EVs may not have reached the magical 20% market penetration by 2020, but the stats show significant movement is underway. In addition to the monumental announcements by OEMs and the many ambitious plans from startups nationwide, survey results show consumers are now on-board as well. Case in point? West Monroe’s survey found that 59% of respondents said it’s likely their next vehicle purchase would be an electric car, with a majority (52%) saying they’d make that purchase within 2 years (i.e. by 2021). The real question here is where or not the charging infrastructure is ready for such a leap.

There’s a need to understand, on a case by case basis, whether there’s a moderate electric load or whether it will be a very high, explains Andrew Dillon, an Innovation Fellow in the energy & utilities practice at West Monroe.

For instance, when schools electrify buses, they only drive the buses in the morning to pick up children and in the afternoon to transport the kids home — meaning buses are available for charging from 6pm/8pm until maybe 4am/6am. “There’s plenty of time to charge. And as a result, those buses can charge at a relatively modest rate for example 12 kilowatts,” says Dillon. “Even if the district had 100 buses, it would not present a problem for the utility. It’s a manageable load.”

On the other end of the spectrum, consider a fleet operator running two shifts a day with a couple hours between shifts. This would mean you only have 1-2 hours to charge 100s of trucks between shifts. Fueling these medium duty trucks would require DC fast chargers, in the range of 150 to 350 kilowatts, which quickly adds up to a 35 megawatt demand. “Feeding that demand would require a brand new substation or dramatically expanded substation, which can take several years,” says Dillon. “The big caution here is that each entity thinking about electrification needs to plan ahead, especially at the high end. If you’re on the low side, it’s much more manageable within the normal processes of a utility to service that right away.” 

Ongoing efforts

“Regulators across the country are working with utilities to try to stand up EV make ready programs with incentive mechanisms to encourage infrastructure development,” says Paul DeCotis, a senior director in the energy & utilities practice at West Monroe. “The challenge from the regulator and utility perspective is one of scale depending on the charging cycle and the load, it could require a very significant investment in infrastructure. And the regulators are caught between a barrel of trying to comply with state regulatory and legal requirements to decarbonize. At the same time the regulators are caught trying to keep rates low and fair and reasonable.”

This significant investment in infrastructure is going to come at a cost, explains DeCotis. “But the more sales of electricity, the lower that cost is per customer. So there’s kind of this chicken and egg thing that regulators are grappling with across the country with utilities,” he says. “Additionally, new substations are difficult to build. You’ve got to find the right location, you’ve got to have title to the land or use it to land and building the substation also requires no wires and lines from the substation so even that’s a complicated process.”

Fortunately, the level of investments coming from the automakers in the $100s of billions point to a paradigm shift that will ultimately eliminate the bottlenecks. For example, if a large fleet of vehicles were to charge without any coordination or organization it would cause what’s called a peak overload or peak demand. However, managed charging technology will intelligently spread charging out so that it’s more even and not peaked. Also, batteries will start to move into the EV charging ecosystem whereas the batteries have the ability to store power from the grid, maybe at night and release it for charging during the day.

“Anybody who uses electricity doesn’t want to use all of their electricity at once, they’ll get what’s called a demand charge,” says Dillon. “These technologies innovations — whether it’s managed charging software or batteries as part of the ecosystem — will converge to make the the impact of the grid lower and make the utilities job a little bit easier. This also makes the economics work better for the fleet owners.”

Driver alignment

There are significant differences in the type of chargers available on the market, each serving a purpose often depending on driver habits. The duration would be the size of the vehicle plus the speed of the charger, so with the DC fast charger, its possible to get a full charge in 10 to 30 minutes depending on the size of that truck. However, Proterra announced a 500 kilowatt charger capable of filling up a vehicle like a sedan in like 5-10 minutes. Whereas a bus may take 30 minutes. The size of the battery is almost like the size of the tank in the gasoline vehicle.

According to Dillon, range anxiety is rapidly going away now that the typical EV today goes to between 250-300, and the next generation will see 500 mile consumer EVs. On the horizon, a single charge could exceed the capacity of a tank of gas, with a bank of batteries powering 1000 miles. “The bigger question is where do they charge? They could charge at home. If they have a workplace that has chargers, they could charge at work. And, if you’re going on a road trip, and take a rest or break, you want to be able to charge in 15 minutes not four hours. This is where we are hearing about the Loves and the Pilots of world deploying chargers that will be really fast,” Dillon says. “So at home or work you could get by with a level one or level two because your vehicle is sitting for multiple hours at a time. But when you go to that truck stop or service station, you would want the fastest one, so that you’re in and out quickly. This is where you’ll see a spectrum of chargers, depending on the situation.”

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Growing commitments

A number of states (New York, Colorado, California) have made spending commitments on electric vehicle infrastructure. Others (Washington, Oregon, Hawaii) are moving to do the same thing. Yet others are taking more wait and see because there isn’t a mandate or there isn’t a regulated approval to spend money.  They need approval to spend big dollars on infrastructure, but they are all quite comfortable and enthusiastic about electrification. 

Ownership varies in different parts of the country  as well. And, It gets a little more challenging if the utility doesn’t own the charger, explains DeCotis. “Private parties could put chargers in  and its the utilities job to make sure the infrastructure is there to accommodate it as opposed to the utility doing the centralized planning on where best to put the charging stations to meet loads and having the infrastructure already in place to support it,” he says. “There’s a lot of work that needs to be done optimizing in the first instance the best place on the grid to put charging stations at the least cost.”

Understandably, all of OEMs commitments puts an emphasis on the importance of solidifying a nationwide charging infrastructure. However, as Dillon points out, utilities have the time to make it happen. “It takes quite a few years for an automaker to change out their supply chain and retool their factories, and then get into and ultimately scale production,” he says.  “The lower, but growing volume is giving utilities a chance to practice across the nation. There are examples of places like California where utilities have met the demand, and enabled 1000s of chargers and have a roadmap to install 50,000 more in the next three to five years. It’s on track and there don’t seem to be any major barriers to making that happen.”

Adds DeCotis, “The utilities will rise to the challenge because they will have no choice. With climate legislation and decarbonisation becoming increasingly more important, the utilities will meet the challenge,” he says.”They’re not going to fall short and be criticized for not making the necessary investment to fuel the industry.”

The hydrogen wildcard?

When considering infrastructure deployment, it is important to note there is an idea of hydrogen vehicles trying to take market share from electric vehicles. “It’s not rampant yet, but I see a lot of federal research and development money going into hydrogen vehicles,” says DeCotis. “Certainly, gas utilities would would prefer hydrogen vehicles generated from gas.”

“There was initially a belief that batteries would never get cheap enough, light enough cost effective or robust enough for scale. A lot of money went into innovation, and the industry addressed many of those issues,” says Dillon. “For some, hydrogen has been a favorite because it has a similar supply chain to gasoline. There’s storage tanks. However, it has the zero carbon emissions once it’s consumed. It has a more complicated technology to store and maintain and and deliver the hydrogen fuel, but it has a lot of the elements already, and if you can remove risks it has the chance to address long distance vehicles requirements — vehicles that need to drive 1000 miles across the country before refueling.”

Rather than having a massive two megawatt hour battery pack on a semi truck, it might make more sense to have a smaller battery pack and a fuel cell. “It is definitely an area to watch,” says Dillon.