EV Charging Infrastructure: the New VHS vs. BetaMax?

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While Tesla Motors and other EV manufacturers have had recent successes and grabbed quite a few headlines, they still face a major hurdle: charging infrastructure. Without a fast and reliable way to re-fuel their vehicles, EV customers will be limited to those who drive less than 200 miles per day or those who can afford to keep the vehicle as a novelty. According to investment website the Motley Fool, 220-volt charging times are the Achilles heel of EVs, with the Tesla Roadsters’ current 200-volt unit taking approximately 4 hours to fully charge.

Automotive industry analyst Jim Motavalli (bnet.com) writes about Tesla’s dilemma in the context of the company’s rumored IPO, first reported by Reuters but denied by Tesla management. Motavalli points to one solution to the charging infrastructure, proposed by The Car Charging Group, Inc. (CCGI):

According to CEO Andy Kinard, Florida-based CCGI will not build its own charging technology, but will distribute chargers built by established player Coulomb. Its business model…is to sign contracts with businesses…that operate parking lots. The contract spells out revenue sharing between the parties, so parking slots will gain free EV infrastructure and lot managers will get cash from charging.

The article also goes on to say that CCGI will standardize on “J1772 charging hardware” and will go from 0 to 1,000 units by the end of 2010. While this would certainly be good news for Tesla, it is not entirely clear just how reliable CCGI’s predictions are.

However, what the article does not mention is that this is not the whole story for electric vehicle infrastructure. Some startups are focusing on an entirely different strategy. One such company is the Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Network (EVIN), and its business model circumvents the “chicken-and-egg” problem altogether.

I briefly mentioned EVIN in my prior post covering the California Cleantech Open awards. The company has a very unique take on how to solve the infrastructure, range, charging time and adoption rate problems all at the same time without huge upfront costs and without a large installed base of consumer-owned EVs already in place.

According to EVIN’s article on “battery myths,” the company’s strategy focuses on mimicking “the overall behavior of the American driving experience, the ability to drive anywhere, anytime, for any distance.” It goes on to say that in order for any vehicle, gas or electric, to achieve this, it needs to be able to re-fuel at a fueling station and “drive in and drive out in 3 minutes or less.”

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The obvious way to achieve this is with easily interchangeable battery packs. The main drawback to this approach is the same as with charging stations: the need for a large number of installed locations. However, this approach also has several advantages: if enough “filling stations” are in place, then the batteries do not have to be particularly high-tech or long range, and the charging times become irrelevant, because the batteries are charged independent of the vehicles.

But there are two more equally important advantages of interchangeable batteries that EVIN wants to take advantage of: First of all, when the batteries are not in a vehicle, they can be used for other purposes, such as time-shifting energy usage for commercial and high-density residential buildings. EVIN plans to partner with building owners, who would initially install an array of battery packs allowing them to save money by charging the batteries at night, when electricity is cheap, and then using that electricity during the day, when it is expensive. Once enough of these installations are in place, it becomes very easy to add the battery-swapping service to them, allowing them to be used by EV owners and providing additional revenue for the owner of the apartment complex.

The second important feature of an interchangeable battery infrastructure is that it allows for conversion of existing gas-powered vehicles to EVs, thus providing a solution to the emissions for a huge number of vehicles, in addition to extending the life of those vehicles. As EVIN puts it:

In order to make a serious dent in our consumption of imported oil, we must also initiate and fund programs that utilize the 245 million cars that are already in use across the country.

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EVIN is currently focused on developing standardized battery packs and vehicle conversion technologies, in addition to its deployment strategy, and the company is currently focusing on deploying the first generation of its technologies to commercial fleets.

In contrast to Tesla’s dependence on fixed batteries and CCGI’s charging infrastructure, EVIN has recently announced a partnership with SABA Motors to deploy EVIN’s batteries in its vehicles. SABA, a competitor in the Progressive Automotive X-Prize competition, plans on giving Tesla a run for its money, by producing a high-performance electric sports car for under half the price of the Tesla Roadster.

Could charging stations vs. interchangeable battery packs be the EV version of VHS vs. BetaMax?

Steve Puma is a sustainability and technology consultant. He currently writes for 3p as well as on his personal blog, ThePumaBlog, about the intersection of sustainability, technology, innovation, and the future. Steve holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School and a BA in Computer Science from Rutgers University. You can contact Steve through email or LinkedIn, or follow him on twitter.

Steve Puma is a sustainable business consultant and writer.Steve holds an MBA in Sustainable Management from Presidio Graduate School and a BA in Computer Science from Rutgers University. You can learn more about Steve by reading his blog, or following his tweets.