Innovation

The challenges of EV charging: 10 things to know

Yes, the state of electric vehicle charging is a bit of a mess, but it's getting better. Here are 10 things to know about the systems and how they're growing.

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Image: ZDNet

In the 1990s, the main problem with electric vehicles was that battery technology wasn't mature and each manufacturer had its own type of charger, incompatible with the rest. But in 2009, the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) came up with a standard for all North American electrical connectors for EVs: SAE J1772, which was adopted by automakers for their post-2000 EVs, and battery technology started rapidly advancing.

But there's still a pressing problem: charging stations. A major reason — beside price of course —- why EVs still haven't caught on is the significant lack of effective electric vehicle charging stations.

There are a plethora of charging service providers, types of EVs, and varying state standards. It's a bit of a tangled mess, but automakers are working together toward the common goal of moving EVs into the mass market. Here are the hurdles they have to overcome first:

1. Implementing fast charging

Fast charging is the latest trend in the EV industry, according to Mike Tinskey, Ford's director of electrification. It's ideal for road trips, especially, but also important for everyday use. If the lithium ion battery isn't overheated, it can get up to 80% full in just 15 minutes, which is much more efficient than the typical charge time. The average time it takes a person to fill up a gasoline tank (plus extra time if they go inside the gas station) is eight minutes. So, 15 is quite comparable, Tinskey said.

There are three major players when it comes to fast EV charging systems:

  • Tesla's Superchargers, which allow Model S owners to charge their battery in as little as 20 minutes. They are along highways in Europe, North America, and Asia.
  • Combo, which was developed by the Society of Automotive Engineers to accommodate fast charging of up to 90 kW and is a standard for US and German manufacturers.
  • CHAdeMO, a quick charging system that can deliver up to 62.5 kW of direct current. It was formed by the Tokyo Electric Power Company and is supported by Nissan, Toyota, and others.

Standards aside, another issue with fast charging is putting multiple outlets on one charging station. It's expensive, but the cost is definitely not insurmountable, Tinskey said. Fast charging stations in general are costly to build, but the price is decreasing as the market is becoming more competitive.

2. Demand charges

An important hurdle to fast charging public stations is demand charges (as in a set fee). A commercial business owner or charging station owner has to pay a fixed monthly fee for large amounts of available energy, and then those charges go up for drivers, too. In the near future, they'll have to work with regulators and local utilities to find ways around high demand charges in order to make the system more efficient, because no one wants to pay demand charges that are comparable to gasoline prices. That defeats the purpose of this technology.

3. Convincing utility providers

As we move toward a renewable energy-powered world, convincing utility providers to change their business models will be a challenge. In the case of EVs, the electricity load of charging stations is problematic for utility providers, who don't want to have to contact every automaker who uses the charging station and tell them to scale back their electricity usage. So all of the manufacturers, Tinskey said, came together to create a neutral platform — a central server — so the utility providers only have to send one load reduction request. The manufacturer can respond accordingly, making it much easier on everyone involved.

4. Getting through the red tape

To install a charging station, service providers must go through local governments, utility providers, and business owners (if the station will be on a private lot), which takes time. This process also requires convincing skeptical citizens. Currently, 20 states have major electric car incentives such as rebates, and more are considering them. The industry will depend on local and state regulations for both public charging stations and home energy systems that incorporate EVs.

5. More data

We need more data to figure out how the public understands and uses EVs, and how to improve them in the future. With sensors and data monitoring techniques, Ford is learning a lot about how people are using their EVs and other vehicles. In the EVs and plug-in hybrids that Ford makes, there is coaching to tell the driver how many electric miles they're getting, how much energy is captured, all based on how they accelerate, brake, and what their top speeds are.

"From zero to three months, we see them getting better at driving," Tinskey said. Recently, he had an email from an owner who drives an F150 and Ford Focus electric. Because of the coaching in the EV, he saw his fuel economy improve in his truck.

"Everybody has data, including the charge networks, so we can learn a lot by looking at data of the early adopters," Tinskey added.

6. The need for bigger batteries

Recently, three of the top EV manufacturers announced they will start to make a bigger battery, which will carry a vehicle 200 miles. Ford hasn't announced it yet, but a larger battery is important to driving EVs into the mass market. Right now, most of them are used as a second or third car. If they can travel 200 miles, that covers more than enough urban driving someone could drive in a day. This change could make EVs the primary vehicle in households, instead.

7. Figuring out home charging first

According to Ford research, 95% of EV charging is done at home. It makes sense, of course — charging at night when the car is in the garage, or while you're at home for a few hours, is the easiest and most effective way. Figuring out the best way to generate and store power in the home will catalyze the growth of workplace and public charging stations.

8. Powering stations with renewables

An attractive option for EV charging is powering it with solar panels. The challenge, Tinskey noted, is that although the price of solar panels has decreased and the market is getting bigger for them, these stations take up a lot of space. Even so, the solar canopy is ideal for places like businesses and shopping centers, where cars may sit for hours.

Batteries for that renewable energy can benefit public stations. A solar panel could generate energy that is stored in a battery, and people can charge using stored energy rather than the electricity generated instantaneously.

At home, you also need a battery. Data Ford has gathered shows that 40% of its plug-in customers have solar or intend to buy solar for their home. So Ford created a plan: If you generate extra energy because your car isn't there, you can sell it back to grid.

9. Location of public charging stations

When SAE set standards in 2009, the government funded many installations of EV charging stations. Unfortunately, Tinskey said, many were deployed in areas that were not necessarily the most optimum. But more are popping up all over the country — in 2009, he said, there were 3,000 public chargers, and there are about 23,000 today in the US.

10. Using the right type of station

The terminology for charging stations is often confusing, as some services call one plug-in a "charging station," even though it can only charge one car at a time. Sites like PlugShare, which lists the available charging stations in the US, may not differentiate large scale and small scale stations, or even types of vehicles they are compatible with.

In order for public stations to be more effective, they have to be in the right places. According to Tinskey, Ford did a study on their employees who drive hybrids, which showed that before they had workplace charging, an employee would take four trips on average during the work day. With electric charging, three of the four trips were electric miles. Most of their work week miles were generally run on electricity, which convinced the company the workplace is an ideal location for chargers.

Retail establishments also serve as good locations for charging stations. Walgreens, Ikea, and Costco are examples of businesses that have installed EV charging in their parking lots.

Three main things need to happen in order for EVs to grow in popularity, Tinskey said. First, retailers and major highway routes will have to use fast chargers; second, companies will have to get home charging right; and third, workplace charging will need to be deployed across most businesses.

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About Lyndsey Gilpin

Lyndsey Gilpin is a former Staff Writer for TechRepublic, covering sustainability and entrepreneurship. She's co-author of the book Follow the Geeks.

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