CTT 10-10-2017

[Image above] Credit: Washington State House; Flickr CC BY-ND 2.0

If they build an electric vehicle (EV) charging infrastructure, will we buy EVs?

Electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid EVs (PHEVs) have become increasingly popular in the past several years. According to the U.S. Department of Energy, hybrid EV sales have increased 43% between 2011 and 2015. PHEV sales increased 436% during that same period. And EV sales increased a whopping 628% between 2011 and 2015.

The numbers offer proof that sooner, rather than later, there will be more of these types of vehicles on the road. Data from the Consumer Federation of America indicate that sales of EVs are outpacing hybrid vehicles, which have been on the market for a while. Manufacturers predict that this year will see record sales of EVs.

And while the EV industry still has its challenges, including raw material shortages, one major hurdle may still be hindering faster adoption—the issue of charging. EV and hybrid vehicle owners typically charge their vehicles at home in their own garages. Charging times can vary based on the type of car and type of charger.

Once charged, though, driving ranges can vary based on the car. And that is a problem for those who want to drive long distances.

While researchers look for ways to shorten charging times for EVs, the DOE is looking at the big picture. According to its Alternative Fuels Data Center (AFDC) there are 16,384 electric charging stations and 44,761 charging outlets in the U.S. (subject to change). It seems like a lot—but a new study from the DOE’s National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) suggests that’s not enough.

The study claims that as EV and PHEV adoption increases, a national network of non-residential charging stations needs to be developed to accommodate vehicles in the coming decades. According to an NREL news release, “about 8,000 fast-charging stations would be needed to provide a minimum level of urban and rural coverage nationwide.”

NREL examined four specific geographic areas—cities, towns, rural areas, and interstate highway system corridors—to determine where infrastructure is needed to support EV charging requirements. It found that urban and rural communities are projected to have much larger charging infrastructure needs.

NREL also found that by adding a few hundred fast-charging stations between U.S. cities, EV drivers would be able to travel long distances between those cities.

“This study shows how important it is to understand consumer preferences and driving behaviors when planning charging networks,” Chris Gearhart, director of NREL’s Transportation and Hydrogen Systems Center, says in the release.

Some western U.S. states are already discussing plans for an alternative vehicle charging infrastructure. Last week Colorado governor John Hickenlooper announced a collaboration of his and six other western states to create a network of fast-charge stations covering 5,000 miles on 11 major interstates.

“This is an investment. Not just an investment of the future, but an investment in the brand of the Mountain West,” Hickenlooper says in a Denver Post article. “It’s about making us a hub for clean-energy innovation.”

Private industry is already investing in the infrastructure. Anticipating an increase in sales, Tesla has built 5,000 Supercharger stations globally and plans to double that before the end of the year. BMW, Chevrolet, Nissan, and Volkswagen already have chargers in place, and the Chargepoint network says it has more than 41,000 charging spots around the world.

So if they build it, will we come? It looks like they are already here—waiting for us to trade our gas-powered cars for an eco-friendly alternative.

To learn more about the NREL’s analysis, download the study here.

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