Not Enough Recharging Stations

Without the security of nearby electric vehicle recharging, drivers won’t give up combustion engines.

February 18, 2019

ALEXANDRIA, Va. – Take the 600-mile drive on California’s Pacific Coast Highway between San Diego and San Francisco in an electric car. The views will be spectacular and plentiful, but places to recharge the vehicle will be limited, according to a Bloomberg report.

Even with a growing market for electric vehicles, drivers who get too far from home can have trouble finding a recharge station. California, home to about half of the nation’s electric passenger cars, does more than almost every other state to encourage EVs. But that doesn’t make driving around any easier.

“It’s a pretty rubbish experience charging a car today,” Roy Williamson, vice president of oil giant BP Plc’s advanced mobility unit, said at a Bloomberg conference in San Francisco recently.

Globally, the electric-vehicle fleet reached 5 million last year, which was supported by 632,000 public charging outlets worldwide. If the number of EVs hits 30% market share by 2030, the International Energy Agency predicts a need for somewhere between 14 million and 30 million public chargers around the world.

The best-performing EVs can drive 200-plus miles on a full charge, which means drivers can have wildly different experiences depending on where they need to recharge. Using a regular household wall socket, it can take a driver about 12 hours to replenish an EV battery that has run down to 20%. Of course, if the recharge takes place overnight, that will hardly be a problem.

Recharging stations capable of medium charging speeds, which are available to homeowners and found along highways or in shopping areas, will add between 10 and 60 miles of driving range per hour. Fast chargers can add at least 75 miles in 30 minutes, but at a premium cost. However, most recharging experiences still fall short of the 10-minute time it takes to refill at a gas station.

Today, about 80% of EV owners recharge at home or at the workplace, so adding millions of additional public charging points is crucial to give motorists the confidence to give up combustion engines.

The balance of charging inside or outside the home is also shifting as EV prices fall. But the vehicles are increasingly purchased by drivers who don’t have space to park within a plug’s reach of their home. In China, home to about 600,000 EVs, it’s not uncommon to see power cords trailing from upper-floor apartment windows to EVs parked at street level, according to a report from Columbia University.

In Norway, low volumes of public chargers haven’t impeded the rise of EVs, which now account for about half of new vehicle sales. Germany, on the other hand, has more charger stations than any country besides the U.S. and China, but EVs make up only 2% of vehicle sales.

Building new charging stations will be challenging. Fast-charging stations require at least eight customers per day to break even, according to Bloomberg.  But the average public charger in some markets sees less than five customers a day.

EV makers want to boost EV sales and are taking action. Tesla built charging stations and networks on four continents, including the U.S. and China, to help spur sales and improve the infrastructure. Volkswagen’s Electrify America unit plans to spend $2 billion to support zero-emission vehicles in the U.S., including $800 million in California. Recently, the company announced it has 105 electric-vehicle charging sites in the U.S. and plans to have 484 built by July 1.

Oil companies are getting in on the act. Royal Dutch Shell Plc will be the first oil major to own a U.S.-based charging service outright after closing its acquisition of Greenlots. Rivals Total SA and BP, along with producers of fuel pumps and gas station equipment, also are investing and acquiring.

Industry experts say that for EVs to go mainstream, automakers must produce cheaper vehicles that can travel further on a single charge, while helping to ensure that recharging stations are everywhere.