For more drivers to go electric, EV chargers must level up


It’s getting easier to find places to recharge an electric car. Unless you want to recharge it fast. Then you’ve got a problem.

According to the US Department of Energy, there are about 49,000 vehicle charging locations in the US, with a total of 122,000 charging ports — the cables that plug into individual cars. But the great majority of these are slow “Level 2″ chargers that take hours to deliver a significant battery boost.

Only about 6,400 locations feature “Level 3″ fast chargers, capable of adding dozens of miles of driving range to a car’s battery in 15 or 20 minutes. These locations have just 25,000 charging ports to serve the entire US. Massachusetts has just 129 fast charging stations with just under 500 plug-in ports.

In addition, more than half of all US fast chargers serve only one make of electric vehicle — Tesla — making them useless to drivers of other battery-powered cars. Tesla has begun to allow customers in Europe to recharge non-Tesla vehicles at their chargers, but this program has yet to launch in the US.

The scarcity of fast chargers isn’t a critical problem for now, since today’s EV owners are mostly affluent homeowners who can recharge every night in their driveways. But “as the market for EVs expands and goes beyond the early adopters, you’re going to see an increasing portion of the customer base who do not have access to off-street parking,” said Sam Abuelsamid, an electric vehicle analyst at Guidehouse Insights in Detroit. Such drivers can’t or won’t spend hours in a public parking lot waiting for a battery boost, he said.

So it’ll take a lot more fast charging stations to persuade many drivers to even consider going electric. But they aren’t being installed fast enough.

A new study from the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), a trade association of electric utilities, estimates that there’ll be about 26 million electric vehicles in the US by 2030, about 10 percent of the nation’s vehicle fleet. The report said that utilities, corporations, and governments have committed to build about 45,000 high-speed charging ports nationwide by 2030, but the nation will actually need about 140,000 to meet expected demand.

Installing a slow Level 2 charger can cost as little as a few hundred dollars. But fast Level 3 chargers can run from $50,000 to $100,000 each. That’s because they require special electrical transformers and beefed-up transmission lines to deliver so much energy so quickly.

Kellen Schefter, senior director of electric transportation for EEI, said that a single fast charging station is capable of recharging four cars at a time can draw as much electrical power as an entire Walmart store.

In Massachusetts and many other parts of the country, fast charging stations don’t just pay for the electricity they consume. They must also pay a special fee called a demand charge, which is levied on all sorts of businesses that place unusually high demands on the electrical grid. A 2019 study by the Great Plains Institute found that fast charging sites often pay more in demand charges than for the electricity itself.

That’s because there are still so few electric cars on the road. Say just one car per month uses a fast charging station. The operator would have to pay only a little for the kilowatts he’s sold to the driver. But because the car put a brief, massive load on the electrical grid, the station operator would still have to pay the full demand charge for that month.

If the station had hundreds of customers per month, the operator would just add a dollar or two to each customer’s bill. But until electric cars become commonplace, operators of fast chargers will often have to pay demands charges out of their own pockets.

Some are embracing a creative workaround.

“At over 120 sites now, we have battery storage systems,” said Anthony Lambkin, senior director of operations for Electrify America, a company owned by German carmaker Volkswagen which operates one of the largest networks of fast chargers in the US. “So we are not pulling power 100 percent from the grid.”

Instead, these sites use large banks of batteries that are constantly being recharged, but never at a rate that incurs a demand charge. When customers need a quick jolt of juice, the Electrify America site draws the power from its own batteries instead of the local utility.

Meanwhile, electric utilities say they’re willing to be flexible on demand charges, to encourage faster deployment of fast chargers. For instance, Massachusetts utility National Grid has proposed to offer 10 years of discounts, including a 100 percent demand charge discount for the first year a fast charger is in operation.

“Electric companies want to help enable this,” said EEI’s Schefter. “We don’t want to be the bottleneck in this transition.”


Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.

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