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Almost a year to the day after opening its first charging station, Electrify America says it is rolling out the country's fastest-growing network of fast chargers.
Funded by $2 billion from Volkswagen's 2016 diesel emissions settlement, it has a goal of building hundreds of stations and putting nearly 2,000 chargers in place by the end of this year.
Many of those will let battery-electric vehicle, or BEV, owners charge up nearly as quickly as they could fill a gas tank. Charging speed — along with the lack of a national network of charging stations — has been cited as a key obstacle to the widespread public adoption of electric cars.
"Longer range and faster charging times are critical to the widespread adoption of electric vehicles," said Brendan Jones, the chief operating officer at Electrify America, during a conversation at the company's headquarters in Reston, Virginia. It's the equivalent of the classic chicken-and-egg problem.
Extended-range vehicles, offering anywhere from 200 to nearly 400 miles per charge, are starting to roll out in large numbers from mainstream brands such as Daimler, Ford, General Motors and Volkswagen, as well as start-ups such as Tesla and Rivian.
Setting up a nationwide infrastructure is the next big challenge, according to many analysts. An August study by McKinsey & Co. projected it will cost as much as $50 billion to ensure public charging stations are as easily accessible as gas stations in three key markets — the U.S., Europe and China. The U.S. alone is expected to require an investment of as much as $11 billion, McKinsey estimated.
Several key players have entered the field and are starting to ramp up efforts to fill the broad gaps that exist across the country. These include Tesla, which has already put into operation 1,441 Supercharger stations across North America, the vast majority of them along U.S. roadways. Those facilities are only available to Tesla owners, but companies such as EVgo and ChargePoint are targeting the rest of the market. So is Electrify America.
Electrify America must spend that $2 billion by the end of 2026. The company, based in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., was created as part of Volkswagen's diesel emissions settlement with U.S. and California regulators.
The company is spending that money on a mix of consumer education and infrastructure, the latter drawing the vast majority of the funding. Though Electrify America is housed in the same faceless office complex as Volkswagen's U.S. headquarters, the settlement calls for it to operate as an independent entity. That was underscored by a network television ad the organization ran last year that featured a number of different electric vehicles, including those from Nissan, BMW and General Motors, but none from VW.
Electrify America's charging stations are being outfitted to allow any plug-based vehicle to connect, though Tesla owners will need an optional, proprietary adapter.
The first of its charging stations opened for business about a year ago. Since then, more than 160 have come online, with dozens more in various stages of completion. Each station features an average of four to five chargers, with a maximum of 10 at what are expected to become high-volume locations.
The goal is to have about 2,800 Level 2 and more than 2,000 Level 3 chargers in operation around the U.S. by the end of this year, said Electrify America CEO Giovanni Palazzo. To put that into perspective, the U.S. Department of Energy said a total of 54,638 public Level 2 and 3 chargers were in operation across the country at the end of 2018.
Electrify America's initial focus is on regions with high levels of EV ownership such as California and parts of the East Coast, he said. But it eventually plans to have charging stations that are no more than 70 miles apart along all major roadways in most states. Urban areas where EV ownership is expected to peak will have more of them.
The Level 2 systems, much like those that electric-car owners can install at home or find at many shopping centers and offices, provide 240-volt current at a rate that normally requires anywhere from four to 10 hours for a long-range vehicle to fully recharge. In many instances, Electrify America is targeting locations where owners who live in multifamily dwellings may not have on-site access to a charger.
The real transformation, industry observers believe, is the emergence of a Level 3 network. Around mid-decade, only a handful were open to the public in the entire country, but they are believed to now number in the 100s of stations and expanding rapidly, according to Palazzo and other experts.
The first of these punched out 50 kilowatts of direct current, something that allowed for much more rapid charging — a Chevrolet Bolt EV, for example, can replenish about 80% of its charge in an hour or so.
Moving forward, Electrify America's new Level 3 systems will almost all provide a minimum of 150 kilowatts at 400 volts and many will push even further, taking that up to 250 kW and 800 volts. That's far more than most of the current crop of electric cars can handle. The new Porsche Taycan will be the first to be able to make full use of the technology, which can add about 20 miles of range per minute.
"That will let it recharge in about 10 minutes," said Jones, "about the same amount of time as it takes to fill up a gas tank."
To make things easier and speed up the charging process, Electrify America this week is rolling out a new smartphone app that can be used to locate its charging stations and see how long it will take for someone already hooked up to finish charging.
At the company's technical center, a short drive from its Reston headquarters, chief engineer Seth Cutler demonstrated to reporters last week what he hopes will further improve the customer experience and shave another minute or two off the charging process.
Normally, a user has to plug their vehicle in and go through a set-up process similar to paying for a tank of gas. But this time, as Cutler plugs a car into a charger prototype, everything is handled automatically. New software allows the charger to query the vehicle's on-board controller to find out how much power it can handle and how to bill it.
Pricing is still a bit of a challenge for EV owners. At home, based on typical U.S. energy rates of around 11 cents a kW, a vehicle like the Chevy Bolt, with a 65 kilowatt-hour pack, will cost less than $10 to "fill up." And many owners are eligible for time-of-day rates that drop substantially when charging overnight.
That's why industry data show that about 80% of EV owners currently charge either at home or at an office during the day, noted Electrify America's Jones.
But the forecast is that more and more buyers won't have ready access to those Level 2 systems, while others will tap out their batteries while traveling longer distances, requiring them to plug into a commercially operated charging station.
Pricing can vary from company to company and even from one state to another. Charging companies typically offer discounted subscription services, but they also penalize nonsubscribers with "hook-up" fees of as much as $5.
More often than not, motorists are billed on a per-minute basis, and that can add up if a vehicle is slow to charge, as I found out plugging in a Hyundai Kona EV to an EVgo charger in Ferndale, Michigan, earlier this year. After about 50 minutes, the battery crossover had gained only 80 extra miles of range on the 50 kW Level 3 system. The bill? Around $16, or 20 cents a mile. At the time, Michigan gas cost around $2.30 a gallon. A gasoline-fueled Kona, with mileage of 23 city and 28 highway, would have averaged less than 10 cents a mile.
While faster Level 3 chargers operated by Electrify America and other companies levy a higher fee when pumping out more current, the premium is modest, so it still works out to a lower final price. And that's before factoring in the convenience of not having to wait around for an hour or so.
Electrify America is now dropping its prices by 20%, which should make running an electric car while having to use public charging stations more cost-competitive with a gasoline vehicle, said Jones.
Yet another step some charging companies are taking will let their systems talk to one another and, in the process, accept competitors' subscribers without charging exorbitant hook-up fees.
Such steps will be critical to gaining acceptance for battery-electric vehicles, said Palazzo and Pasquale Romano, the CEO of ChargePoint.
For the time being, charging companies expect to pump out billions of dollars to support the expansion of their networks. And with relatively few plug-based vehicles on the road, there's no telling how long they will have to operate their networks in the red.
From the auto industry's side, the expansion of that charging infrastructure should help encourage more sales. Demand for plug-based vehicles roughly doubled in 2018, according to industry statistics, though they still accounted for barely 2% of the overall new vehicle market — and about 5% if you add in conventional hybrids that don't have to plug in to recharge.
How fast that will grow is anyone's guess. Some automakers, such as Tesla, GM and Volkswagen, project that BEVs could reach 25% or more of the U.S. market by mid-decade, but that is a topic of intense debate. The good news, experts including Electrify America's Jones say, is that launching more long-range vehicles at the same time more high-speed public chargers go into operation can finally hatch a solution to the chicken-and-egg problem.
Paul Eisenstein is a freelancer for CNBC. His travel and accommodations for this article were paid for by Electrify America.