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The tricky business of charging electric cars

December 11, 2021

TTAKE THE WHEEL OF AN ELECTRIC VEHICLE (EV) and be amazed. The smooth, instant acceleration of battery power makes driving easy and exciting. The latest technology is here, with tablet-like screens instead of old-fashioned switches. Add in falling prices that make many electric vehicles as cheap to own and operate as fossil fuel alternatives, and the open road beckons.

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Except when you look under those sleek exteriors. The tangle of cables in the trunk is a reminder that cars need to be plugged in and charged roughly every 400 km. And when you find a public charging station, sometimes it is damaged or inaccessible. No wonder that one of the main reasons why drivers don’t buy an electric vehicle is “range fear”.

A societal shift from hydrocarbons to electrons is necessary if the world is to have a chance of achieving its net zero emissions targets. However, as electric vehicles become more widespread, the charging problem becomes more severe. Most wealthy owners today can often plug their electric vehicle in at home or at work. But many less wealthy EV drivers will not have a driveway in front of their house or a spot in the executive parking lot.

By 2040, around 60% of all charging processes will have to take place outside the home, which will require a huge public network of charging stations. At the end of 2020, there were only 1.3 million of these public chargers worldwide. By some estimates, it will take 200 million things to meet the net zero emissions targets by 2050.

Who could install it? Drivers need a mix of fast “long-distance” chargers installed near highways that can quickly increase battery range by hundreds of kilometers and slower “recharge” chargers that can be found on curbs or in the parking lots of shopping centers, restaurants etc. are available. The private sector, which sees an opportunity to make money from increasing electric vehicle ownership, is already showing interest. Dedicated charging companies and car manufacturers are investing in the infrastructure. Oil companies, especially Shell, set up charging stations at petrol stations and buy charging stations. The utility companies that have a lot of electricity to sell are also starting to snoop around.

But the charging business is suffering from major problems. One of them is the coordination between the owners of charging points, the owners of the locations where they are installed, the planning authorities and the network operators. Another is the cost. One estimate is that the bill for the chargers needed to hit net zero by 2050 will be $ 1.6 trillion. At the beginning, profits can be elusive as the grids are not used heavily at first. An associated risk is that there may be gaps in insurance coverage. California is a place of choice for charger installation, but is anyone interested in investing in Nebraska? And then there is the question of competing networks. Drivers should be able to switch from one to the other without having to sign up for all of them.

What should I do? Governments are experimenting. Many not only subsidize the sale of electric vehicles, but also throw cash into public charging stations. The American Infrastructure Act provides $ 7.5 billion to create 500,000 public stations by 2030. Britain plans to call for new buildings to house chargers. The sums are measly, however, and the problems of coordination, coverage, and expediency will remain.

Governments should learn from telecommunications. Most countries auction or award a limited number of licenses or frequency rights to companies in order to operate regional and national cellular networks. In return, companies have to build networks according to plan, cover them across the board and compete with one another. Regulators set rules to allow roaming between them.

This approach has its weaknesses. Badly designed auctions in Europe left companies too heavily indebted, and competition in America has become less intense. But in the past two decades the world has spent over $ 4 trillion on telecommunications infrastructure. And the cell phone has gone from being a shiny object for rich people to being in every pocket. The bright sparks of climate policy should be noted.

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This article appeared in the Leaders section of the print edition under the heading “Closing the Gap”


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