Smart & Clean Energy and Ground Transportation

Electric Vehicle (EV) Infrastructure

The great challenge of infrastructure is often the hidden deterrent to adoption for many technologies. There are many issues with Electric Vehicle adoption that are very well covered in a book by Bernie Landoz which is available on Kindle (link). But I’d like to now comment on the EV infrastructure as I’ve recently attended several meetings regarding this issue and met with several vendors who provide EV infrastructure. The key issues to keep in mind are:

  • Charge times do NOT lend themselves to a gas station model – it takes about 30 mins to charge a vehicle to go 100 miles. And this does NOT follow Moore’s law; this technology will improve by about 12% per year, but it’s not clear if this can all be applied to charge time per mile (vs. just cost)
  • Initially, EV’s will grow in certain segments, and it’s critical to know how to effectively deploy infrastructure to address these segments to allow this fledgling industry to survive and not crash
  • There are many different EV variations (See previous blog entry). A plug-in hybrid may be more viable than a pure electric vehicle. Long term a hydrogen vehicle may make the most sense if the appropriate infrastructure can be developed.
  • EV’s will cost more money than a traditional vehicle or a hybrid into the foreseeable future, so the primary motivation for customers in this market will be any regulations, policies, or marketing efforts to be more green.

Charge time is the biggest challenge, because even if there are large groups of customers who are willing to pay a premium for EV’s, the charge times could be intolerable unless the infrastructure allows charging in a place where one would normally park the vehicle. There are three levels of chargers, and the benchmark is how long it takes to charge a typical 25KWH car battery which will allow you to drive 100 miles:

  • Level 1 Home charger – about 8 hours
  • Level 2 Home or parking garage charger – about 4 hours
  • Level 3 public service station – about 30 minutes (400V, 125A – 50KW)

These numbers are not expected to improve significantly because the limits are matter of physics. Also fast charges are generally limited to about 80% of the battery capacity otherwise the battery life will be reduced below it’s roughly 3000 charge cycle limits. Plus when a battery charge gets low (e.g. 10% – 20% of capacity), it starts to affect performance. So these numbers may be worse than stated – e.g. 30 minutes for 70 miles instead of 100. There are various ways to deal with such problems:

  1. The Tesla has a larger capacity (roughly double), but then the charge time doubles (for the fast chargers).
  2. One can charge at home at night, or in a parking garage while shopping, or in the office. But this generally cannot be done during peak hours (12 – 7PM) otherwise it’s too expensive as rates are highest during peak hours.
  3. One can use a plug-in hybrid like the Chevy Volt, or other EV variations (See previous blog entry), thus only using the electric charge option when it’s convenient, but otherwise using the gasoline engine

If we focus back to the EV infrastructure (issue #2 above), we start to see some possible solutions that are oriented around specific market segments. We’ll put these in descending order of likely adoption based on the concept that the primary motivation for purchasing electric vehicle is government mandates, marketing benefits to certain large corporations, and a small segment of the consumer market who want be green regardless of the cost and who might purchase such a vehicle so they can use the carpool lane, or because they like the acceleration of an EV, or they want to essentially wear a green badge:

  • Fleets of Government and Utility vehicles who deploy charging stations on their premises or near government buildings
  • Large corporations such as Google who will deploy such stations in their parking lots
  • Green parking lots in certain cities and neighborhoods which will allow customers to charge while shopping
  • A distant 4th place is home chargers for wealthy individuals and green enthusiasts. (E.g. a home charger is $2500 in addition to the premium cost of the vehicle)

It is clear that this is NOT a money saving proposition, so we won’t address the issue of how this will be financed, but a key challenge is how do we ensure that there are enough charging stations available and you can find one when you need it. Software has been developed on mobile phones for example, to allow people to find the nearest station, make a reservation, and have convenient billing options. This is especially challenging if we consider that charging will generally only be done in the morning before noon, and after 7PM to avoid peak hours because the cost is otherwise too high, even for those not focused on cost. This charging will generally take about 4 hours, as the level 3 chargers appear to only be available for special facilities. You can imagine the complications (and opportunities) of capital costs, real estate issues, throughput, scheduling, not to mention customer behavior which is the biggest challenge.

Information indicates an expected 3 Million EV’s by 2015, where today the numbers are in the thousands. China is very bullish on EV’s and is developing an industry of EV vehicles and infrastructure. So it’s clear that this is an important technology. It will no doubt evolve significantly, but what is not clear is in exactly what form and this will be driven by as yet unknown customer behavior. It appears unlikely that a pure EV will be the technology of choice. We will probably see plug-in Hybrids of various technologies in the near time. In the long term, 2050 and beyond, we will hopefully see more non-fossil fuel electricity generation on a massively larger scale. Then the challenge will be what is the best way to deliver this power to a vehicle with reasonable re-charge or re-fuel times. We may very well see hydrogen or other technologies as the best delivery mechanism. But for now, the challenge is to ensure that this industry remains economically viable to ensure the continued growth and evolution of this industry; it behooves all of us to think very carefully about segmenting the market and finding the right customers and the right infrastructure to serve them. This is an exciting time in this industry and it will be fascinating to watch the various State and Federal programs, vehicle manufacturers, infrastructure providers, and customers evolve over time.

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