The auto industry is investing billions of dollars to shift from gas to electric drivetrain technology, but a variety of obstacles have slowed consumer acceptance, starting with the lack of an available public charging network.
In a bid to speed up the installation process and make it easier for owners to tolerate the still lengthy time needed to recharge a vehicle’s drained battery, suburban Washington, D.C.-based Electrify America is using an alliance strategy, partnering with big box stores, supermarkets, and, in a new deal announced today, it is teaming up with one of the nation’s biggest financial institutions, Bank of America.
Electrify America, which was created as part of Volkswagen AG’s diesel emissions scam settlement, will set up charging stations at 40 of the bank’s financial centers in California, Georgia, Florida, Illinois, Oregon, Washington, Virginia, and Massachusetts.
There are three key roadblocks to broad public acceptance of electric vehicles, according to Sam Abuelsamid, a principal analyst with Navigant Research: cost, range, and the availability of public charging stations. With battery costs dropping fast, next-generation EVs are starting to come down in price, even as their range continues to grow. The issue of public charging could be a bit trickier to address, however, in a country stretching nearly 3,000 miles, coast-to-coast.
There are a total of 168,000 retail gas stations in the U.S., according to EPA data, with at least one million pumps. As the year began, there were just 20,000 public charging stations with 57,000 individual chargers, reported statista.com. But the figure is fast on the rise, with hundreds of stations going into operation each month. By mid-year, meanwhile, the number of individual chargers was estimated to have grown to 68,000.
Electrify America itself now has 359 individual stations in operations, but several hundred more are waiting to “electrify” over the next couple months, Brendan Jones, the start-up’s chief operating officer, told CNBC in an exclusive interview. And, “the goal is to have 800 up and operational, with 3,500 chargers, by the end of 2021.”
Early on, commercial charging companies, including players like EVgo, Chargepoint and the Shell subsidiary Greenlots, often tried to emulate the oil industry approach, setting up standalone facilities. They’re largely shifting to a partnership strategy now. Electrify America, for example, has 50% of it charging stations on property operated by big box stores including WalMart and Target, as well as another 20% operating in partnership with regional companies like Simon Malls and the East Coast-based service station chain Sheetz.
“You have to be customer-centric about where you place your chargers,” said Jones. In the case of the Bank of America partnership, the retail giant “did a great job in figuring where they put their locations. They’re in spots where a customer can bank and then go do a whole lot of other things.”
That’s particularly useful considering it takes a lot longer to charge up an electric vehicle than to fill the tank of a comparable, gas-powered model.
With only a small number of exceptions, Electrify America is installing only DC fast chargers, most of them capable of delivering anywhere from 150 to 350 kilowatts of energy. Even then, for long-range electric models, such as the Chevrolet Bolt EV, the Jaguar I-Pace or the new Audi e-tron, it can take an hour or more to reach an 80% “state-of-charge,” the point at which these fast chargers cut back to a trickle.
Experience shows that EV owners typically don’t wait until their batteries are drained, however. So, Electrify America data shows they spend an average 17 to 30 minutes plugged in. And that, said Jones, matches up with the time motorists are likely to spend inside the bank and, perhaps, run an errand or two at adjacent stores, markets or fast food restaurants.
With analysts like Abuelsamid forecasting there will be several hundred plug-based models on the road by late 2022 – including plug-in hybrids and all-electric BEVs – expanding the public charging networks will be critical to providing what Electrify America’s Jones calls “range confidence.”
But he and other industry experts don’t anticipate there will ever be nearly as many public chargers as there are gas pumps today. Industry data show that 80% of EV owners currently charge overnight at home or at work during the day, and that’s not expected to change much. Still, substantially more public chargers will be necessary, experts like Abuelsamid and Jones agree, in order to allow motorists to travel wherever and whenever they want without worrying about whether they’ll be able to make it back home.