I recently came across a company called FreeWire on social media, and it looks like they have a pretty good solution to something that keeps rural charging stations from happening in the United States. Before I get to how the company is doing this, let’s take a look at the problem first, so we can fully appreciate its solution.
Why We Aren’t Seeing Too Many Rural Charging Stations In The US
No matter where you’re putting in a charging station, one of the biggest costs will be dealing with the power company. Of course, you’re going to buy electricity to power a charging station. That’s a given. But, if you take a closer look at your electric company’s rates, you’ll see that there are residential and commercial rates, and that the commercial rates include something called Demand Charges. This is charged by the kilowatt, and not the kilowatt-hour.
To calculate your demand charges, the power company looks at how much power you’ve drawn at the highest over the whole month. This isn’t a look at how much energy you’ve gotten from them, but how much you’ve taken at a certain moment. To compare this to your water bill, energy is how many gallons you’ve used, while power is how big the pipe was that fed you the power. The bigger the wires had to be to support your highest (peak) power draw, the more they’re going to charge you for the service.
For a relatively slow single-plug 50 kW station, this charge alone will be at least hundreds of dollars per month. If you’re running multiple 150-250 kW stations, and they all get used at once, you’re going to have to pay thousands of dollars monthly. It’s super expensive.
Even worse, this is on top of paying for any electrical infrastructure that’s needed at the beginning of the project. If there aren’t already big wires running to the area that have spare capacity, you’re going to have to pay the power company money to build the power poles, string the wires, etc. So, to review, you’re paying a big down payment on your power and paying big bucks every month to make sure the power keeps flowing and the wires are maintained.
Plus, you still have to pay the normal commercial per-kWh rate for all of that power and the generating capacity to deliver it.
The cost of doing all of this is going to be far, far higher in rural areas. Not only is generating capacity limited, but the wires going to feed a high-power charging station are going to need to be enormous. This keeps most profit-seeking businesses from being able to afford the installation of DC Fast Charging stations at all, and will continue to do so.
How FreeWire Takes The Stress Off The Grid (& Our Wallets)
Instead of expecting whoever buys the stations to pay the electric company big bucks, FreeWire Technologies has a different plan: integrate battery storage directly into the station and plan on using a lot less continuous power. Its charging stations are a lot bigger than what you’d see at a Supercharger station, but it’s all included in one cabinet. There’s the charging equipment, 160 kWh of battery storage (enough to do 2-4 charging sessions in most cases), and all of the electronics.
This idea of energy storage at charging stations has been implemented before, but there are key differences. Electrify America and Tesla itself use Tesla battery storage at many sites to do something similar, but this still requires complex wiring, a separate place to store the batteries, and a lot of installation time. They do their best to stash the battery packs somewhere, but the fact that such is even necessary makes it a lot harder to get everything approved. FreeWire sends all of this in a self-contained box that you can just install in a few hours instead of working and waiting for months.
Another key thing is that you don’t even need 3-phase power for it (but you can use that if it’s available). This makes the job of installing the charging station a lot easier. These can replace a Level 2 charging station with little to no extra wiring or new services to the electric company, and they won’t add demand charges to a business’ power bill. The result is a system that’s a LOT cheaper to put in, but still provides 100-200 kW of charging power when a driver does pull up.
Another advantage is that the station can be moved without too much trouble. It doesn’t require a multi-million dollar wiring and infrastructure build hidden under the pavement and behind some walls. It’s all in one box and you can just move the box (with a forklift, a truck, etc. of course) to another location with electricity if you need to.
Finally, this could enable some off-grid stations that otherwise would be cost prohibitive. In rural stretches of highway that have pavement but no electricity nearby, a house-sized solar installation could keep one of these stations going. More solar (probably 2-4x the size of a residential install) would be better, but for occasional use, it wouldn’t require a giant solar farm. This would help enable just a few more vehicles to go on a rural road when it wouldn’t have been possible at all.
There are some obvious technical limitations. A big one is that using a smaller electrical service means that the station could be depleted by just a few vehicles charging in a row, and be out of service for a while. It would take hours for the station to be ready for another customer again in many cases.
There are a couple of ways around this, though. You could install multiple stations and encourage drivers to pick the one with the most juice. This would increase the number of cars that could charge at a given location daily. You could also limit speeds on busier days to help the stations keep up with demand. This would discourage charging at the location some, but that could be a good thing because people can move on to another location with better power availability.
Another option is to use an app (which is easy to do with the company, from what its website is saying), and tell drivers which chargers can accept more cars and which ones should be avoided. This can be reinforced with pricing changes to keep drivers from ignoring the network’s needs. Higher pricing at stations that can charge fewer cars daily would allow those who need it the most to still get a charge while getting other drivers with longer ranges to only stop long enough to get to another station or not use it at all.
So, the challenges are at least something that can be overcome, and that puts us in a much better position than we were before FreeWire came along.
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