Electrify America Accelerates DC Fast-Charger Installation
The company’s director of charging infrastructure addresses how many cables will be needed by 2030, future-proofing sites, and heavy-truck megawatt charging.
Three years after Electrify America (EA) opened its first DC fast charging site in Chicopee, Massachusetts, the company currently sits at nearly 600 sites and 2,600 fast chargers throughout the United States. “It’s a scale of growth I think never before seen in the industry,” said Wayne Killen, EA’s director of charging infrastructure planning and business development, aka “employee number four” from late 2016, he told attendees of a recent SAE Detroit Section meeting. “The technological complexity of bringing this equipment to market – the logistics, the acquisition of sites, the permitting – everything came together, and we’ve become the largest open DC fast charging network in the U.S., if not the world.”
A subsidiary of Volkswagen Group of America, EA is investing $2 billion over 10 years in zero-emission vehicle (ZEV) infrastructure, education and access. The Reston, Virginia-based company expects to install or have under development about 800 total charging stations with about 3,500 DC fast chargers by December 2021, expanding to 29 metros and 45 states. Two cross-country routes already were completed in 2020, as were two coastal routes (north-to-south on each coast).
Killen answered questions from John Voelcker, freelance reporter and industry analyst, and attendees including editor Ryan Gehm during the virtual SAE Detroit Section get-together. Killen discussed lessons learned from deploying a nationwide DC fast charging network and keys to growing U.S. electric vehicle (EV) sales in the coming years.
How do you make the public aware of this growing fast-charging network?
Yes, there is a lack of knowledge about charging infrastructure in general and DC fast charging, in particular. Charging infrastructure continues to be two of the top five reasons why people avoid electrics today, and that’s really what we’re on a mission to solve. The first reason is the density of charging – it’s not available enough in enough states and metro areas and highways. And then it’s not fast enough, which is more of a reflection of the predominance of L2 charging and 25- to 50-kilowatt DC fast chargers, which may have been great four years ago with [Chevy] Bolts and [Nissan] Leafs and what have you, but a little inadequate for fast charging today. So, the number one issue we want to tackle is obviously putting DC fast charging in the places that matter, in the metro areas where EVs are expected to grow the most and on highway routes where people are going to travel the most.
This is all presupposing, of course, that 70 to 80 percent of charging is done at home overnight, at low electricity rates from your local utility. But a lot of people don’t even know that; their first notion is ‘Well, I need as many charging sites as there are gasoline stations.’ Last I checked, there were close to 130,000 of those. We don’t need 130,000 DC fast-charging sites in the U.S. – it’s a function of how much home charging is done. But top of the list would be a very prominent, visible location on the highway or the metro area that folks want to stop and spend 15 to 30 minutes charging at. We have an interesting collage of different site host partners, and frankly, it’s got to be very visible.
How many fast-charging sites and cables do you anticipate the U.S. needing by say 2030?
There are a lot of different opinions about that, and I don’t think the final perfect answer is in yet because to a large extent there’s home charge, there’s the role of workplace charging as well. But let me do the best I can. So, of roughly 41,000 charging sites in the U.S. today and 100,000 cables, the vast majority is Level 2, which is fine for a long dwell. But let’s look at DC fast; I believe last time I checked, there were about 12,000 DC fast-charging cables, predominantly Tesla. There’s our network, EVgo and others as well. And then there’s the Biden 500,000 plan [to build a national charging-station network]. Obviously, the truth is somewhere in the middle. We’re spending $2 billion over 10 years. I think it’s safe to assume that billions more need to be spent. Our company needs to do even more, and other companies from the private and the public sector could do more.
How do you approach a new site? Are there sites that just won’t work?
Absolutely. But thankfully the vast majority do work. And I would say our typical approach is to come in with three to five options for a certain target area that we want to have a charging site in. We have different retailers and different grid supply factors to talk about. So, we engage the utility early on. We have conversations about these different alternatives; which sites have available power already? But bear in mind, we bring in our own power. We don’t go on site host power when you’re talking about a charging site with one to two or more megawatts of power – we need to bring in our own transformer, which means that the underlying service capacity has to be in that general area. And the typical areas that we locate, that power is already there. It just maybe needs to be plumbed a little differently or a longer line.
How long does that process take?
To actually create that new service from nothing can sometimes take five or six months, which is a long time. Our construction will only take three to four weeks to get a site up and running. So, we got to bring all these things together, but typically the utility power has not been a factor. These are modern, high-powered areas where available retail is already consuming power; we’re just adding a little more to it. And typically, the utility is happy to do that because they’re selling more load, too.
How do you future-proof a site so that in 2030 you won’t have to dig everything up and start over?
There’s two ways to look at future-proofing. One is the charger itself, and way back when in 2017, my business development team, we started talking with all the car companies to thoroughly understand what models they’re bringing into the market. What are their voltage capabilities, amperage? You’ve got medium-voltage cars, which predominate the market. You’ve got high-voltage platforms like Lucid, like Porsche and others soon. It’s not just a number of chargers at a certain output. It’s what will they need to deliver over time? Today, we deliver up to nearly a thousand volts at 350 amps. With some simple changes, we’re going to be able to support 500 amps at a slightly lower voltage, which will bring higher-kilowatt charging to more cars on the market.
In terms of future-proofing a site, we typically will go in and over a five- to 10-year period, try to forecast out EV growth in that area. We’ll start with a certain number of sites, which are right-sized or aligned for what we see units in operation to be over the next few years. But we might not go in with the absolute largest transformer upfront, which would increase our costs. We might bring that in at a later point, and the switch gear, the power electronics might support that higher load down the road – but we won’t activate it till later on. There are cases where we’re limited to power and we can’t future-proof that site. So, if the demand for charging in that area grows in the future, we’ll simply have to pick another location close by.
Is EA looking to add battery storage across more sites, particularly as you expand into rural areas? Any plans to integrate batteries with renewable generation?
The simple answer is, we’re going to be adding battery storage selectively over our full cycle plans because we’re always going into a new area, which probably already has demand charges there. This is a convenient workaround, although it is expending capital now on a battery asset and the systems that manage it when you could have otherwise done another charger or two. In Baker, California, we set up a fairly large site. We were limited in the power we could get from PG&E [Pacific Gas and Electric Company] there. So, we’re actually bringing in a bigger-than-typical battery to actually shore up our supply locally until that new service can be developed to the level we need.
In terms of renewables, that same Baker site will have a fairly large, robust solar panel. We’re looking at more and more sites. I would say it’s easier to do solar onsite, of course, but you’re limited as to how much power you can extract. Off-grid solar is a better choice if we can tap into that. There are some exciting things coming up soon, from our company on announcements on how we’re going to become much more renewable at all of our sites.
Any unique considerations for charging heavy trucks and commercial-vehicle fleets, like the new megawatt standard that’s working its way through the process?
That’s a very different standard. It starts at one megawatt and goes up from there. It is a new standard that was essentially a collaboration between CCS [the SAE J1772-based combined charging system] companies through CharIN and Tesla, and it will be coming out in the next year or so. The charging standard and the power are different, but so too is the site design. If you think of a typical over-the-road truck stop and the size of a Class 8 truck, obviously the whole means of setting up the charger and potentially how the charging gets to the truck itself, the cab, that’s going to be a fairly large port. It might have to be an automated system. All of the challenges that we go through in selecting a site and getting utility power for light-duty passenger cars are magnified with heavy-duty. But there’s a lot of workstreams under way for that project, especially in the state of California right now. And we’ll have some announcements soon on a related topic.
Is commercial fleet charging within EA’s purview?
It is, especially in light-duty passenger car. There’s been a nice coexistence in our partnership with Lyft in Denver, Colorado – those ride-hail fleet drivers are actively using our public DC fast chargers. We could have built special sites for ride-hail and other fleets’ pending need, but right now the location of our public sites and available power were more than sufficient so we didn’t have to go to that next step. Ride-hail, specifically in terms of meeting charging sites in the urban core and near an airport is really important. We do put a little more emphasis there in terms of differentiation, but the customer experience is very much the same in terms of having a prominent station with the typical hardware and access to a nice retailer close by.
Any concerns about hacking a vehicle while charging?
I can’t address the vehicle itself, but I can tell you everything from the CCS cable to our charger, to the backend, that has been set up in a fairly robust fashion and the CCS protocol already has a level of encryption that I would say the risk of hacking is fairly minimal. I won’t say nonexistent because I don’t know enough about that area. But I’m not aware of any incidences yet where a vehicle in charger has been hacked or overridden by a third party to take control.