One huge advantage of electric vehicles is the potential to fuel them up at convenient locations without having to make an extra stop, like say, whenever you park your car at work, and that’s what the Department of Energy has in mind with its new Workplace Charging Challenge. Announced just last week, the Charging Challenge aims to get more U.S. employers to install EV charging stations, to the tune of a tenfold increase over the next five years.
Workplace charging might not seem like much of a make-or-break perk, but when you look at how fast EV prices are falling, the extra convenience could make an enormous difference in the future U.S. car market.
Affordable EVs for the U.S. EV Charging Network
Electric vehicles have barely made a dent in the U.S. so far, but if you’re thinking that the whole idea of giving a heavy push to workplace charging right now is kind of like putting the cart before the horse, the Obama Administration has already thought of that.
According to DOE, the average cost of electricity is the equivalent of just $1.00 per gallon in gasoline so all other things being equal, EVs start looking mighty attractive compared to conventional vehicles.
The Charging Challenge is just one part of a broader public-private initiative launched by the Administration last spring, called the EV Everywhere Grand Challenge, which has the ambitious goal of making plug-in EV ownership just as widespread and affordable as gasoline vehicle ownership (in case you’re interested, here’s the EV Everywhere Blueprint).
Fuel availability is not a challenge unique to EVs, by the way. When the U.S. automotive industry was first getting off the ground a century ago, there wasn’t exactly a gas station on every corner, and partly for that reason electric vehicles were more popular in the early years (that didn’t last long, but still…).
Who’s on Board with Workplace EV Charging?
It looks like the Charging Challenge is already off to a roaring start. Twenty-one stakeholders are already signed up to lead the way, including a who’s who of major private sector employers: 3M, Chrysler Group, Duke Energy, Eli Lilly and Company, Ford, GE, GM, Google, Nissan, San Diego Gas & Electric, Siemens, Tesla, and Verizon.
Among the organizations pledging to support and promote the effort are the California PEV Collaborative, CALSTART, Electric Drive Transportation Association (EDTA), Electrification Coalition, International Parking Institute, NextEnergy, Plug In America, and Rocky Mountain Institute. DOE will also chip in with technical and organizational support.
Given what we know about low cost wind power, the participation of GE and Siemens is especially noteworthy. GE’s wind power projects run the gamut from wind and solar powered EV charging stations to “Industrial Internet” wind farms, and Siemens’s wind turbines are popping up all over the U.S.
Baby Steps to Workplace Charging
The initial goal is pretty modest, requiring each participant to analyze the demand for EVs (plug-in EVs, that is) and plan for installing workplace charging stations at one major work site.
In terms of EV charging in general some of the private sector participants already have a running start to say the least. Nissan and NRG, for example, have just announced a new partnership to add 500 public fast-charging stations to the U.S., including the first EV fast-charging network for Washington, D.C.
Right now there are only 160 public fast-charging stations in the U.S., so that partnership alone accounts for a significant jump.
NRG’s plans for the EV charging “ecosystem” also include public fast-charge networks in California and Texas, along with home and workplace charging.
EV Charging Stations Going Up, Gasoline Going Down
In terms of fuel station availability and convenience, EV charging stations of all types will soon overtake retail gasoline locations by a wide margin. According to EDTA about 1.5 million public charging stations will be up and running by 2017. That’s all types, not just fast-charging, and that figure doesn’t even include home and workplace charging stations.
By comparison, as of 2011 there were less than 160,000 retail gas stations in the U.S.
Even worse for the gasoline vehicle outlook, retail gas station availability has been trending negative since at least 1994. According to the American Petroleum Institute as of 2004 there were about 168,000 gas stations, down from a little over 200,000 in 1994.
A Legacy of Cleaner Cars
With a heavy push from the Obama Administration, the U.S. EV market has come full circle back to fueling convenience as well as providing a high performance, practically noiseless, emission-free driving experience.
That brings us to outgoing Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who left the agency with a bang by announcing his resignation last Friday, just one day after launching the Charging Challenge in a keynote speech for the Washington Auto Show.
Mr. Chu’s email to DOE staff has been made public and it’s worth reading in full because it provides a rundown of the agency’s progress on future energy initiatives over the past four years, particularly regarding the EV market.
Chu will remain in his slot until a successor is named, and it will be mighty interesting to see what the next four years bring.
Image: EV charging sign courtesy of Oregon DOT
Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. You can also follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.