The transition from internal combustion vehicles to electrified vehicles is shattering business models in automotive manufacturing, the entire global oil industry, and a handful of tangential industries like electricity generation, energy storage, and shipping, among others.
An estimated 95% of these plug-in vehicles will be charged at home, meaning drivers can leave the home with a full charge each morning, largely eliminating the need for the public vehicle fueling stations currently known as gas stations. Having said that, that last 5% is the most difficult. Some drivers are fine pushing boundaries to vet new vehicle technologies and explore their potential. Many are not, so need easy and widespread public charging to feel comfortable getting into an EV. Cities, utilities, vehicle charging network operators, vehicle charging system manufacturers, and automotive manufacturers are leaning into public charging to determine what and where the real need is for public charging and what, if anything, drivers are willing to pay to charge.
That battle is heating up as heavily regulated investor-owned utilities (IOUs) and privately owned charging network operators clash head-on in what is essentially a land grab for lucrative electric vehicle charging locations along arterial highways and thoroughfares around the world. To shape up how this is playing out, I spoke with Brett Hauser, CEO of Greenlots, a provider of e-mobility and smart charging solutions, and a longtime advocate for open charging standards as the cofounder of the Open Charge Alliance.
Brett shared that one of the fundamental requirements for electric vehicles to be successful is a public network of EVSE that everyone has access to. This includes challenging locations like multi-unit dwellings and low-income areas. Brett is clearly passionate about leading the charge towards a functional public charging network and spoke to that effect, noting that utilities have a responsibility to serve the public interest, which lines up with the need for public charging — even when the financials don’t line up for a for-profit plug-in vehicle charging network operator.
Utility-Owned Public Charging Networks
Utilities seem to be a shoo-in for the role since they already own much of the infrastructure — and since massive investments in additional infrastructure are required to support the massive high-speed charging stations being installed today, let alone the clusters of 100, 200, and more high-speed charging stations operating at speeds that will only continue to climb for the foreseeable future.
From a cost perspective, counties, states, and countries already regulate utilities in most regions of the world to ensure fair pricing for electricity to residents. This same charge can hold true for plug-in vehicle charging, with the utility sitting in the best position to be able to provide low-cost charging services to the populus.
Opposition to Utility-Owned Public Charging Networks
Though the supply and demand seem to line up with utilities as the clear choice for the owner of public charging stations, the push for utilities to take the reins has seen significant pushback, for a number of reasons. Brett shared that:
“To date, there have been a number of utilities that have gone to utility commissions in a number of states … to try to figure out what role they can play [with respect to EV charging infrastructure] and there have been a lot of headwinds.”
It is true that the potential for a monopoly exists and that is not something to be lightly dismissed. Just as utilities are regulated with respect to electricity generation, transmission, and distribution, this new outlet for electricity distribution — aka EV chargers — needs to be regulated to ensure fair and equitable access for everyone.
To date, the Electric Vehicle Charging Association (EVCA) and ChargePoint have both been vocal critics of utility-owned public charging networks because of the potential for a monopoly. As an industry association and a public charging network operator, respectively, they are also clearly looking out for their own financial interests, but the concerns raised are valid and must be addressed through public discourse and discussion with the affected parties.
A Healthy Middle Ground
Will the public charging network of the future be 100% utility owned? 100% privately owned? Something else? Ultimately, the answer will be D — all of the above. The shift to electrified transportation is already on track to happen much more rapidly than mainstream consumers, manufacturers, and governments expected, and multiple efforts to increase the number of public charging networks will be implemented.
Brett advocates for establishing a foundational communication layer that gives utilities the much-needed visibility into real-time usage of charging stations, noting that “for utilities to effectively manage the grid, they need to understand what’s happening on the customer side of the meter.” This ties in with the opportunity many in the EVSE space are exploring with demand response functionality — or the ability to throttle down large units of electricity consumption (like a pool of 1000 plug-in vehicles that are charging) to balance the grid.
To do this, more work is needed to mandate standardized communication protocols for new EVSE. Brett’s open source background came to the fore in our discussion. He personally advocates for hardware-agnostic communication standards:
“The systems we are putting out need to be non-proprietary to allow utilities to mix and match various hardware providers with the back-end.”
How communication standards, communication with utilities, and utility back-end management systems scale is yet to be determined, but the financials tell the tale, with Enel’s recent acquisitions of 3 large players in the demand response space revealing just how large of a role the utility sees demand response playing in the grid of the future.
Brett shared that Greenlots has “more demand response-capable stations in North America than any other manufacturer,” later clarifying that “with over a thousand EV chargers operating on the Greenlots network, the majority are demand response-enabled.” Greenlots is fortifying its position by building high-power charging locations in clusters with on-site storage to help station owners mitigate the grid and financial impacts of massive charging spikes that bring steep demand charges down to the bottom line.
Brett closed with a firm, no-nonsense statement on the future of public plug-in vehicle charging networks:
“The only way to move the market forward is with open, transparent networks.”