FEMA & EV Charging Providers Need To Talk About Post-Evacuation Bottlenecks

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One of the big “gotchas” the anti-EV crowd tries to throw at EVs is that they’d fail you in a hurricane evacuation. I’ve covered this before, repeatedly, but no matter how many times we bust the myths and garbage surrounding it, the lie just doesn’t go away. Like other right-wing memes in Florida, it’s even managed to become a bill in the legislature.

For those who won’t read the links, I’ll quickly sum up why this “checkmate, libs” trash argument is wrong. Keep in mind that gas pumps require electricity to get the gas from the underground storage tanks, leaving gas cars and EVs on level ground. But, when gas pumps can run out of fuel due to demand, the EV charging stations keep chugging along right up until the power goes out (and that’s well beyond evacuation time). Plus, most EVs get charged at home and can evacuate far enough to get to safety on what’s already in their battery pack every morning. Finally, EVs don’t lose range sitting in evacuation traffic jams as bad as gas-powered cars do.

So, yes, EVs are good enough to at least get inland far enough for safety, even with current infrastructure, but that doesn’t mean the situation can’t be improved upon to make evacuations easier for the families that own EVs after they’ve made the minimum distance for safety.

The problem I’m about to discuss (and suggest serious solutions for) isn’t something that affects many people today, but if we want to swap out most gas vehicles for EVs, eventually we could find half the refugee population in this position, so it’s something we’d better think about now instead of once we’re in the middle of a big problem.

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The Problem That Remains

For EVs, we don’t need nearly as many charging stations as gas stations. Because most of us charge at home, most of us only need public charging on days where we do an unusual amount of driving. We will need many more EV charging stations as the population of EV drivers grows, but it doesn’t make sense to build many more charging stations than future EV drivers will actually need. Like anything in the economy, we have to be efficient with our dollars.

Gas stations have a similar economic efficiency. There are enough gas stations to meet the high end of normal demand, but even in normal times you still see a lot of people in line at places like Sam’s Club and Costco. There’s enough fuel production to meet normal needs, and enough tanker trucks available to haul fuel to stations at the rate of normal needs. But, before hurricanes, we’ve seen gas stations run out of fuel before some people got a chance to evacuate, so there’s just not enough spare capacity in the gasoline industry to satisfy extraordinary demand.

With gasoline, wiser people recommend that drivers fill up at half a tank and keep the bottom half in reserve for emergencies. This is probably enough to get far enough from the evacuation zone to fan out a bit and avoid overwhelming the gas supply as badly as they did in the place being evacuated.

With EVs, the problem of what happens a battery’s worth of range from danger isn’t as easy to solve. Because there is even less spare charging capacity, and all of the people who normally need to charge at home suddenly need to use public chargers, there will be some pretty horrific bottlenecks as more and more people drive EVs.

Now, to be absolutely clear, for most EVs there’s enough range to be out of mortal danger before this becomes a problem. But, having a huge number of drivers facing days-long charging lines is going to still present a smaller humanitarian crisis if we don’t make some plans to help alleviate the problem.

Some Ideas To Provide Surge Charging Capacity For Evacuations

The role of federal authorities (including FEMA, but also the Department of Defense and others) is to assist state and local governments in dealing with disaster. There are also state-to-state and international arrangements for aid that simplify and expedite the rendering of aid. With a disaster that we can see possibly coming (like a hurricane), it’s not unusual at all to pre-position resources and aid workers that will predictably be needed.

Because EV charging infrastructure will not be up to the task, it makes heaps of sense to have some extra capacity that can be moved around and put in the line of an anticipated evacuation.

The obvious way to do this is something we already see Tesla do when it anticipates holiday weekends and other events overwhelming the Supercharger network:

Tesla’s solution involves a literal truckload of charging stations and batteries getting dropped off to provide extra stalls for drivers. It would make sense for FEMA to be in touch with Tesla to help provide information on where these chargers will be needed and to provide some federal grants to build more of them and have them on standby. The only thing I’d change for federally-funded mobile Superchargers is that they should have Magic Dock installed to serve more EV drivers.

FreeWire’s charging stations with built-in battery packs are another good solution to this. Instead of installing these on trucks, they could be loaded on freight pallets, and even shipped around as less than load (LTL) freight for more flexibility. If FEMA officials and their state counterparts could work with businesses and government properties to have power ready to receive Freewire stations on pallets, they could be quickly connected and brought online ahead of a possible evacuation. It may be a good idea to also have some portable solar arrays or generators to charge up FreeWire stations in areas that could lose power.

Another way to open up surge capacity in the EV charging network would be to enlist the help of car dealers. Many car dealers have EV charging stations on their lots, but the lots are closed at night. Government officials should work now to develop plans with these dealers to keep these stations open 24 hours on a temporary basis. This may involve putting police officers on the lot to keep dealers comfortable with people being there when they’re closed, or helping dealers make a better fence to only open the part of the lot where the station is.

We also shouldn’t forget the role of Level 2 charging in helping alleviate Level 3/DCFC bottlenecks. Government facilities and businesses could open their lots to refugees who need a charge, and let people sleep in their vehicles to get enough charge to get to wherever they had planned to evacuate to.

RV parks are another resource that’s largely ready to provide power via 50-amp service, but arrangements will need to be made to have portable EVSEs positioned at participating RV parks ahead of time, along with dedicated spaces for people who brought their own cord sets. It may also be a good idea for officials to drop portable shelters, like Shiftpods or Hexayurts (you see these at Burning Man and other festivals) with cots and sleeping bags. This would give EV drivers and their families a place to sleep while they charge overnight, and the RV park owners could still charge their normal rates for the RV space.

Public Outreach

Finally, this all requires some education and public outreach. Installing extra charging capacity is useless if drivers don’t know where to find the temporary stations, Level 2 stations opened up temporarily, and RV parks ready to put them in a shelter for the night. It would be a good idea to put out press releases, have a website with information, and put the stations up on apps like Plugshare. It could also be a simple as having somebody with pamphlets go to overwhelmed chargers with information on these pop-up alternatives and how to get to them.

Finally, the EV community, dealers, and manufacturers should coach people on how to be prepared for an evacuation. For example, I know some drivers like to charge up once a week at home only when their car is low, but it would be better for them to charge up to 80-90% every night to always have enough range every morning to get out of danger.

I’m Here To Help

If anybody at any level of government or in a disaster non-profit has more questions about making plans to keep EV drivers evacuating smoothly, feel free to reach out to me. You can e-mail CleanTechnica and they’ll forward it to me, or you can find me on Twitter. I’d be happy to help!

Featured image by Jennifer Sensiba.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1987 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba