At the turn of the 20th Century, it took only 13 years to replace the the horse and carriage with automobiles. A system that had dominated for centuries as a preferred means of transport was displaced seemingly over night.. Today, transportation is witnessing another technological shift to electric plug-in and extended range vehicles. However, four years in to the shift, it’s still to early to say how the transition to an electrically dominated automobile industry will compare to the switch from horse to “horsepower.”
At the 4th annual Silicon Valley Leadership Group’s Driving Charged and Connected event last month, experts debated the challenges and speculated on the speed of the move to electric vehicles. The answer promoted by many was that the issue is not one of technology development, but a question of the public’s desire to deploy it, i.e. a willingness to finance the infrastructure needed.
In 2011, Google announced it would install 450 charging stations with free "fill ups" to employees. Today, the Mountain View campus is conducting over 900 charging sessions a day. That’s a charging load of approximately 7.5 MW of energy each day. “We built it, and the EVs arrived, and they keep on coming,” said Rolf Schreiber, technical program manager for electric transportation at Google. “That amount of power is like displacing over 500 gallons of fuel.”
Schreiber says Google’s current charging stations are over-subscribed and the campus’s electrical infrastructure has exceeded the ability to put in more charging stations. "Our expanded charging system has helped several Googlers decide to buy new EVs of their own,” said Schreiber. “Now we must develop strategies to balance the needs of drivers who need to charge, verses those that want to charge.”
For Google EV drivers commuting from the East Bay, the opportunity to charge at work is critical to their ability to get home. Additionally, many Googlers depend on charging up at workplace because the apartments they rent do not accommodate their charging needs. Meanwhile, others who simply want to charge but don’t really need to, also feel entitled to a charging option at work, whether or not it’s a necessity.
“It’s not really in our culture to institute top down mandates,” said Schreiber. So in response, he says the Google community is starting to regulate itself. Systems like email lists help people ask others to move their cars if they are finished charging. Charging buddies take turns swapping out each other’s cars to share the same plug. Some Googlers were even asking for fee based charging, as a way to regulate behavior.
From a company perspective, all of this ad-hoc charging organization and plug-swapping cuts into employee productivity and causes range anxiety for workers when they should be focused on other things. That got Arcady Sosinov thinking about the potential of mobile and autonomous charging. During the Silicon Valley Driving Charged & Connected event, his startup FreeWire demonstrated an innovative prototype called the Mobi, which stores energy using second-life EV batteries and then moves around the workplace parking lot to charge vehicles. Combined with a business model he calls “Charging as a Service,” Sosinov aims to solve the challenges facing workplace charging.
“Employers are frustrated that their costly infrastructure upgrades are charging only two cars per workday. Not to mention the time workers take out of their day to shuffle cars in and out of spots,” said Sosinov. “Instead of bringing the car to the station, it’s much more efficient to bring the station to the car.”
With FreeWire’s solution, companies can forgo costly infrastructure upgrades and charging station installation. Instead, needy EV drivers request a charge by leaving their charge port open and the Mobi moves from car to car throughout the day. At the end of the day, the charging station takes itself to its own base station for an overnight fill up, at a fraction of the electricity rates charged during the day. When companies move offices, their charging infrastructure moves with them.
While Freewire envisions fully automated charging, its first generation system is not robotic. Instead, the first gen model employs an attendant to transport the charger from car to car. Sosinov says a conventional charge station usually averages about two cars per day, but this first FreeWire unit can charge an average of 8 cars per day, a 300 percent increase in utilization.
“Scalability of existing infrastructure is a huge challenge and it’s not about the charging hardware itself,” said FreeWire co-founder Sanat Kamal Bahl. “Instead, it’s the cost of laying down conduit, digging up the parking lot and costly electricity infrastructure upgrades. The expense increases exponentially as you move the chargers further into the parking lot.”
Tech firms in Silicon Valley, where EV adoption can range as high as 25% of the workforce, clearly see huge benefits in FreeWire’s solution. Not surprisingly, the startup's recent announcement of a limited availability pilot program has stirred up strong demand among potential corporate customers.
Regardless of how EVs are charged at the workplace, the larger impediment to electric vehicle adoption experts saw was the significant lack of charging options for those living in multi-unit dwellings, another market where FreeWire might thrive. In California alone, 41 percent of residents live in apartments. To date, forward thinking companies have been footing the bill to provide apartment dwellers with workplace charging as an employee perk and recruitment tool.
However, from the landlord prospective it's a chicken and egg problem. They don’t see the need to add infrastructure if people are not going to use it. However, EV dealers say, many people don't purchase EVs if their apartments don't offer charging beforehand. In fact, only 8 percent of all EV owners live in apartments (this writer being one of the few). With apartment vacancies at an all time low in the Bay Area, property owners feel little pressure add amenities that would eat into their profits.
That’s something Mario Landau-Holdsworth of the startup EverCharge says is going to quickly be changing. The company specifically targets multiunit dwellings, home owners associations and large corporations to maximize a property’s charging capacity, while spreading the installation costs across the membership of users.
EverCharge’s charging technology communicates wirelessly with its charge ports to share load capacity across the system, allowing power to be stepped down as more cars request charging. This adds capacity to the system, without overloading the electrical infrastructure.
"With traditional systems a vehicle is assumed to be using full power all the time. EverCharge monitors needs the individual vehicles to allocate the power according to their needs. The excess power can be allocated to other vehicles allowing up to ten times as many vehicles to charge using the existing capacity of a site," remarked Landau-Holdsworth. "Complexes can get up to 10 times the capacity, without the costly upgrade to their infrastructure.”
Whether it's smarter practices or more clever charging approaches, the infrastructure for EV charging is steadily growing. Yet, the tipping point may depend more on the success of enrolling new infrastructure providers, and less on convincing consumers that electric vehicles are a better buy than their fossil fuel counterparts.
Lisa Ann Pinkerton is Founder and President of Technica Communications, as well as Founder of San Francisco’s Women In Cleantech & Sustainability. Lisa Ann is a former award-winning broadcast journalist who reported for National Public Radio, PBS Television, American Public Media, Free Speech TV and a variety local stations.
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