Will a lack of places to charge electric cars be a problem?

charger
© D. Laumer, Philadelphia

It’s a ritual. Christopher Mims writes an article. I criticize the article and complain that he’s wrong; I have been doing it since about 2011. Then I revisit a few years later and find that he was right. Now, Mims is writing in the Wall Street Journal about The Problem With Electric Cars? Not Enough Chargers.

His concern is that the charging infrastructure will not be able to keep up with the number of electric cars on the road.

They aren’t yet taxing our electrical grid or fighting each other for the roughly 44,000 public charging stations now available in the U.S. Yet if anything like analysts’ projections come to pass, they could rapidly dwarf that number.

He also worries that there are lots of people who may not have access to chargers- “the current charging infrastructure offers little support for a larger pool of people who have both the income and the impetus to buy EVs: city dwellers who lack garages.” But is that really a larger pool? I doubt it. There are lots of people in cities like New York who park on the street, but many consider this to is a gross misuse of a public resource, that if you have a private car you should pay for private storage. (It’s an issue we have looked at before in How do you charge your electric car if you don't have a parking spot?) Out of the total number of cars on the road, I suspect that in America the proportion owned by people without parking is pretty small.

Gogoro scooterSeen in Berlin: Gogoro scooter with swappable battery/ Lloyd Alter/CC BY 2.0

This is also a design issue that might be solved for cars the way Gogoro does for motor scooters: removable batteries. I know, this was tried and failed with Project Better Place but as batteries get lighter and have higher power densities, the concept might work. And if we are worried about people in dense cities, perhaps the best approach is to invest in the kind of infrastructure that gets them out of their cars.

As Chris notes, the vast majority of people charge their cars at home overnight, when there is surplus power available in the grid. Given how the range of electric cars is increasing so much, the vast majority of people will have no need to charge up in the daytime. But Chris also worries that the grid cannot support charging cars during the day, that at peak times there won’t be enough power. “The sheer scale of the transformation of the electrical grid to accommodate mainstream adoption of EVs boggles the mind.”

duck curve© If it looks like a duck ... (Photo: California ISO)

But what is the problem in California? The duck curve. Overgeneration. The fact that so much solar power is being produced that the network can’t cope. EVs might be the answer to the problem, sucking up solar power during the middle of the day, base load power during the middle of the night, and becoming part of the solution to balancing the load.

phone store© Phone store in the Dufferin Mall

Given that Chris is now writing for the Wall Street Journal, the bible of American business, I wonder why he doesn’t think that the free market can actually handle this problem. When I go to the local Dufferin Mall in Toronto I find that half the stores and all the kiosks in the middle are selling cellphones or cellphone accessories. When I went to CES a few years ago half the floor space seemed to be taken up with this stuff. Yet ten years ago when Steve held up the first iPhone, nobody said OMG, there is no infrastructure of places to charge or buy cases or selfie sticks! The market adapted and took over the mall.

I suspect that in five years there will be companies buying up blocks of surplus power and selling it out of parking lots. Sami has described informal and organized peer-to-peer charging networks. A 3000 watt gas powered generator only costs $500; they may become our biggest urban pollution problem when there are entrepreneurs on every street corner with cords hanging out, offering a charge.

There are lots of things to worry about with electric cars, but I actually don’t think finding a place to charge them will be one of them. But as I have noted before, usually Chris is right and I am wrong.

Other posts discussing Chris Mims in related links below. Time will tell.

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