EV adoption in the U.S. depends on infrastructure

Contributed by Harry Kaffenese, VP of global product management at ABB Power Conversion

When it comes to transportation, there is little doubt that the future is electric. From leading car manufacturers transitioning to completely electric fleets to the recently unveiled Clean Transit for America plan that provides $73 billion for zero-emission bus deployment, there’s good reason to believe that the days of gas-powered combustion engines are numbered. 

And yet, the shift to electric vehicles is only just starting to accelerate. In fact, at present, electric vehicles comprise less than 1 percent of the 250 million cars, SUVs, vans, and pickup trucks on the road today. Not surprisingly, the US is at least 15 years away from EVs making up one-quarter of auto sales, a far cry from the fleet turnover necessary to meet the U.S. government’s current timeline of net-zero emissions by 2050.

Read more: Senate passes $1 trillion infrastructure bill. What’s in it for renewable energy?

How, then, can widespread EV adoption go from aspirational to attainable? The answer lies in developing a charging infrastructure robust and convenient enough for electric vehicles to be considered a viable option for everyday consumers.

Range anxiety, charging deserts, and the reluctant EV revolution  

According to a recent study by Volvo, three-quarters of American drivers agree that EVs are the future of transportation. That’s good news considering that, for the EV revolution to take hold, consumer confidence in a reliable alternative to traditional gas-powered cars will be critical. Of course, the perception of viability will depend on price, convenience, and usability. But two interrelated statistics from the same report illustrate why, at present, the cars of tomorrow continue to face inertia today.

First, more than half of the respondents cited the fear of running out of power before being able to recharge their vehicles as the number one reason why they’re currently reluctant to purchase an electric car. This phenomenon, dubbed “range anxiety,” speaks on behalf of the average American who drives around 13,500 miles per year and cannot afford to run out of power during a commute to work or cross-country road trip. It also speaks to the urgency behind developing battery technology dense enough to store substantially higher kWhs than the lithium-ion batteries currently used to power most EVs.

US electric vehicle charging stations (U.S. Dept. of Energy)

Battery technology aside, range anxiety takes on even greater significance when coupled with the fact that almost 50 percent of potential EV buyers claim that the lack of robust charging infrastructure is the single factor keeping them from purchasing an electric car. The data suggests that such concerns are anything but unfounded when considered in relation to figures from the Department of Energy that show a mere five thousand charging stations throughout the U.S. These are truly paltry numbers compared with the more than a hundred thousand gas stations accessible to drivers across the country.

Taken together, it’s clear that American drivers are concerned about making the switch. And for good reason. Simply put, consumers are reluctant to fully embrace vehicles that may run out of power before they reach their destination, especially given the staggering disparity that currently exists between readily available charging locations for EVs and fueling stations for traditional gas vehicles.

Developing a robust and holistic EV infrastructure

Given the public’s concerns, it should come as no surprise that the administration has placed charging infrastructure at the heart of its efforts to spur widespread EV adoption, committing $7.5 billion to build a national network of 500,000 charging stations throughout the country by 2030.

To be sure, any plan to increase the number of public charging stations will go a long way towards combating range anxiety and boosting consumer confidence by eliminating the vast numbers of charging deserts currently in existence. But a holistic and robust infrastructure plan will require more than just a one-size-fits-all solution. For EV infrastructure to succeed, it must meet the unique demands of consumers located across diverse geographic regions and from different demographics.

It’s also important to understand that the charging topography will be unlike what we have seen in the gas-fueled world. There will be a continuum of use cases from charging overnight at non-peak electricity rates to new fast-charging options, including a couple of hours at a retail location or minutes at a standalone charging station. All these options will be imperative to meet the needs of companies and consumers looking to make the transition to electric vehicles. 

In short, EV charging infrastructure will need to accommodate the structural needs of localized communities, from dense urban environments with limited space to those inhabiting sprawling, wide-open rural areas that constitute much of America’s beloved geography.

Fortunately, EV infrastructure lends itself to more expansive possibilities than the traditional gas-powered vehicle. EVs can charge at multiple locations, such as charging stations in parking lots outside of coffee shops, supermarkets, and gyms, instead of just a designated gas station. As such, there is an opportunity to approach EV infrastructure in a more holistic way that considers how solutions can integrate with the pre-existing architecture and boost charging speeds. 

Consider, for example, the charging needs of electric vehicles in highly dense, narrowly constructed urban environments where space is already at a premium. Pop-up charging stations designed to emerge from the sidewalk’s surface allow for curbside charging in areas where minimizing the impact of infrastructure buildouts on pedestrian space is of paramount importance.  

Shifting consumer sentiment, however, will require more than accessibility. Drivers will need assurance of their EV’s ability to charge reliability and quickly while remaining cost-effective. Consumers accustomed to spending minutes as a gas pump will no doubt demand similar levels of convenience. Currently, Level 2 charging stations can deliver 7-19 kilowatt-hours of energy which correlates to a 10-15 hour charge time. Not exactly a beacon of efficiency for drivers looking to charge their vehicles quickly while they’re on the go.

In response, the deployment of Direct-Current Fast Chargers with the capacity to reduce charging times to 15 -30 minutes offers one solution to this problem.  The key to the build-out of these systems will be the incentives and coordination between network operators and utilities. As an example, in California, utilities are offering to cover the electrical system “make-ready costs” and offering rebates in exchange for locating DC Fast chargers in their service territory.

The future of EVs needs a smarter approach to power

If the future belongs to electric vehicles, the question, of course, is how far in the distance that future lies. With transportation accounting for close to one-third of all carbon emissions in the United States, there can be little doubt that electrification will have a central role to play in the U.S. government’s commitment to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by the year 2050. But even if policy solutions like tax credits, buybacks, public transit options, and rideshare programs successfully removed all gas-powered, combustion engine vehicles from the road, widespread EV adoption may still face sluggishness. Especially if the charging infrastructure necessary to combat skepticism and shift consumer perception remains lacking. 

The automobile has long been a symbol of American freedom and independence. But the iconic image of the open road will only remain true to its roots if the infrastructure exists to ensure American drivers are charged up, unencumbered, and on the go, regardless of their engine. 

Subscribe to Renewable Energy World’s free, weekly newsletter for more stories like this

About the author:

Harry Kaffenes serves as the VP of Product Management at ABB Power Conversion. Previously, Harry operated as ABB’s Vice President & GM for Grid Solutions & Power Quality, as well as ABB’s Vice President of Sales & Marketing.