Just about everyone who follows the electric vehicle scene agrees that a lot more public charging stations need to be deployed over the next few years. Governments, electric utilities and private firms are rising to the challenge. President Biden’s EV plan includes $15 billion in new funding to install some 500,000 charging stations by 2030. Many other infrastructure initiatives are going forward around the world as we speak.
But where should all those chargers be installed? This is a critical question, and there’s no single correct answer — but some wrong answers have already become clear. A few years ago, there was a wave of infrastructure installation around the US, as city governments and businesses took advantage of federal subsidies to build public chargers. Alas, most of these entities had no idea of the best places to build the charging stations, and they tended to install them wherever it was easy and cheap to do so, at places like city halls and schools. Hundreds of these too-early deployments sit unused today, and many have been abandoned or removed, providing talking points for anti-EV chatterers.
To be fair, at that time there was little or no data available to guide policy-makers. Today, siting of public chargers is developing into a science. Planners working for Tesla’s Supercharger division, and major networks such as Electrify America and Europe’s IONIQ, carefully study traffic patterns, growth projections and the locations of amenities like restaurants and shopping before making decisions about where to locate new charging stations.
When it comes to planning large-scale rollouts of public charging, there are basically two schools of thought, as a recent article in Autoweek explains. So far, most of the large network providers, including ChargePoint and Electrify America, have focused on putting chargers in areas that already have, or are expected to have, large concentrations of EVs. A glance at Tesla’s Supercharger map illustrates this strategy on a macro scale — Superchargers are thickly clustered in early-adopting regions such as California, Norway, and China, but thin on the ground in many other parts of the world.
Above: States like Florida are investing heavily in the buildout of electric vehicle charging stations (YouTube: NBC2 News)
The other philosophy is to spread charging facilities in a more equitable fashion — if we want everyone to drive electric, then we need to make sure public charging is also available in rural areas, and in less-affluent communities. In California, for example public infrastructure programs typically require that a substantial amount of the funding be directed to disadvantaged and/or rural communities.
The state of Michigan is considering both approaches as it builds out a statewide charging network. Mehrnaz Ghamami, an Assistant Professor at Michigan State University, led a team of researchers who developed a plan to optimize Michigan’s EV charging network. As she explained to Autoweek, the state told the team to plan chargers with “uniform distribution throughout the state, for equity purposes,” not just in areas where traffic or EV adoption are already high.
The resulting maps show chargers distributed at roughly even intervals throughout the state, with clusters around major population centers. Ghamami says her team faced criticism from some who didn’t understand the reason for siting stations in more remote areas, but she explains that “the infrastructure needs to be there, and users need to be educated about these vehicles. The state wanted to build the chargers, and the demand will follow.”
Across the pond, the city of London is pursuing more of a follow-the-traffic strategy as it builds out a charging network for taxis. Local government has mandated that the city’s iconic taxi fleet be electrified by 2033, and planners are using mapping data from current taxi trip patterns, combined with data on the capacity of local electrical grids, to design a charging network based around established travel patterns. The drawback to this, as Autoweek points out, is that parts of the city that don’t currently have high taxi traffic could end up with few or no charging stations.
The art and science of siting charging stations has come a long way, but it’s still evolving, and there’s nothing that could be called a consensus. When Autoweek asked Ms. Ghamami what standard state governments and other policymakers could look to for guidance on designing charging networks, she said, “Nationwide? I don’t think there is one.”