Dunstan Power examines some of the challenges with electric vehicle charging infrastructure
A recent industry analysis from Versinetic, Key Barriers to EV Charging Infrastructure Rollout, highlights the most significant gaps that will affect the adoption of electric vehicles (EVs). From component shortages and lack of skilled workers to lithium-ion challenges and standards, it all threatens the charging infrastructure needed to meet 2030 goals for electric vehicles.
In Europe, car travel accounts for about 12% of all carbon emissions, while 29% of total greenhouse gas emissions in the United States are generated by transportation. Under the Paris Agreement, emissions from cars and vans will have to fall by more than a third (37.5%) by 2030. Brussels and EU member states are pumping millions to incentivize owners cars to go electric. Some countries, such as the UK, go even further by proposing to ban sales of diesel and petrol vehicles.
The UK government, like many others, expects most top-ups to take place at home. However, the country’s Climate Change Committee suggests that 1,170 charging stations are needed per 100 km of road by 2030. At the current rate of growth, only a quarter (76,849) of the public charging stations needed to meet the anticipated demand (325,000) will be installed by 2032.
To bridge the gap, the government aims to build a globally recognized electric vehicle charging network, backed by £1.3bn (US$1.7bn) in funding, covering the costs of the strategic road network , landlords, local authorities and building owners, along with regulatory changes. . However, government funding is not all that is needed.
Electric vehicle production increased in 2021, especially in Europe and North America. However, makers of electric vehicles and charging stations have been hit by the global shortage of computer chips. Initially the result of supply chain challenges related to the coronavirus pandemic; today, the industry is faced with stocking issues of available components. During the pandemic, buyers have over-ordered to minimize supply disruptions, but abandoning JIT purchases could prolong the world’s slow transition to electric vehicles if chips remain scarce in the coming months.
There are many other headwinds. For example, in the automotive sector, there is a shortage of personnel with the skills needed to develop, produce and maintain electric vehicles and charging infrastructure. This includes mechanics, technicians and software developers. At the same time, loaders present a unique challenge because they are not equipped in the same way as petrol and diesel stations. Operators rely on error messages to alert maintenance teams to any issues, such as misplaced cables, broken and flooded media and failing connectors.
New competency frameworks are now needed. For example, WMG University in Warwick, the Faraday Institution and the High Value Manufacturing Catapult in the UK are looking to reskill and upskill the workforce to meet demand when it is needed.
From component shortages and lack of skilled workers to lithium-ion challenges and standards, it all threatens the charging infrastructure needed to meet 2030 targets for electric vehicles
A common concern with electric vehicles is the effect of drivers returning home and charging in the early evening, when demand is already at its highest. At present, the UK’s national grid can cope with charging electric cars for an eight-hour period overnight, as it has a capacity of 63 gigawatts; but in the future this will not be enough.
Grid electricity is “reduced” at substations for distribution to homes and businesses at acceptable voltage levels. Substations have output power limits, so if everyone installs a typical 7kW EV charger, there could be too much demand for high levels of electricity at peak times, causing electrical overload.
As the adoption of electric vehicles increases, the demand for electricity will peak between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m., as most workers go home and recharge. They probably won’t need to do this every day, but they probably will due to range anxiety. An increase in easy-to-use charging stations at petrol stations, supermarkets and workplaces would reduce concerns about the range capabilities of electric vehicles.
Smart charging solutions, or smart chargers, that deploy a flexible approach and smart technology are key to balancing future demand. The recommendation from the UK Government’s EV Energy Task Force states that all future car chargers should be “smart by design”.
Lithium demand soared; therefore, materials scientists face two major challenges. One is how to reduce metals in batteries that are rare, expensive, or problematic because their extraction incurs high environmental and social costs. Another is to improve battery recycling, so that the precious metals contained in used car batteries can be reused efficiently.
At a conference in Washington in May 2019, Sarah Maryssael, Global Supply Manager of Battery Metals at Tesla, warned that after years of underinvestment in mining, the materials used to make batteries could soon be rare and lead to price increases.
Positively for the EU, lithium deposits have been discovered in Austria, Serbia and Finland, and the Portuguese government is preparing to offer lithium mining licenses to international companies to exploit its reserves of “white oil”. Sourcing lithium in Portugal offers Europe simpler logistics, lower prices and fewer transport-related emissions. It also promises security of supply, ever more important in a world disrupted by supply chain volatility.
The location and frequency of on-street charging stations is a challenge. A busy street with new chargers could easily clog the roadway. Owners of drivewayless electric vehicles may need to drive to nearby streets to charge or face ICE (internal combustion engine) cars jamming the chargers. In addition, councils will have to provide many more chargers, which will inevitably lead to additional cost.
There are a number of innovative solutions to the problem, from wireless charging to using rising pillars, spears that plug into pavement-mounted plates, and streetlights to provide power. Neighborhood electric vehicle charging centers could also take cars off the street, reducing traffic congestion and tripping hazards caused by charging cables.
The development of electric vehicle charging standards is a vital requirement. Countries tend to follow their own set of standardization rules and have regulatory bodies that oversee technical specifications and approval of new technologies. For example, Japanese automakers have developed their own connector and charge delivery mechanism called CHAdeMO; while Europe-derived CCS becomes the European DC standard, with even Nissan moving there from CHAdeMO. It is the first system that can use single-phase or three-phase Type 2 chargers and, through the same connector, be used for DC fast charging. In principle, CHAdeMO could also do this, but not via type 2 for normal universal fast charging. In the United States, a similar CCS is used in combination with a Type 1 connector.
A unified standard would reduce capital investment and improve ease of access for all end users. Indeed, we have come to a comparable parallel point in history; the Betamax standardization wars against VHS. Once one standard dominated and gained market acceptance (VHS), the growth of personal video recorders and players increased exponentially.
As the industry progresses towards electric vehicles dominating the roads, the pandemic has slowed progress. Currently, shortages of components and skilled personnel are just the tip of the iceberg. Grid challenges, while manageable today, need to be addressed to ensure that, where possible, drivers can charge from home.
Projected lithium shortages will spur innovation in battery recycling, while street charging plans are needed for those unable to charge at home. Universal standards will also need to ensure interoperability. In this context, even with funding and enthusiasm, innovation and collaboration remain the best ways to help us overcome these challenges.
About the Author: Dunstan Power is Principal at Versinetic