug it into the wall using the standard outlet or that dedicated 220-volt station they paid an electrician to install. Installing a Level 1 or Level 2 charger can cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars to over $2,000. Level 3 chargers will cost tens of thousands of dollars, making them impractical to install for most homeowners.
Despite the preference for powering up at home, charging away from home is still an important consideration. According to Eric Wood, Team Lead, Decarbonized Vehicle Systems for the National Renewal Energy Lab (NREL), there is a psychological component to owning an EV. He calls it "range anxiety." Although most drivers are taking those relatively short, thirty-one-mile trips on a daily basis, they all plan to go on a road trip someday.
"The value of public investment in EV charging," says Wood, "is in providing charging for long-distance trips." Everyone takes a trip out of town eventually. Wood says those trips will be at least 200 miles and sometimes more.
Federal Investments Multiply Charging Stations Across the World
All of this begs the question, what is being done to build up the charging infrastructure for electric cars? Like so many new technologies, when it comes to a public EV charging network, government has stepped in to charge up the industry. In countries around the globe, federal government has invested heavily in the charging infrastructure, and it has paid off.
For example, last year the government of the United Kingdom announced its Rapid Charging Fund, part of a five-year, £500 million plan to support the rollout of a fast-charging network for electric vehicles, ensuring that drivers will never be further than thirty miles from a rapid charging station. The goal of the plan is to have 2,500 high powered charge points across England’s motorways and major roads by the year 2030, and 6,000 by 2035.
Government spending on EV infrastructure yields results: Recent reports show that electric cars make up over 80% of new cars sold in Norway.
Similarly, the Norwegian government launched a program in 2017 to finance the establishment of at least two multi-standard fast-charging stations every fifty km on all main roads in Norway. The country is a world leader in EV adoption. Recent reports show that electric cars made up over 80% of new cars sold.
China is also a global leader in the EV industry. The central government set a goal in 2015 to build 12,000 centralized charging stations with 4.8 million EV charging plugs by 2020. The plan appears to have been a success with over 17,000 new charging plugs installed per month in 2019 and over 800,000 total charging points installed by 2020.
The United States is also committed to building out this country's charging infrastructure. The Biden Administration's Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act would invest $7.5 billion to build out the first-ever national network of EV chargers in the U.S. The bill will provide funding for deployment of EV chargers along highway corridors.
Expansion Hopes to Keep Up with Demand
By all accounts, continuing investment in charging infrastructure is needed. Growing demand from consumers and continuing pressure from government in the form of zero emission standards will only lead to more electric cars on the road. The projected rapid and continuing increase in the number of EVs over the coming years will be dependent on an expansive public and private charging network.
The challenge is not small. For example, the NREL estimates that the United States needs a total of 27,500 DC fast chargers and 601,000 Level 2 chargers to meet the country's charging needs by the year 2030. That's a 40% and 86% increase, respectively.
If the past decade is any indication, government and the private sector, with support from the consumers, are up to the task.
*Rick Laezman is a freelance writer in Los Angeles, California, US. He has a passion for energy efficiency and innovation. He has been covering renewable power and other related subjects for more than ten years.