Charging Infrastructure Isn’t Just About The Hardware

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By Jeff Allen, Executive Director, Forth

The federal bipartisan infrastructure bill would dedicate as much as $7.5 billion to electric vehicle charging infrastructure, the first major national investment in this important area. These investments are an important down payment towards electrifying transportation and tackling climate change. 

Forth Executive Director, Jeff Allen

Forth is a nonprofit organization that represents over 150 organizations in the electric mobility space, including charging companies, car companies, electric utilities, and governments. Over the past decade, we’ve managed the installation of charging on highways and at tourist destinations; we were the top recruiter of workplaces to the USDOE workplace charging challenge for three years running; and we’ve developed charging investment strategies for utilities and governments alike. Along the way, we’ve learned that when it comes to charging, many of the most important investments we need to make are not hardware investments at all. For example:

Designing programs that leverage public investments. Public charging investments will need to be highly leveraged with funding from electric utilities, corporate and fleet customers, and individual drivers. Getting the biggest “bang for the buck” out of public charging investments requires a careful analysis of different use cases, such as charging in a single-family home, in an apartment building, at work, fast charging in a metropolitan area, in rural areas, or on long road trips. Investment levels and structures should match the use case. For example, there is a strong case for public funding to ensure that sparsely populated rural areas have enough fast charging to ensure all drivers can access electric vehicles. This is the same rationale that spurred America to provide electricity to remote farms, and to build the interstate road network. By contrast, beyond limited support in new markets, there is less justification for public subsidies for chargers in single-family homes, unless those subsidies are used to encourage more efficient charging behavior.

Managing the money. The small public investments in charging over the past decade have mostly come from U.S. Department of Energy or state energy and environmental agencies. As public investments scale, it’s natural to look to the institutions that currently deliver other transportation funding — state transportation departments, regional Metropolitan Planning Organizations, counties, and cities. However, these institutions generally have no staffing, expertise, or experience delivering investments in charging infrastructure. They tend to move slowly. More fundamentally, they are often more comfortable simply building hard infrastructure, and often have limited experience managing the kinds of public-private partnerships or incentive programs that will be needed to expand EV charging. Institutions tasked with delivering funding and incentives will need to have experienced staff who understand charging infrastructure; an ability to manage public-private partnerships and incentive programs; clear guidance, best practices, and standards; and an ability to move quickly.

Building the market. In many of the most important charging markets — such as workplaces and apartment buildings — the major barriers to charging are information and motivation, not hardware costs. Even in programs offering rebates for energy efficient appliances that are well understood, there need to be substantial budgets for program marketing, administration, and evaluation. When products are new and poorly understood — like electric vehicles and charging — those budgets need to be far higher. Few employers or building managers have the time or interest to become experts in EV charging, solicit multiple bids, and manage an installation process. Charging investments must be accompanied by robust and brand-neutral marketing and technical support programs.

Improving the customer experience. Early adopters have been willing to endure challenges — but we have moved past the early adopter stage. Anyone who’s been driving electric over the past decade has likely driven around a parking lot trying to find the charger; has found a charger blocked by a gas car; or has found a charger that simply isn’t working. We need legislation, programs, and investments that make blocking a charger as unacceptable as blocking a gas pump, that ensure exceedingly high “up times” for chargers, that ensure they are easy to find, and that ensure they are easy and transparent to pay for. We also need to ensure that pricing is transparent and easy, and does not require carrying around an assortment of key fobs or smartphone apps.

Lowering transaction costs. Charging has been a bit of a “Wild West” experience for most of the past decade, with a hodgepodge of investments and competing systems. As our colleagues at the Rocky Mountain Institute have well documented, the greatest cost-reduction opportunities in charging lie in “soft costs,” including procurement, easements, code compliance, permitting, opportunity costs, permitting delays, etc. We need to develop and promote best practices and standardization to drive down costs and facilitate scale.

Improving utility engagement. America’s 3,000+ local electric utilities must play a key role in building out the nation’s charging infrastructure — but they are all over the map in terms of engagement, policies, and pricing. Utilities typically rely on a fixed “demand charge” to recover part of the cost of providing new service. These fixed charges can make it economically impossible to provide charging in key locations that won’t be used very much for a few years (say, along key rural corridors) but that are critical to having a viable network. On the other hand, a viable network may require installing charging in rural areas with limited infrastructure, and local ratepayers shouldn’t be expected to shoulder those costs. While much of the regulation and decision-making rests at the state or local level, we need the federal government to play an active role in developing regulatory frameworks, tools, funding mechanisms, and best practices to promote a consistent national charging network.

Addressing equity. An excessive focus on hardware in our charging investments will also leave historically underserved communities further behind. While the bipartisan infrastructure bill proposes to focus investment in historically disadvantaged communities, at Forth, we know from our past work that this is easier said than done. We need to ensure charging in apartment buildings is no harder or more expensive than charging in a single-family home. However, putting charging into low-income apartment buildings where nobody currently drives electric may accomplish nothing — or worse yet, become a tool to accelerate rent increases and gentrification. We need funding to support community-based needs assessments, planning, program design, and implementation — and we need funding to support vehicles and mobility solutions, not just charging.

Image courtesy of Forth

Forth will continue to work for passage of the bipartisan infrastructure bill, and inclusion of additional charging investments in the budget reconciliation process. We also look forward to continuing our work with partners in the recently announced National EV Charging Initiative to ensure that every public dollar invested in charging has the greatest possible impact. Often, this will mean not spending it on charging hardware.

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