EV charging station costs can be reduced, says Rocky Mountain Institute

About 10 years ago the US Dept of Energy started a project to identify the cost for installing solar equipment, to drive down those costs, and therefore accelerate adoption of solar power. According to a new report from the Rocky Mountain Institute a similar effort is needed for electric vehicle charging equipment, especially since the cost to install EVSE’s in the USA is much higher than in other regions like Europe. The problem, according to RMI, is not the hardware cost but the soft costs like getting permits, utility interconnection processes, and non-uniform standards.

Which serves to remind me of a meeting I attended 10 years ago about electric vehicle charging infrastructure. The meeting was held in San Jose CA, an area that since became ground zero for electric vehicle adoption in the USA with Silicon Valley having what’s probably the highest rate of EV adoption in the country. That meeting preceded the launch of the Chevy Volt and Nissan Leaf, but a Nissan representative attended issued a warning to the powers-that-be in the meeting that in 18 months from that day Nissan would start selling electric cars, and that California had better get ready.

Some presentations at the meeting outlined the extremely difficult bureaucratic tangle of procedures required to install electric vehicle charging stations. All I remember 10 years on was a flow chart of up to 49 steps required, and claims that this would impede the potential to grow electric vehicle charging infrastructure, and therefore impede electric vehicle adoption.

RMI’s report, Reducing EV Charging Infrastructure Costs, is mostly focused on public charging infrastructure. Installing an EV charger at home is usually a simple job an electrician can accomplish for about $300 – so long as no service panel upgrade is required. However most public charging stations are much more complicated than simply running a circuit from the service panel to a power outlet in the garage, as is typical for home EV charging.

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RMI claims that the cost of the charging station itself has fallen considerably over the years. As manufacturers make more EVSE’s they’re able to squeeze out costs and deliver equipment at lower cost. However some have data saying that while hardware costs have fallen, the “soft costs” have risen.

The Challenge: Since public charging infrastructure is important to whether electric vehicles are rapidly adopted, high costs can accelerate EV adoption, while lower costs can slow it down. We also need to recognize the competition underway between fuel cell vehicles and plug-in electric vehicles. So far the charging infrastructure for EV’s is a lot less costly than for FCEV’s, and for BEV’s to retain that advantage then charging infrastructure cost must drop.

Outlining soft costs for electric vehicle charging infrastructure

Supporting long distance requires plentiful high power charging installations along highways. Let’s suppose each will have perhaps 10 high power DC fast charging stalls. The power capacity required for each such facility easily reaches 1 megaWatts (10x 100 kW is 1 mW). That’s enough power for a high rise office building.

The higher the power required, the greater the chance the utility company will have to upgrade grid capacity at the proposed site. RMI claimed that for higher powered sites, or for remote sites, the cost paid by utility companies for extra grid capacity can exceed $1 million per site. In some cases the utility company will require the charging site owner to share that cost.

An example related soft cost is the doubt or lack of information about whether grid capacity upgrades are required at any one site. Not all utility companies have the required information on hand, and may need to send out a technician to physically inspect the infrastructure to determine capacity. An electric vehicle service provider (EVSP – a.k.a. charging network) needs to know ahead of time whether such an upgrade is required, and the cost for getting power to a site, but the inability to get that information means project delays and other costs.

The charging network is risking their capital to start a project to install a charging facility. Any delay to the project puts that capital at greater risk, and may even cause the charging network to back out of a project even after spending $$’s on it.

Another issue is compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) compliance. This is a necessary requirement, since those of us with disabilities deserve access just as much as everyone else. Unfortunately complying with these regulations varies widely from locale to locale, and therefore a charging network does not have a single set of rules to follow.

ADA compliance can complicate the installation costs. For example typical “handicapped parking” spots are near the front of a building, but what if getting electricity to the front of the building requires a long and expensive trenching and conduit installation job? An example is are charging station facilities at many shopping centers since the electrical infrastructure for the center is usually in the back. The charging stations are often located BEHIND the shopping center, proving inconvenient for anyone hoping to plug in their car and do some shopping while the car is charging, and doubly inconvenient if that person is “handicapped”.

A related issue is local or state planning board general minimum requirements for parking spaces. Planning boards require each public facility have sufficient parking to handle the expected number of cars. Because charging stations are limited access – limited to those who are actively charging – charging stations decrease the number of parking spots. In some cases developers then have to create new parking spaces for EV charging to meet planning board requirements.

The final issue is the permitting process. The RMI report points out that building and permitting processes vary from city to city. This means a charging network looking to build facilities in 10 different cities has 10 different bureaucratic processes to deal with.

Summary

The RMI report suggested several solutions throughout the report.

For example – if the car industry were to settle on one charging plug, that is to ditch CHAdeMO for the Combo Charging System, then DC fast charging station costs would decrease by about $3000 per charging station.

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For the soft costs mentioned above, one that stands out is for the utility companies to more clearly communicate electric grid capacity to charging networks. If a charging network provider had a map of locations with sufficient grid capacity, they could focus station construction on those locations and avoid the headache of increasing grid capacity to support EV charging.

Looking at the solar industry, the 10+ years for the Dept of Energy project to decrease solar soft costs has produced results. But that took the dedication to deeply study the costs, and to come up with solutions. This took plenty of time, and is even an ongoing thing. One example is the Orange Button project launched two years ago that hopes to simplify financial reporting around solar arrays. That project has barely begun and is still a long way from producing tangible results.

The sooner the EV charging industry starts the sooner this will be solved.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

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