Electric cars have certain advantages over gasoline cars. Chief among them, electric cars don’t emit greenhouse gases. They also have fewer moving parts and require less maintenance. For example, there is no engine oil to change. But before we can transition to them, we have to solve problems with electric car charging infrastructure.
If we’re not careful, we can simply exchange one kind of bad environmental impact for another. Electric cars have their own potential environmental downsides. To begin with, electric car batteries require mining of minerals—not only lithium but cobalt, manganese, and nickel.
When it comes to electric car charging, will we develop infrastructure carefully, or will we rush into it and find we have created new problems?
What kinds of electric car charging stations are there?
A gas station has some number of pumps to allow several cars to fill up at once. A gas station also offers a choice of several different kinds and grades of fuel. Similarly, a charging station will have one or more charging posts, and each post will have one or more charging ports. A homeowner’s garage amounts to a small charging station capable of charging one or two vehicles at a time.
A commercial charging station will probably be able to accommodate several vehicles at once and may offer more than one power level.
Level 1 chargers
work from standard residential wiring, that is, a 120-volt AC outlet. Per hour, they provide between three and five miles of range for an electric car, supplying about 1.3 to 2.4 kilowatts (kW) of power. Assuming a driver has the car plugged in for eight hours, overnight charging would provide between 24 and 40 miles of range, probably more than enough for the next day’s driving.
Electric car charging with an L1 charger to bring a completely empty battery electric vehicle (BEV) to 100% charge would take from 40 to 50 hours. It would take 5-6 hours to fully charge a plug-in hybrid vehicle (PHEV)
Level 2 chargers
operate with 240-volt home systems or 208-volt commercial systems. They average 7.6 kW, although some provide as little as 3 kW or as much as 19 kW. L2 chargers provide between 18 and 25 miles of range per hour. An empty BEV would take between four and ten hours to charge and a PHEV would take one or two hours. L2 chargers are suitable for companies that provide chargers for their employers.
Level 3 chargers
use 480-volt AC or DC chargers for rapid electric car charging. They provide 50-350 kW, enough to charge an empty BEV to 80 percent in 20-40 minutes and 100 percent in 60-90 minutes. How much range L3 chargers supply depends on the size and design of the battery. These chargers are not suitable for PHEVs.
Can any electric car use any charger? Generally speaking, any car can use any L1 or L2 charger. That is, they all use the same standard plug. As far as L3 chargers are concerned, Tesla offers a Supercharger, which will recharge a Tesla battery in about 15 minutes. It is not compatible with other cars, but it is possible to buy an adapter.
How many charging stations will we need?
As of 2023, 46,000 public charging stations in the US offer more than 115,000 charging ports. 88% of them offer only L2 charging, while 40% of L3 chargers operate only at 50 kW.
The Biden administration hopes zero-emission vehicles will make half of the vehicles sold in 2030. The desired mix includes BEVs, PHEVs, and fuel-cell electric vehicles. How many government target goals are actually ever met? Let’s assume, for simplicity, that 48 million electric vehicles will be on the road by 2030.
Estimates of how many additional stations for electric car charging we will need to meet that goal vary widely. For one thing, fuel-cell vehicles require completely different charging technology. For another, most charging will take place at home.
But how much?
The US Department of Energy assumes an 80% at-home charging rate. Other estimates claim that owners of only about half of those vehicles will have garages or other reliable off-street parking at single-family homes. Apartments, condominiums, and town-home developments may or may not provide charging facilities. The rate of home charging might not exceed 60%.
The largest estimate I have seen figures that 48 million cars will require 553,000 workplace L2 charging ports, 675,000 public L2 charging ports, and 533,000 L3 charging ports. Other estimates put the need smaller, but adequate electric car charging will require nothing less than 20 times as many charging ports as we have today. To meet that goal, we will need to install hundreds of them every day—and make sure not to create “charging deserts” in rural areas or low-income urban neighborhoods.
Among governments, auto manufacturers, gas station chains, and manufacturers of charging ports, many initiatives have been started to meet this need. Building charging stations is one thing. Maintaining them is another. Figuring out how much people will pay to charge their cars is still another problem.
How much will it cost to charge an electric car?
Hotels and stores might provide L2 charging stations for free in order to attract business. Of course, customers will pay indirectly for electric car charging somehow or another. Otherwise, L2 stations now charge up to 20¢ per kilowatt hour (kWh). L3 stations, necessary for long-distance travel, typically cost between 30-48¢ per kWh. Both gas prices and electric rates vary widely across the country. Electric rates may also vary according to demand at various times of day.
All this variability makes it very difficult to compare the cost of fueling gasoline and electric vehicles.
Consider how few miles most cars go in a day and that it is possible to charge them overnight when electric rates are the lowest. Electric vehicles might already cost less to fill than gas vehicles. The Pacific Northwest has high gas prices and low electric rates. Electric vehicles cost considerably less to fuel than gas vehicles. The Southeast, on the other hand, has low gas prices. Electric vehicles might still cost less, but the savings are less dramatic. These figures assume the use of L1 and L2 chargers.
People traveling long distances will have to use L3 chargers at least some of the time. These might cost as much as filling a car with gas, or maybe even more.
The problem of range anxiety: how much range is enough?
Range anxiety has kept many drivers from considering electric vehicles. Charging the car at home overnight works adequately most of the time. 95% of all car trips in the US are 30 miles or less. But what about occasional long trips, say, a family vacation? In most of the country, gas stations are easy to find and it only takes a few minutes to fill the tank. We have no similar network of numerous and fast charging stations yet.
Seven major automakers (BMW, General Motors, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mercedes, and Stellantis) have formed a partnership to build a national network of fast-charging (Le) stations comprising 30,000 plugs or more by 2030.
Fast-charging means that a battery can reach 80% of its capacity sometime between 20 minutes and an hour. Part of that variability has to do with charging technology. Much also depends on the size and capacity of the battery.
Most current electric cars have a range of more than 400 miles. Toyota has announced plans to use solid-state battery technology to build a car with a 900-mile range by 2025.
If home charging provides adequate range for nearly all trips, who will actually need such large batteries? But they’ll be advertised heavily and people will buy them.
Keep in mind that the larger the battery, the heavier they are and the more minerals they will have. And mining those minerals for electric car charging comes with environmental and geopolitical costs. If too many people buy oversized batteries they don’t really need, those costs might not be any better than drilling for oil.
Let’s consider the implications of a small battery, say, only a range of 100 miles, assuming adequate charging infrastructure.
How would a 100-mile range work for a long trip?
I travel from central North Carolina to northwestern Ohio, about 600 miles one way, a couple of times a year. With my current car, I can fill up before I leave home and easily make it to Columbus, Ohio. I fill up there, go to my destination, and fill up in the Columbus area on the way back home. Therefore, I need to stop twice on my round trip to get gas. My previous car got much less gas mileage, and I needed to stop twice in each direction.
If I had an electric car with a 100-mile range, I would have to stop to recharge six times each way, or approximately every hour and a half.
As it is, I probably stop that often for bathroom breaks, meals, or just to get out of the car and stretch. If I could count on ample charging stations along the way, including at restaurants, hotels, shopping malls, and existing gas stations, a battery that size would be more than ample for normal driving. For the occasional long trip, it would not be too much more inconvenient than my current car. After all, it won’t take as long to bring a small battery to full charge as it will to charge one with a 900-mile range.
For people who travel some but not often, it would be nice if it would be possible to have two different batteries to switch at need. That way, there would be no over capacity and relatively little inconvenience. I have no idea if it’s even possible.
How good will electric cars be for the environment?
I started with the question of whether we should be optimistic or worried about electric car charging stations.
We should be optimistic that the infrastructure will grow along with the growth of numbers of electric cars on the road, but there will be problems here and there. We should be optimistic that battery technology will improve at the same time. Emerging battery technology will substitute common and relatively inexpensive minerals for cobalt, manganese, and nickel, and maybe even lithium. We can expect charging equipment to get better, too.
But I, at least, am worried about the American tendency to believe that bigger is better and the human tendency to rush into new ideas without anticipating the consequences. In that case, we will have shed the environmental costs of fossil fuels, which we know, and substituted new environmental costs, which we don’t know yet. And we’ll have unnecessary trouble adjusting.
The EV transition explained: charger infrastructure
/ Robert M. Charette, IEEE Spectrum. December 4, 2022
EVs get cheaper. automakers bet big on EV charging & is Toyota building the holy grail of battery vehicles? / Greener Ideal. July 29, 2023
Is it cheaper to refuel your EV battery or gas tank? We did the math in all 50 states / Michael J. Coren, Washington Post. August 8, 2023