The Biden administration is pushing for greater adoption of electric vehicles. Drew Angerer/Getty Images
I've Always Wondered ...

Where will we charge all those electric vehicles of the future?

Janet Nguyen Sep 9, 2021
The Biden administration is pushing for greater adoption of electric vehicles. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

This is just one of the stories from our “I’ve Always Wondered” series, where we tackle all of your questions about the world of business, no matter how big or small. Ever wondered if recycling is worth it? Or how store brands stack up against name brands? Check out more from the series here.

Listener George Cox from Columbia, Missouri, asked: 

How do you imagine electric charging “stations” will develop? Will gas/convenience marts add charging stations? Will there be electric wars similar to gas wars of the late ’50-’60’s?

State governments and the Biden administration have stressed the need for greater clean energy use and pushed the public toward the adoption of electric vehicles. 

President Joe Biden said he wants half of all vehicles sold in 2030 to be electric, while California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed an executive order last year to phase out sales of new gasoline-powered cars by 2035. 

In August, the Senate passed a $1 trillion bill that would allocate $7.5 billion to build electric vehicle charging stations, with Biden pledging to build 500,000 charging stations throughout the country by 2030. 

The current state of electric charging 

There are more than 43,800 public electric charging stations throughout the United States, including level 2 and DC fast chargers. Level 2 chargers supply between 10 and 20 miles of range per vehicle, while fast chargers can provide a 60 to 80 mile range every 20 minutes of charging. 

But Jeremy J. Michalek, a professor of engineering and public policy at Carnegie Mellon University, said most electric charging is happening in people’s homes. 

“So the use of these public chargers is pretty low right now,” although some companies have been rolling them out, he added. 

He noted that the U.S. is behind compared to other countries when it comes to the amount of available public chargers. On average, there are about 12 to 13 public chargers per 100 vehicles in the world, compared to about five or six in the U.S., Michalek said. 

“We’re sort of behind, and that may be OK, actually, because the U.S. has a lot more off-street parking than a lot of other places in the world,” he said. “But it does give you a sense that China, the European Union all have more public chargers per electric vehicle than we do.” 

Anne Smart, vice president of public policy at ChargePoint, which operates EV charging stations, compares our current model to the way we charge our cellphones — a convenient process that doesn’t have to entail heading to a station. 

However, ChargePoint, which has the largest EV charging station network in the U.S., has customers that include single-family homes, retail stores, utilities, among other businesses, according to Smart. 

“We see charging in all of those different types of locations — the ability for an EV driver to charge at home or at work and then around town while they’re shopping or going out,” she said. 

Traditional oil and gas companies, along with automobile companies, have entered the EV space and oversee electric charging stations, like Electrify America, a subsidiary of Volkswagen Group of America that operates stations in the U.S. 

Mike Buff, manager of infrastructure planning and research at Electrify America, said that the company focuses on installing “ultra-fast” charging stations (which brings between 150 to 350 kilowatts of power per vehicle). 

“We generally look to work closely with a retail partner, sometimes a convenience store. Sometimes it’s more like a grocery store or a shopping mall,” Buff said. “But we want to make sure that there are amenities very close to the actual charging station. So we’re looking to acquire or lease real estate.” 

Some of Electrify America’s partners include convenience stores like Wawa, Sheetz, Casey’s and Kum & Go. While the amount of time to set up a station can vary, it takes about six months to a year, Buff said. 

“We’re aggressively continuing to build out our charging network, doubling the size of our network through 2025,” he said. 

What will the EV landscape look like in the future? 

Kelly McCoy, a charging specialist at Wood Mackenzie, noted that she thinks more EV chargers are going to be installed at grocery stores, doctor’s offices, hotels and workplaces — the areas where people spend between half an hour to several hours a day, at least before COVID-19. 

But because the pandemic has prevented people from working from offices, “those chargers, at least in the next couple of years, are not going to be installed as much as the public chargers will be,” she said. 

Michalek from Carnegie Mellon University said that ultimately, he thinks we’ll have fewer EV service stations than gas stations. That’s because most people can charge their electric cars at home. 

“So they won’t need as many refueling stations in their neighborhoods,” Michalek said.

However, he expects there to be more charging points than gas pumps on highways, since they’ll need to be able to handle peak traffic during holidays. 

“If you don’t have enough charge points, you’re gonna have people waiting in line for their turn to spend 15 minutes charging their vehicle,” Michalek noted. 

More public chargers will be needed when electric vehicles are purchased by households that don’t have their own off-street parking (such as those in dense, urban areas) and renters, Michalek added. 

Will there be “gas wars” reminiscent of the 1950s and 1960s? 

Starting in the 1950s, U.S. gas stations competing with one another during an oil surplus kept lowering their prices in what became “gas wars.”

Michalek doesn’t foresee similar “electric wars” accompanying the growth of electric vehicle service stations since most drivers can refuel at home. 

“Because of that, people will have a reference point on price (the price they pay for electricity at home),” he noted over email. 

Phillips 66 said earlier this year that it’s not cost-competitive to have EV charging at its stations since it has to ask consumers to pay more than what they do at home for electricity. 

But the visual reminder of a charging station is important, said Ram Chandrasekaran, an EV analyst at Wood Mackenzie. It reduces “range anxiety,” one of the primary reasons people don’t buy electric vehicles, he said.  

People should understand that EV chargers won’t be replacing gas stations, he said. 

“We don’t need that many public chargers, because for a majority of the people, they’re still going to be charging at home overnight.”

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