It’s the dawn of the age of the electric vehicle. For real, this time. Probably.
The evidence: Tesla’s delivery of its first “affordable” compact sedans, the Model 3, and the road maps of more or less every other automaker on the planet promising widely available electric cars in the next three to five years.
Within a decade, electric cars will even have similar sticker prices to their gasoline competitors, says Stephen Zoepf, executive director of the Center for Automotive Research at Stanford. Some analyses say EVs are already cost-competitive, if you factor in savings on fuel and maintenance.
Aggressive pricing and sales projections are all part of the seemingly self-fulfilling prophecy of rapid EV adoption. To hit Chief Executive Elon Musk’s targets, Tesla must sell 430,000 cars by the end of 2018 and continue to sell 10,000 a week after that.
But if Tesla and its competitors succeed, they face a new problem: Where are all those cars going to plug in?
A ChargePoint Inc. charging station in Los Angeles, one of 44,000 charging stations in the U.S. Many more may be needed in coming years.Photo: Dania Maxwell/Bloomberg News
At present, electric cars represent only about 1% of cars sold in the U.S., and 0.2% of our total automobile fleet. They aren’t yet taxing our electrical grid or fighting each other for the roughly 44,000 public charging stations now available in the U.S. Yet if anything like analysts’ projections come to pass, they could rapidly dwarf that number.
Electric-car owners at present overwhelmingly charge at home. What public stations exist are found in parking lots and at businesses in cities and wealthy suburbs where early adopters reside. But the current charging infrastructure offers little support for a larger pool of people who have both the income and the impetus to buy EVs: city dwellers who lack garages.
“You see models that say, ‘We’ll sell a million EVs this year, then two, then four and so on,’ but I have concerns about the practicalities of this transition,” says Francis O’Sullivan, director of research for the MIT Energy Initiative.
“All things cannot be sorted before the industry starts,” says Pasquale Romano, chief executive of ChargePoint, which controls the largest U.S. network of charging stations.
On-street parking doesn’t offer many options for adding charging stations. Shown, a Tesla Model S, a full-size luxury liftback, in Trondheim, Norway, in October 2016. Photo: ISTOCK
Charging infrastructure is adequate to meet current demand, and there’s no reason to believe it won’t continue to scale in line with future demand, he argues. ChargePoint makes and sells charging stations to businesses, individuals and governments, charging monthly to maintain the stations and accepting payments for the electricity they provide.
ChargePoint was part of an initiative in Los Angeles to put charging stations in existing lampposts, says Matt Petersen, until recently L.A.’s chief sustainability officer. (The city has installed 82 so far.)
That makes sense because a good chunk of a new charging station’s cost—which can hit $5,000—is installing it and wiring it up, ChargePoint’s Mr. Romano says.
German firm Ubitricity is pioneering relatively low-cost, low-power plugs that go directly into lampposts, and can be accessed with an internet-connected “smart” power cable that handles all metering and billing.
Kieran Fitsall, head of service improvement and transformation for the Westminster City Council of central London, says it has installed 20 Ubitricity plugs in street lamps. The plan is to increase that to 100 by March 2018.
A Tesla charging station at Cochran Commons shopping center in Charlotte, N.C., on June 24. The U.S. power grid is handling demand from electric vehicles now but might not be up to it in the future.Photo: Chuck Burton/Associated Press
One of Ubitricity’s advantages is the plugs don’t require the council to designate EV-only parking spots, which are unpopular with people who don’t drive them, Mr. Fitsall says. Ubitricity currently has no U.S. presence but is seeking investment to expand, says company co-founder Knut Hechtfischer.
While these efforts may show where the technology is headed, it isn’t clear that it’s rolling out at anywhere close to the pace automakers anticipate they will sell vehicles.
The biggest challenge for those building out charging infrastructure is that no one can predict the demand for charging as EVs become commonplace, says MIT’s Dr. O’Sullivan. In fact, he calls some of the behavioral factors needed to make such predictions “exceptionally opaque.” These include the time of day people will choose to charge, how responsive they will be to price incentives on electricity designed to encourage them to charge at the “right” time, and how often they’ll use “superchargers” versus lower-power outlets for overnight charging.
This brings us to another looming issue: America’s often-overtaxed power grids won’t be able to handle a large influx of new demand without careful management. This generally won’t be a problem if cars charge at night, when the power grid is underutilized. But as EVs proliferate, drivers who can’t charge them at home will want to charge them at work, during the day. They’ll also seek superchargers, which typically are installed along highways and designed for fast charging and long-distance travel.
“Superchargers are enormous power draws,” says Jesse Jenkins, a researcher at the MIT Energy Initiative. “Chargers in parking garages or superchargers at rest stops are not a solution for charging EVs en masse unless we are OK with significant costs to upgrade distribution grids.”
Even the regular charger found in homes and businesses could present a costly problem when cars charge during demand peaks. Anything that increases peak demand could increase the cost of electricity for everyone, says Stanford’s Dr. Zoepf.
The sheer scale of the transformation of the electrical grid to accommodate mainstream adoption of EVs boggles the mind. A major portion of the energy currently trapped in automotive fuels will have to arrive in the form of electrons, instead. While some analyses indicate America’s existing electrical grid can handle it, it may be only if millions of American consumers can be coaxed to play along and charge at the right place and time.
That’s also assuming private companies and public utilities can get the needed charging infrastructure to the public at a price they are willing to pay.
If Elon Musk and his competitors succeed at selling as many electric vehicles as they project, keeping them all full of electricity will be a long, hugely expensive and potentially contentious undertaking. It could also be quite lucrative for the people who figure it out.
Write to Christopher Mims at firstname.lastname@example.org