Power up: why we need more EV charging points (and better batteries)

Electric vehicles are emerging as a key pillar in reducing emissions to combat climate change. Reliant on fossil fuels, the transport sector contributes approximately 25% of all energy-related greenhouse gas emissions and is one of the largest sources of air pollution.

To reduce these emissions, governments and vehicle manufacturers are committed to bringing electric/hybrid vehicles (EVs) onto roads by the end of the decade, but a 2019 AlixPartners survey found that 46% of drivers won’t purchase an EV until charging points become ubiquitous, and we’re nowhere near that point yet.

What is the current state of play?

The scale of what is required is staggering. The International Energy Agency (IEA) predicts that up to 145 million electric vehicles will be on the road by 2030. The World Economic Forum (WEF) estimates that 290 million charging points will be required worldwide by 2040 to support them. And yet, with under a decade to reach internationally-agreed emissions reduction targets, most nations lack the charging point infrastructure to support them.

Nations are at different levels of readiness. China began its transition to EVs 20 years ago and now leads the world with 4.5 million EVs on its roads. The country has 44% of the world’s EVs, 98% of the world’s electric buses and a state-subsidized network of over 2.2 million charging points.

The U.S. Department of Energy reports just 111,000 public charging stations in place. In a very recent move to build out this provision, the U.S. Infrastructure Bill provides $7.5 billion to help build a national network of 500,000 chargers. Number two U.S. EV manufacturer Ford already claims to have 63,000 public EV charging points in the U.S., and state initiatives, such as California’s CALGreen building code, aim to accelerate charge-point deployment.

There are already 3.2 million EVs in Europe, but the European Automobile Manufacturer’s Association (ACEA) shows enormous disparities between national readiness. Its data claims 224,237 EV charging points are in place across 27 nations. Netherlands, France and Germany account for 70% of these. Many nations boast under 500 charging points; some have just a few dozen.

One-fifth of new vehicle sales in the UK were EVs, but just 28,400 EV charging points are in place, even though sales of new petrol and diesel cars will be banned from 2030. In a small gesture, new UK homes must now have EV charging points.

The overall picture is mixed, but nations worldwide must generally do more to nurture the EV charging ecosystem.

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) is pushing the UK government to do more, including developing a national coordinated charging infrastructure plan. The attempt echoes growing recognition among all stakeholders that coordinated national action is required.

“A strong national master plan for EV charging infrastructure and accessibility is necessary to ensure that the private sector sees it as an attractive sector worth participating in,” said Boston Consulting Group (BCG). Planning needs to extend to individual street levels, with a balance of different charging types, interoperability and deep investment in electricity grid upgrades.

Some fossil fuel companies are also changing to meet today’s needs. Shell, which has pledged to deploy 50,000 charging points across the UK by 2050, recently replaced every petrol pump in a West London gas station with rapid charging points. BP believes EV charging points are “on the cusp” of becoming more profitable than gas pumps. The auto industry is also engaged. Many manufacturers, including Ford, Jaguar and Bentley, will go all-electric by 2030 and are investing in infrastructure to support that. Volkswagen, Daimler, Ford and BMW’s Ionity partnership has begun installing charging points across Europe.

There are alternatives to personal vehicle ownership. Solutions such as electric bikes and ride-sharing schemes may help meet transport needs while minimizing the number of charging points required to meet those needs. Some elements of transport may be servitized. Sweden’s MoveAbout, for example, is building a subscription-based, pay-per-use EV service. You’ll find similar attempts elsewhere: BlueLA and Good2Go in the U.S., ZipCar in the UK and Didi in China. Combined with Uber-style business and personal EVs, the transformation of mass transit fosters hyper-disruptive transit innovations like these.

The need for EV charging standards

But even those solutions that are being put into place face fresh problems. Improvements are needed in battery technology, electricity grids need to be upgraded to handle the demand and the industry needs common standards.

The lack of agreed standards between EV manufacturers means some charging points are incompatible across different car manufacturers. Tesla’s fast-charging networks, for example, are not supported by other EV manufacturers. A 2020 survey by advocacy group Plug In America revealed that over half of U.S. EV drivers experienced problems with public charging systems.

Many of the early adopters of EV cars have been able to rely on domestic connections to charge their cars, particularly if they are mostly making short, local journeys. However, not every home has off-street parking. A NewMotion survey of European EV drivers found one-third cannot install one at home. And, as vehicles are inherently mobile, Boston Consulting believes 20-50% of charging will need to take place on the road, which is typically more expensive than charging at home.

If batteries are fuel, how do we improve the fuel?

Today’s batteries use lithium, a rare substance of which only between 30-90 million tons is available globally. Researchers warn that we’ll run out of lithium by 2100 at best or by 2040 at worst. That means the development of alternative fuel cell technologies can only become more critical, but while promising alternatives (hydrogen or graphene, for example) exist, nothing has yet reached scale.

Recycling efforts are also taking place. Some groups, including researchers, universities and car makers, are trying to develop a lithium-ion battery recycling process to recover up to 97% of the chemicals used in the cells. This is not expected to appear before 2025. Also promising is that researchers at University of British Columbia have recently spun-out Mangrove Lithium, a company dedicated to improving existing processes to turn crude lithium, as found in saltwater, into battery-grade material. The World Economic Forum has created the Global Battery Alliance to help overcome the challenge of lack of charging points and accelerate battery tech improvement.

Others, including Tesla, Sila Nanotechnologies, BMW and Daimler, are working out how to improve the inherent tech of lithium-ion batteries. Researchers in the Netherlands recently developed a new nickel-based electrode design capable of charging ten times faster than current devices. Tesla, famously, is building larger batteries capable of providing six times the power and five times the capacity as the cells most used in EVs.

Car manufacturers are striving to increase power efficiency, aiming to increase the number of miles their vehicles will travel on one unit of electricity (1 kWh). Efficient EVs achieve around four miles per kWh today. The average range for a new battery-electric car was about 350 kilometers in 2020, but manufacturers hope that improving efficiency will improve range and enable longer journeys between each charge.

Battery swapping schemes

Battery swapping schemes – in which spent batteries are removed and replaced with fully-charged units – sound like a great solution. But a confusing lack of standards and differing models of thermal management means some vehicles just can’t be served. As a result, Tesla has abandoned the idea of battery swapping, and most governments, including the U.S. Biden Presidency, are focusing support on direct current (DC) and fast-charging systems.

While some operators, such as Volvo owner Geely, continue to explore this space, the consensus seems to be that battery-swap systems are costly to set up and maintain, are resource-intensive, and may ironically waste valuable energy as stored batteries sit around fully charged. One potential servitization benefit of battery-swapping schemes may see EVs sold inexpensively and battery-free, with drivers joining battery leasing companies to keep them moving for a monthly fee.

Energy supply upgrades

But perhaps the biggest challenge is that power distribution systems aren’t yet prepared for the strain. Surging demand for electricity on aged infrastructure threatens power cuts, even as energy costs increase dramatically in some nations. Huge investments in renewable and carbon-neutral energy supplies will inevitably be required. In the interim, use of hybrid vehicles combining small batteries and fossil fuels forms part of the evolution of the EV space, but this can only be a temporary fix as economies seek greener energy.

There is no time to waste. To meet stated climate targets and reduce the impact that a warmer planet will have on our ecological and environmental ecosystem, much of this work needs to occur in the fast lane. “Above all, each region will need a strong, individualized master plan and government support, as well as an accelerated ramp-up and a roadmap to success—all within the next five years,” wrote the Boston Consulting Group.

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Jon Evans

Jon Evans is a highly experienced technology journalist and editor. He has been writing for a living since 1994. These days you might read his daily regular Computerworld AppleHolic and opinion columns. Jon is also technology editor for men's interest magazine, Calibre Quarterly, and news editor for MacFormat magazine, which is the biggest UK Mac title. He's really interested in the impact of technology on the creative spark at the heart of the human experience. In 2010 he won an American Society of Business Publication Editors (Azbee) Award for his work at Computerworld.