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Can EV chargers act like gas stations? That won’t be easy

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Last week, Vice President Kamala Harris visited an electric vehicle charging station in Maryland and laid out a vision for what the government’s $7.5 billion payout for charging infrastructure will create.

“Absolutely make it accessible for everyone and easy,” she said, “just like filling up your car with gas.”

That phrase — “just like filling up your car with gas” — is invoked by industry, government and advocates as a guiding light for the federal government’s record investment in EV charging that was included in the huge bipartisan infrastructure bill that passed last month.

The problem is that an EV charger is in many ways nothing like a gas station. But the comparison, apt or not, is already starting to shape the political debate over the rollout of federal money over the next few years, not to mention the features of the electric fueling network that drivers will use for the foreseeable future.

“The model is the gas station network,” said Joel Levin, the executive director of Plug In America, one of the country’s biggest EV advocacy groups.

Compelling reasons exist to draw a parallel. The visit to a gas station, while rarely the best part of anyone’s day, carries a ring of familiarity. Carmakers, charging companies and governments believe that people are far more likely will adopt EVs by the millions — and help stem the rise of global temperatures — if they don’t have to change their routines.

But the comparison glosses over the many ways that today’s charging network is neither accessible nor easy — and the ways that charging stations may simply be a different kind of beast.

Some groups “are really trying to apply the rationale of gas station fueling, and in a lot of ways, it’s not the same thing,” said Katherine Stainken, the director of EV policy at the Electrification Coalition, an advocacy group. “There has to be room for flexibility.”

The forum for this debate is a rulemaking by the Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration, in consultation with the Department of Energy. These agencies are seeking comment on the rules that will govern what qualifies to receive the $7.5 billion. The timeline is, by the standards of government, lightning-fast: The first guidance will come in mid-February.

One influential group has already set a marker.

The Alliance for Automotive Innovation (AAI), a group that includes nearly every traditional automaker that manufactures cars in the United States, laid out a road map this month.

“Despite the significant number of EVs coming to market, consumers are unlikely to buy a vehicle that cannot be conveniently fueled,” it said.

Here’s what it sees: The driver will pull up to a roomy fueling station that resembles today’s gas station. He’ll pull out his credit card and fire up a charging stall that has standardized pricing and is every bit as reliable as a gas pump is today, fill up for the next leg in 20 minutes or so, and be on his way.

Here is a tour of how those proposals don’t match with today’s reality.

1. Mystery pricing

Gasoline may cost more in California than it does in Oklahoma, but at least drivers are crystal-clear on what the price is. It’s right there on the sign, stated in terms of dollars per gallon.

EV charging stations don’t have that kind of consistency. Charging comes at wildly different prices depending on the state, the electric utility service area and the charging provider’s business model.

Industry hasn’t even agreed on the units. While many stations assess fees by the kilowatt-hour — the closest analogy to dollars per gallon — many charge a flat rate, while others charge by the minute.

The confusion reigns because historically, state utility regulators have forbidden charging stations from receiving payment for electricity. Doing so would mean the charging station is, technically speaking, an electric utility, and subject to the regulator’s heavy hand. Charging providers have evaded the difficulty by instead charging by the session or by the minute.

Those barriers to charging by the kilowatt-hour have now been struck down by state regulators in most parts of the country. Just 10 states, such as Georgia and Indiana, still have the barrier on the books. Nevertheless, charging companies in large swaths of the country haven’t updated their pricing schemes.

AAI and others are advocating that federal funding be contingent on making the move to per-kilowatt-hour pricing. But that will go only partway to creating clarity.

Gasoline is a commodity, with a price pegged to well-known benchmarks like Brent crude. Electricity, by contrast, comes at literally thousands of prices. Each of the country’s thousands of utilities establishes its own rates, often via complex, multi-tiered schedules that require a spreadsheet to decode.

“Having a uniform price would be great,” Levin said, while acknowledging that the fragmented design of America’s electricity system makes that next to impossible.

Compounding the difficulty is that, as Jonathan Levy, the chief commercial officer of charging network EVgo, puts it, “most Americans don’t speak kilowatt or kilowatt-hour.” The fluency with which Americans understand gasoline prices, gained through exposure through lifetimes, hasn’t yet happened with kilowatts.

What is clear is that today’s murk will only make unhappiness.

“Customers need to understand what they’re paying for,” said Ben Prochazka, the executive director of the Electrification Coalition, “and these days, it is not that easy to understand.”

2. Broken too often

Unlike gas stations, which almost always have at least one working pump, charging stations have a reliability problem. Earlier this year, Plug In America did a survey of over 3,500 EV drivers and found that 54 percent said they had had problems with public chargers, most often finding them broken.

Groups like AAI are asking for the government to create an uptime requirement as a condition for funding. Another coalition of companies and governments earlier this year made a similar request, seeking a baseline for stations to be 99 percent operational.

No place in the United States, even the electric vehicle nirvana of California, has an uptime requirement for EVs. But more and more EV advocates would like to see it.

“I like this one,” said Mike Nicholas, an EV researcher with the International Council on Clean Transportation, “because so many of them are broken right now.”

3. How fast is ‘fast’?

Everyone agrees that today’s direct-current fast chargers aren’t nearly fast enough. But how fast they should be — or more specifically, how much speed is worth paying for — is up for debate.

Most “fast” direct-current chargers available today — the kind available for highway road trips — operate at a power level of 50 kW, which provide about 3 miles of range per minute. That’s a trickle compared with the 254 miles of range per minute that a U.S. gas pump can maximally deliver to an average-fuel-economy car.

So how fast should charging stations funded by the U.S. government be?

The Alliance for Automotive Innovation has a straightforward answer: 350 kW. That is the maximum currently available at any U.S. charging station, delivering about 20 miles of range per minute. The power delivery is so prodigious that the station requires a heavy, liquid-cooled cable that can be a struggle to plug in.

There is one caveat: The vehicle that can accept that deluge of electrons does not yet exist.

The Lucid Air, a luxury sedan that debuted just a few months ago, gets in the neighborhood of the automakers’ 350-kW goal with a charging maximum of 300 kW. Then things go downhill: The electric Porsche Taycan charges at 270 kW, while Tesla’s hottest model, the Model S Plaid sedan, charges at 250 kW. More affordable models, like the most deluxe version of the Ford Mustang Mach-E, are far below that, at 150 kW.

This lack of current models does not deter the auto industry. By spending to create 350-kW stations, it said, it “can help future-proof for new vehicle and charging technologies.”

There’s also another logic at work. The auto industry doesn’t necessarily see each car charging at that high rate. The 350 kW could be shared among the cars at a plaza. It would be as if, when you visited a gas station, your nozzle delivered more slowly because another driver was also fueling.

But even delivering at that rate creates sticker shock. According to a 2019 study by RMI, the hardware for a 350-kW charger costs up to $150,000, while that for a 150-kW charger topped out at $100,000. Building higher-powered chargers would mean that federal dollars would buy less of them.

That expense would be magnified in far-flung rural areas, where the chargers are needed most. Building the charger is one thing; upgrading the high-voltage distribution lines across miles of forest or farmland to get that power to the charging station would drive prices up still further, said Nicholas.

That kind of price tag means that others in the EV space aren’t necessarily on board.

“It takes a lot of juice to do that,” said Levin of the 350-kW goal. “While that would be nice to have, I wouldn’t want that to slow down the rollout.”

4. The standard that sticks it to Tesla

Another, seemingly uncontroversial, proviso that unites most EV advocates is that charging stations funded by Uncle Sam should have a standardized plug and be accessible to all drivers.

Things have been moving in that direction anyway, as nearly every automaker has recently coalesced around a single fast-charging standard that goes by the abbreviation CCS.

But that consensus leaves one huge player in the cold: Tesla Inc.

Since Tesla started building its Supercharger network a decade ago, it has been a walled garden. Tesla uses a special plug that fits only in Teslas, and the stations for the most part…

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