With several all electric vehicles now shipping in quantity, we now have the discussion turning to providing electric vehicle charging stations to support the cars. And as the owner of a Leaf I am all in favor of getting these public chargers in place. But I worry that it’s going to be done all wrong.
The need is different from gas stations. Very different.
When the telephone first came into use, businesses all had phones installed because faster communication was of great value. They immediately saw the win. But what they did was put a phone in their mailroom. Messages to other companies were still dictated, typed up, and sent down to the mailroom. But instead of a mailroom employee then running the message to the other office, they called them and dictated it.
Rather than understanding that the phone could totally change how people operated, it was first used to make the existing system more efficient. (In the case of the phone, executives started going to the mailrooms to talk directly, then they added phones to phone conference rooms, then finally to individual offices.)
My worry is both governments and private companies, as they seed EV chargers, will be thinking gas stations. And this is not what electric cars need – for two major reasons.
A full tank every morning
Assume you leave home every morning with your car’s gas tank full (or ½ full so it’s the same range as an electric). How often will you be stopping at a gas station? For the vast majority of people the answer is never. For most of the remaining people the answer is a couple of times a year when you are taking a long trip.
This is the situation with electric vehicles. You plug it in each night (takes 20 seconds). So you leave the house every morning with a full charge. You generally return home with well over ½ charge. The average electric vehicle will never need to use a public charger. Or if it does, it’s on a road trip.
The one exception to this is an individual who drives over 40 miles each way to work. They do need a charge each and every day at work. But this person does not need to find a public charger at which to top up at lunchtime, they need a dedicated charger at work. Dedicated because it will take several hours (all 8 if their one way drive is 70+ miles) to recharge. And dedicated because if they cannot get a charge on even one day, their electric vehicle is not reliable transportation.
Charging takes time – lots of time
When you stop to fill up your gas tank it takes a couple of minutes. Charging the batteries can take hours. Even the “super-fast” 440 volt recharging takes 25 minutes to go from empty to full – and you should use this fast charge only when there’s no alternative. For the non-daily commute needs, weekend kid’s soccer games, visiting family in Grand Junction, etc. – the chargers need to be located near places where the car is going to be parked for some time.
In other words, charging stations at the soccer fields may make more sense than ones placed by downtown businesses. Charging stations just off the interstate next to a number of restaurants may make more sense than ones placed in a hotel parking lot. Charging stations at airport long term parking is nice, but in short term parking it’s gigantic.
Good News and Bad News
The good news is the infrastructure needed to support electric vehicles does not require replication on the order of hundreds of thousands of gas stations. Most of Colorado (Front Range and I-25 to Grand Junction) could be covered with about 16 high-speed (440v) and 250 standard (220v) chargers. Plus individual chargers for people who have a long commute. This is a trivial cost. (One key caveat, this requires software to measure charge need/time per car to enforce public chargers being used by those who need it, not people who “top up” every stop while shopping.)
The bad news is you could well have chargers placed by people who do not understand the use case for electric vehicles. If a city government (like Boulder) installs them, the urge will be to put them in places that are highly visible. And where Boulder residents will use them. And that would be a waste of money because, by definition, residents of any given city will never need the chargers in their own city.