Electric vehicles

Biden wants to build 500,000 EV chargers by 2030. The question is where to put them.

The main criteria: electricity, a willing property owner, and confidence that people will find the location convenient
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· 8 min read

As fires, floods, and furnace-like temperatures batter the country—and the world—it’s evident that decarbonization needs to happen, like, yesterday.

In 2019, transportation accounted for 29% of all US greenhouse gas emissions, the most of any sector, and the majority of that came from passenger vehicles. Transitioning drivers to EV ownership would significantly reduce that figure, but in order to achieve that goal, the country needs a lot more EV chargers—fast.

With both public and private entities gearing up to spend tens of billions of dollars building out this critical infrastructure, here’s how private EV charging companies told us they approach putting a charger in the ground.

The need for speed(y and readily accessible public chargers)

The vast majority of EV owners will primarily charge at home, but the lack of public charging infrastructure remains a challenge, both for those who live in apartments and for exurbanites who don’t want to feel restricted.

“Having coast-to-coast highway networks is very important,” Rachel Moses, director of commercial services at Electrify America, an EV charging company that Volkswagen created as part of the settlement from its emissions scandal, told Emerging Tech Brew. “It might not be that a driver will ever do a cross-country route, but they need to know that they have the ability, if they wanted to.”

The Biden Administration is (maybe) close to securing up to $7.5 billion to fund public EV charging stations over the next five years, with the potential for an additional $5 billion in Department of Transportation grants as well. And while consulting firm AlixPartners expects it will require a lot more money to build out an adequate public charging network by 2030—try $50 billion—the EV charging companies we spoke to are hopeful this funding will kickstart a broader wave of investment.

“If we’re going to really change the carbon footprint of the vehicles in the United States, more is going to be needed after [the infrastructure bill] to keep this thing going,” Brendan Jones, president of Blink Charging, told Emerging Tech Brew. “But then the benefits will pay for themselves over time.”

Setting the parameters

At a minimum, building a charging station involves three actors: a site host (e.g., a public library, or a Target), a hardware/software provider (e.g., ChargePoint, Blink, or EVGo), and, of course, a utility—a charger can’t go where electricity can’t go.

But it can sprawl to cross-country-road-trip-like lengths. State and federal government agencies can be involved, offering incentives or directives about where chargers should go. Local zoning authorities have to issue siting permits. And site hosts come in many shapes and sizes—individual property owners, corporate real estate companies, municipalities, big box retailers, mom and pop shops—all of which have their own quirks.

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Private charging companies are not always in the driver’s seat of these projects. Sometimes they follow paint-by-numbers directives from a state department of transportation, energy office, or municipality, after winning a request for a proposal or grant. Or a corporate client comes to a charging company, and says, “Hey, I want chargers in this specific mall parking lot, as an amenity for customers.”

“If I’m selling chargers, I have no control—they’re placed wherever that owner or buyer of the charger wants to go,” Jones said. He added that they’ll consult on the best location in these cases, but ultimately, “It’s not necessarily the ideal location: It’s a location.”

Direct sales like this make up the smallest part of Blink’s business, Jones said, while the majority comes from an owned-and-operated, full-service model, or from a “hybrid” approach, involving a revenue split with site hosts. Blink, the No. 5 charging company in the US, brought in around $3.3 million last quarter, per company filings, up 175% from $1.6 million in the prior year period (it lost $13.5 million in the same period).

closeup of a blink charger in a parking lot

Blink Charging

Meanwhile, direct sales are the entire model for ChargePoint, the largest EV charging network in the country. It doesn’t handle any of its own installations. ChargePoint did $56 million in revenue last quarter, up 61% year over year, per its filings (it lost $84.9 million in the same period).

But it’s more common for requests for proposals or grant-issuing bodies to draw general boundaries for charging companies, rather than pick out exact locations themselves.

A body, like a state department of transportation or a utility, will have funding for a set number of chargers, and a bunch of stipulations that come with taking their cash, like distance (e.g., the charging stations must be within 50 miles of each other), location (e.g., 50% of chargers in low-income neighborhoods), and access (e.g., the public must have 24/7 access). Then it’s up to the company managing the project, like Blink or Electrify America, to find the most ideal sites within those bounds.

These high-level stipulations around placement usually come from further up the food chain, ranging from state senates to the senate Senate (the infrastructure-bill money will require some chargers to be built in rural and low-income areas, for instance).

Another example: Investor-owned utilities, mostly in NY and CA, have invested $3 billion in building EV charging infrastructure in the past few years, and 25% of those funds went to disadvantaged communities. At least six states, including NY and CA, require utilities to incorporate equity considerations into their EV charger investment plans.

Charging criteria

In terms of site suitability, there are a few basic boxes to check. For one, charging companies need a willing site host, and for another, there needs to be (enough) electricity.

The latter is not usually an issue for L2 charging stations, which need up to eight hours to fully charge a car and make up 82% of public chargers in the US. But it can be for DC fast chargers (DCFC), which charge a car in 60 to 90 minutes and require more power as a result. Dedrick Roper, ChargePoint’s head of public-private partnerships, said a DCFC could require the equivalent of “a small convenience store” in terms of power.

Once those hurdles are cleared, charging companies told us the most important consideration is a simple one: Is the site in a place where people would want to charge their car?

“Much of the early infrastructure in this space, going back 10 to 12 years, was really given to hand-raisers that didn’t necessarily have convenient, safe, or even highly sought-after amenities,” Moses of Electrify America said.

To counteract that, she said EA has focused on convenient places “that have nearby amenities, that people felt safe [in], and that they were able to do something—go to grocery stores, go to the bank, go to malls whilst they’re charging.”

electrify america chargers glowing green at night

Electrify America

But not all well-suited sites are created equally. It makes little sense to build an L2 charger, with its hours-long charge time, on a highway. Same goes for putting a lightning-fast DCFC in an apartment complex.

“You have to have the right type of chargers. If you have high dwell time in the location, where it’s a two- or three-hour stay, you don’t want to put a DC fast charger there,” Jones said, mostly because it’s economically inefficient. One DCFC installation runs about $100,000, and Jones said you can build about five L2 chargers for the price of one fast charger. DCFCs can also take up to twice as long to go through permitting.

Charging companies also have their own idiosyncrasies that govern site selection. These can be self-imposed—Jeff Hutchins, CIO of EV charging company EOS Linx, told us he doesn’t totally understand the popularity of building in a mall, for instance—or externally driven.

For example, Electrify America was created with funds from the Volkswagen emissions scandal settlement, and as part of the settlement terms, it needs to build at least 35% of its stations—nearly all of which are DC fast chargers—in low-income or disadvantaged communities. As of June 2021, it was at 50% in California, per its most recent quarterly report to the California Air Resources Board.

In any case, gauging the suitability of a site does not mean obsessing over charger-utilization figures today. Or tomorrow. Instead, charging companies increasingly aim to understand if the characteristics of a site lend themselves well to charging in principle, with the expectation that eventually all cars will be EVs. Through that lens, a good site is a good site—whether or not everyone in the neighborhood already owns an EV.

“We used to talk about the chicken and the egg all the time, and now the reality is that the cars are coming, and the EVs are going to sell. And now you’ve just got to get the chargers in the ground,” Jones said. “So you shift your dynamic—now you’re not just looking at, ‘Is this an EV-centric market,’ you’re going to go, ‘It doesn’t matter—all the markets are going to be EV-centric.’”

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