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With billions in public and private dollars pouring in, drivers across the U.S. will soon see a lot more EV charging stations popping up — on the streets of New York City, outside apartment complexes in Los Angeles and in the parking lot at the mall in Kansas.
And a whole slew of companies are vying to put them there.
The new federal infrastructure plan allocates $7.5 billion — including $2.5 billion in grants for projects that prioritize rural and disadvantaged communities — to build a national network of 500,000 EV charging stations that is both "convenient and equitable," according to the White House. Federal officials offered more details last week on how to apply and say they want the money to start flowing this year. The influx comes on top of private investment by automakers, fleet managers and even a few oil and gas companies that are planning their own charging networks, some through subsidiaries and others through partnerships with EV charging startups.
"In a lot of ways, the infrastructure bill is just adding on to a great deal of progress that we've been seeing in the last couple years," said Stacy Noblet, senior director of transportation electrification at advisory firm ICF, who pointed to the variety of new EV models coming from carmakers, technological advances in charging and progress made at the state level in places such as California, Colorado, New York and Tennessee. "But it is a lot of money, and it will absolutely move the industry forward by leaps and bounds. We’ve never seen funding numbers like these."
There are 53,180 public charging EV stations in the U.S., mostly equipped with Level 2 chargers, which take about an hour of charging for 10 to 20 miles of range. Only 7,018 of those stations have DC fast chargers, which take 20 minutes of charging for 60 to 80 miles of range. (For comparison’s sake, there are 115,000 gas stations in the U.S.)
The money to expand and improve this system can’t come soon enough. Setting aside Tesla and its exclusive supercharger network for Tesla drivers, the existing charging station infrastructure leaves a lot to be desired. Not only is there a general lack of availability, customers frequently complain that chargers don’t work properly — or at all. More than half of EV drivers surveyed by Plug In America in 2020 said they’d experienced problems with public charging stations, the most common being broken chargers.
With thousands of its signature electric car, the Mustang Mach-E, hitting the road each month, executives at Ford grew so frustrated with the situation, they started sending company representatives they call "charge angels" to problem stations around the country. The reps test and diagnose the chargers with special equipment then share results with the station owner. If the problems continue, Ford won’t direct its drivers there anymore.
Bigger, better, faster
This initiative illustrates just how invested automakers are in the growth and improvement of the country’s network of charging stations, which was built piecemeal more than a decade ago and never taken very seriously — until now. Car companies know a mass transition to electric vehicles and their future sales depend on average drivers having a positive charging experience. That means charging stations must be prevalent, accessible, fast and dependable.
"What's going to be increasingly important, and it's getting a lot of attention today, is the raw reliability," Noblet said. "As an EV driver, no matter whose charging station you're using, or where it's at, you want to get a charge, and you want to know that your vehicle will get from point A to point B."
Roaming agreements among the biggest non-Tesla networks have made it so an app or card with one network will get you into any station, an important step toward accessibility.
Now, in addition to dependability, much of the focus is on pure growth — and speed. As EV use expands beyond the most enthusiastic early adopters, so will demand for a more "gas station-like" experience. And automakers are pouring in cash and partnering every which way to make that happen. Nearly all are pursuing ultra-fast chargers, although Level 2 chargers are in the mix as well, as are battery swapping stations.
- Volkswagen aims to roll out 10,000 ultra-fast chargers in the U.S. through its subsidiary, Electrify America, as well as 18,000 in Europe and 17,000 in China through various partnerships.
- General Motors has made a $750 million commitment to expand access to EV charging. Its Ultium Charge 360 program aims to give drivers in both the U.S. and Canada access to almost 60,000 charging outlets, through a partnership with seven EV charging companies, including Blink, ChargePoint, EV Connect, EVgo, FLO, Greenlots and SemaConnect. The automaker has struck an agreement with EVgo to install thousands of fast-charging stations nationally.
- Ford plans to double its EV production to a target of 600,000 vehicles by 2023. Like GM’s network, its Blue Oval Charge Network operates across seven systems and plugs into more than 6,000 fast-charging stations.
- And just a note on Europe: Ionity, a joint venture among BMW, Ford, Volkswagen, Daimler and Hyundai, has said it will invest nearly $795 million to increase its network to 7,000 ultra-fast chargers there by 2025.
"I think we're going to see more of this collaboration between charging companies and automakers, and maybe more automakers just going out buying charging companies that are on the smaller side and vertically integrating them into their operation," Vartan Badalian, Under2 Coalition government affairs manager for the U.S. and Canada at Climate Group, told GreenBiz.
Can I get an outlet?
Most EV charging, nearly 80 percent, happens where drivers spend most of their time: at home and at the workplace. And that will likely continue for the EV drivers who have those options. But for the country’s 80 million apartment dwellers, finding a place to charge up can be tricky, which makes it harder for renters and condo owners to pull the trigger on an electric vehicle.
To solve this problem, a number of cities and states are figuring out ways to convince apartment developers and managers to buy into the unfamiliar and expensive process of installing charging stations. Los Angeles, for example, is offering rebates to managers who put charging stations in apartment parking lots, and it is updating its building codes to require chargers in new construction.
Of course, that only works if there’s a parking lot.
I think we're going to see more of this collaboration between charging companies and automakers, and maybe more automakers just going out buying charging companies that are on the smaller side and vertically integrating them into their operation.
In New York City, a parking space in a private residential lot is a luxury the vast majority of residents don’t have, so the city has launched a new curbside charging network dubbed PlugNYC. An initial 34 stations with 100 plugs (plus four stations with 20 plugs for the city’s fleet vehicles) are being installed though a partnership with utility Con Edison and Canadian charging station startup FLO. The city plans to create a citywide network of 40,000 public Level 2 chargers and 6,000 DC fast chargers by 2030.
"This is revolutionary just because having curbside anything in New York City is a tremendous feat," said Badalian, who up until recently led Climate Group’s EV100 program.
EV sales are increasing more rapidly than expected. In November, research firm Bloomberg NEF projected a jump of more than 80 percent in global sales for 2021. EVs made up 3 percent of auto sales during the first half of last year in North America, but BNEF expects a surge to 20 to 30 percent in the U.S., E.U. and China by 2025, based on "proposed and confirmed rules" in those markets.
With the fortuitous feedback loop of consumer demand, public policy and funding, and private investment turning, it’s no wonder dozens of charging station companies have popped up to vie for a share of the market. In the U.S., first-generation players such as ChargePoint, Electrify America and Tesla clearly have an opportunity to expand their foothold.
Here are eight others looking to find a niche for themselves.
Everybody wants to be the fastest, but only one can take the gold, and right now that’s ABB. The Swedish–Swiss technology company says its new 360-kilowatt charging station can fully charge four EVs at a time in under 15 minutes. To put that into perspective, the fastest Tesla supercharger stations supply 250 kilowatts of power. Don’t have 15 minutes? No problem. The station also has a more expensive ultra-fast option, which can provide 62 miles of range in under three minutes. The company plans to bring its ultra-fast charger to the U.S., Latin America and Asia this year.
San Francisco-based startup Ample has piqued the interest of investors with its modular "Lego like" battery-swapping system. Unlike your typical plugin chargers, customers who pull up to Ample’s stations will receive a freshly charged battery in exchange for their depleted one, which the startup then recharges for future use. On its website, Ample says its system "can easily work with any EV and can act as a drop-in replacement for the original battery design." The swapping process, which is completely automated, takes only 10 minutes. Customers will use an app to pay and won’t even need to get out of the car. Ample has raised $280 million from investors and nabbed an agreement to charge Uber’s San Francisco fleet. Its swapping stations are expected to hit the general market within a couple of years.
Based in sunny San Diego, Beam Global specializes in solar-powered off-grid EV charging that does not depend on a functioning grid to work. Beam’s transportable units, which are about the size of a parking space, have a 4.3-kilowatt solar array and up to 44 kilowatts of battery storage so they can be used day or night, during inclement weather and power outages, and in remote locations. Beam’s design allows an EV charger of the customer’s choice to be integrated into the unit; it has installed systems using ENEL X Juiceboxes, ChargePoint and Electrify America chargers, among others. Beam’s customer niche is local government. It has installations in more than 100 municipalities in the U.S. and around the world, including 52 in California. Beam also recently landed a contract with the U.S. military.
A number of charging startups, including Blink and EV Connect, are going after the growing EV fleet market with platforms that allow fleet managers to keep track of large numbers of vehicles and chargers, monitor charging and load management, and reduce energy costs by charging during non-peak hours. But Enel X has taken it a step further by developing software that lets employees charge company vehicles at home using its JuiceBox charger. With the company’s IoT software, the fleet manager has remote access to monitor charging and energy use. The driver charges the vehicle at home during off-peak hours, which reduces onsite electricity demand and costs for the company — as well as strain on the grid — and is reimbursed by the employer. Enel X, the advanced energy services arm of Enel Group, has partnerships with fleet management companies, Element and Merchants Fleet, as well as agreements with GlaxoSmithKline and Biogen, both of which aim to quickly electrify their fleets.
EVgo is another first-generation charging startup, included here because of its apparent zeal for a particular market segment: charge while you shop. EVgo boasts one of the country’s largest fast-charging networks, with more than 800 fast-charging stations in 34 states, all 100 percent powered by renewable energy. In addition to expanded agreements with GM and Uber, the Los Angeles-based company’s chargers are popping up in shopping centers and grocery store parking lots across the country. Its partners include CBL Properties, which owns malls, outlet centers and other retail properties across 24 states; supermarket chains Whole Foods and Kroger; and convenience store chains Wawa and Sheetz. EVgo’s chargers, which provide an 80 percent charge in 15 to 45 minutes, can be found at CBL malls in Virginia, Florida, Michigan and Kansas.
Taking an opposite turn from those looking to charge the EVs of America’s urbanites, Francis Energy aims to tackle another challenge to mass adoption: the lack of charging stations across rural America. Based in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the startup has been installing fast chargers in remote areas of the Great Plains, including on tribal lands, and working to make the classic American road trip EV-friendly by putting stations on Route 66. While its installations tend to be in areas with few electric cars on the road, Francis is betting on Washington, D.C.’s infrastructure funding and the heartland’s love of pickup trucks. Several automakers, including Ford, Chevrolet and GM, plan to roll out new electric pickups this year or next. And deliveries for the Rivian R1T and GM’s Hummer EV have already started.
While rivals BP and Total are also making moves into EV charging, Shell is leading a niche segment we’ll call oil companies that have half a clue. The Anglo-Dutch oil major has made several acquisitions, including a significant one in the U.S. — in 2019, it bought Greenlots, a Los Angeles-based startup that will soon be rebranded as Shell Recharge Solutions. Globally, Shell installs an EV charge point every 20 minutes, it says, and it’s aiming to operate 500,000 of them by 2025 and 2.5 million by 2030. Rival BP, which recently said its fast chargers are on the cusp of becoming more profitable than filling up a gas-powered car in Britain and Europe, has also taken its first major step into the U.S. market. Late last year, it acquired Amply Power, a specialist in EV charging and management for fleets that operate trucks, transit and school buses, vans and light-duty vehicles.
Home charging will remain the primary method for most EV owners, and Spain’s Wallbox makes a home charger that is compatible with all EVs, including Teslas, with a super-fast version that is one of the fastest home chargers on the market. The startup also recently launched the latest generation of its bidirectional home charger, the Quasar 2, which not only allows EV owners to send power from their vehicle to their home or the grid, it also lets them isolate their house from the grid and use their EV for backup power during an outage. Wallbox says its Quasar 2 can power a home for more than three days during a blackout. Its U.S. expansion strategy includes a partnership with Uber, which offers a discounted rate for the Wallbox Pulsar Plus charger to the ride-sharing company’s drivers.