Charging Station Infrastructure

Let’s change gears for a bit…

If you’ve ever discussed EVs with someone who’s never driven one, one  of the reasons you’ve heard about why they have not considered an EV is because there are not enough charging stations out there.

Of course they have no idea how many charging stations are actually out there because they are looking for something that looks like a gas station.  Usually a view of the Plugshare map on my phone elicits a bit of a jaw drop, but technically speaking, unless we are talking about Manhattan, the number of public charging stations compared to gas stations is really very small.

But that’s okay for a couple of reasons:

  1. The number of EVs on the road today is pretty tiny, so not as many charging stations are needed.
  2. For most people, the vast majority (if not all) of charging takes place at home, not at a public charging station.

On the other hand:

  1. The range of EVs is still relatively low compared to gas cars, so they would need to charge more often.
  2. An EV needs to sit at a charging station much longer than a gas car has to sit at a gas pump.
  3. One gas station might have anywhere between 4 and 20 (or more!) gas pumps, whereas many charging station sites have 1 or 2 (Tesla Supercharger sites obviously excepted).
  4. The number of EVs on the road is poised to increase greatly.
  5. More EV owners will live in apartments or condos that don’t have ready access to charging stations today.

So what is the right amount of public charging we need?

Well I have no doubt that as the number of EVs start to proliferate, the charging station infrastructure will keep up, even if it lags behind and creates a bit of frustration during the ramp up. However, I recently took a different view of why we need more charging infrastructure NOW.

L2 charging stations are one thing.  They are generally pretty reliable and relatively plentiful, and while I myself have had to rely upon them, at the end of the day if one is broken, or in use, or ICEd, it is probably not the end of the world.  There is likely one at least relatively near by, or the driver may have to find a quick charge station somewhere while en route.

But quick charge stations, especially those on travel routes, are a different story.  Even counting Tesla Superchargers, quick charge stations provide a vital link on travel corridors, and in many instances if the quick charge station you need is down or in use, you may be in a world of hurt while on a trip.  For this reason, it is advisable that there always be at least a pair of quick chargers located in near proximity of each other.  If I were going on a trip and there were a single quick charger at a critical spot, I would be extremely nervous about relying upon it.

Now this is nothing new.  I’ve said for years that we should have at least pairs of quick chargers.  But an analysis of the situation here in my state of North Carolina, and particularly along the travel routes between Raleigh and Charlotte that I have successfully navigated in my LEAF, has given me some new insight.

Here is  a map of that travel corridor showing quick chargers compatible with the LEAF.  In the upper right is the Raleigh/Durham area with plenty of options.  Actually I should be embarrassed by the apparent number of charging stations:  a year after I bought my first LEAF there weren’t any in the whole state!  The Charlotte area is in the lower right and again, there are plenty of options.

The primary corridor between these two cities is along I-85 and I-40 and is about 150 miles.  Definitely outside the range of my LEAF, so at least one stop is required.  Now I say at least one stop, because if there were a charging station right in the middle (at High Point), it would be quite doable.  There is even a Nissan dealer right off the highway there, but alas, there is no quick charger.  So the alternative is to stop twice, once at the charger in Burlington (partially obscured) and then at the charger in Salisbury (partially obscured).  The distance between these two chargers is actually a stretch…I barely made it to Burlington from Salisbury one time, and if the charger in Burlington had been down it would have been a long wait at the Nissan dealer’s L2 charger to get enough charge to make it to Durham.

Now the alternate route is through Asheboro along US-64.  In this case, it violates my rule of relying on a single charger, and in this case it’s even more of an issue because there aren’t even any good L2 backups in the area.  I did risk it one time, successfully, but I was very nervous about it the whole way.  And, as you can see in the map, the charger is currently down.

The Asheboro charger is at a Nissan dealer, as is the one in Burlington, Salisbury, and one of the ones in Greensboro.  Sometimes you get Nissan dealers that actually care about keeping their quick chargers up and running, but I’ve found that most of the time they simply don’t care.  This is the case with Asheboro and Greensboro, and to a certain extent, Burlington.  The last known successful charge in Asheboro was 9 months ago, and the dealer seems totally uninterested in getting it fixed.

So let’s talk about the Greensboro option, which is related to my latest insight.  There are two chargers in Greensboro which, like Salisbury, is ideal because if one breaks, you have the other as a backup.  The problem with the Greensboro chargers, however, is that they are at least 15-20 minutes off route (even more if you have to go to the western one, which is the dealer, as a backup).  On the plus side, the eastern one is downtown with a few L2 stations nearby as a backup, and there are restaurants nearby.  Plus it’s nearly at the halfway point, so you could almost (but not quite) make the trip in one stop.

Here’s the problem:

The western charger (at the Nissan dealer) is working now, but it had a similar story to Asheboro.  For at least 7 months last year, the charging station was offline and the dealer seemed to have a disinterest in fixing it.  It’s up now, but it’s hard to build up that trust.

But that’s only a backup anyway.  How about the other charger in downtown Greensboro?  This one one is managed by Greenlots (a reputable network), but owned by a NC company that initially set out to put in charging stations across the state, but now it appears they have moved on to other interests and maintaining their installations is not a priority.  So this particular station is now down with no indication that it will be fixed.  And to add insult to injury, the two nearby L2 stations have been problematic as well (broken screens) that the city does not appear interested in fixing.

So it was after reading the various plugshare comments of all these charging stations that led me to my latest insight:

Even if we don’t need excessive charging infrastructure, we need excessive charging infrastructure if only to provide a critical mass of owners, operators, repair people and parts suppliers whose primary jobs are to maintain and keep the network up and running and actually care about their network.  I’m disappointed enough that quick chargers are as unreliable as they are, but to see these stations sit for months without anyone caring about fixing them is disheartening.  There needs to be a level of service whereby a down station can be brought back up within hours, not months.  Even the level of service at evGO stations in my area, which is exceptional compared to these other anecdotes is that it may take several days to repair a broken station.  But at least they seem to care and it seems like there it’s probably an issue of getting parts and manpower to a spread out network.

I realize that the quick charging business is a tough one.  Expensive chargers, demand charges for electricity, a customer set used to charging at home and paying relatively cheap prices for electricity and not willing to pay what it’s going to cost to have a well maintained network of quick chargers and allow the companies that run those networks to actually make a profit.  But unfortunately that’s what it’s going to take.  A cheap quick charger solution that is unreliable is not going to be sustainable.  You may as well not even waste your time.

P.S. to Nissan:  the dealer model is not working.  Nobody wants to spend time at a dealer charging their car.  The dealers don’t really want you there using their rest rooms and waiting room while using their electricity and causing them to spend thousands of dollars on maintaining the charging stations.  You are far better off spending your money on partnering with convenience stores and installing your charging stations there.  I do appreciate at least the effort to establish a charging network, but yours is completely broken.  Please take a cue from Tesla on how to create a workable charging network.

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