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EV Charging Infrastructure: the New VHS vs. BetaMax?

Steve Puma | Thursday December 31st, 2009 | 17 Comments

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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.


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  • bk

    Development of efficient PVS panels will get up 20% sun energy (light energy), the other 80% still not used. Lacks energy department funding and derailed by “Big oil” bad “King Coal” even if that means killing the scientist who are making progress in this field. First I heard, they managed to absord heat energy, next step was to store it in tiny capacitors, then rectify AC to DC, and tweaking the nana antenna to get of 80% and these are much cheaper than solar. Supposed to be done in 3 years, subscribed here to follow up 1 1/2 years ago

  • PMain

    Interesting article. I would posit that there will be a place for both such technologies until battery technology and motor efficiency brings EV's level with the range of ICE's. I have a 2005 Passat wagon which generally achieves 480 klm range. That might seem low but it's a 1.8l and AWD as it is snowy and icy where I live for 75% of the year. So for me a 320 klm range (200 mile) on an EV is 67% of the range of my current car. I think that 67% of the range of a fairly standard ICE car for the first commercial iteration of EV's is great. There are many articles both here and in other green/science/industry blogs which indicate that many companies large and small are working very hard to create better batteries and more efficient motors. Both battery swap and charging stations will achieve the desired effect of extending the range of EV's. Each system can be retrofitted to existing parking stations and fuel stations, albeit at differing costs depending on location and existing infrastructure. The existing electricity grid and what it may morph (distributed/smart/etc) into will also have a significant effect upon what is built/retrofitted where, as well as local government regulations and incentives. Smart EV manufacturers will allow their EV's to be cross platform to extend their range. Hopefully the experience of Nokia, for example, who have just decided to ditch their habit of producing a different electrical input plug for each phone model for their chargers, in favour of one charger and one plug for every model, will be learnt from.

  • http://www.thepumablog.com Steve Puma

    PMain, you bring up a very important point, which is also true of almost everything having to do with our energy/sustainability future. The most likely future scenario will be one which includes a wide variety of solutions: EVs with charging stations, EVs with swappable battery packs, PHEVs, biodiesel, compressed air, hydrogen, mass transit, human powered — you name it!

    It's an easy trap to fall into: picturing that the future of energy will be something like the past: dominated by one type of fuel and one type of technology running on that fuel.

    It will be interesting to see what emerges in a world powered by 5 or 10 or even more types of fuel: will “gas stations” become diversified fueling stations, providing all these services in one place? Or perhaps we will see a number of competing companies lined up side-by-side.

    One thing to note, is that some technologies, both types of EV tech included, allow for “refueling” to occur in a much more decentralized way, such as in the vehicle owners' place of residence. This will have all sorts of interesting consequences.

  • pmain

    Thanks for your comments Steve. One thing which interests me, is will we have enough time to develop and implement any of the various systems you mention before we run into peak fossil fuel issues which may make a great deal of technology useless?

    • http://www.thepumablog.com Steve Puma

      pmain: I don't know if it is as much an issue of “will we have enough time?” as an issue of “are we willing to commit enough money and resources right now?” We could not have developed the atomic bomb in only a couple of years if we hadn't been willing to throw a massive no-holds-barred effort behind it. The only reason we were willing to do that was because we were, quite literally, “under the gun.”

      I believe that there is more than enough that we can do RIGHT NOW, with today's technology, to make a big enough dent to get the fossil fuel monkey off of our back. But we have to be willing to make huge investments, and make them right now.

      The first step, of course, is hyper-efficiency for almost everything that uses energy. In the book Natural Capitalism, Lovins, Lovins & Hawken showed that a whole-systems approach can bring enough energy savings to buy us he time we need to redesign everything else for the long term.

      Solar panels are already net-energy-positive, i.e., they produce more energy over their lifetimes than it takes to produce/maintain them (much more). The same goes for concentrated solar (a 70s technology, by the way.) If you take a close look at what EVIN is proposing, you can actually convert almost any vehicle to run on electricity, using current battery tech, and you don't need to worry about range, IF you have enough places where you can swap out battery packs.

  • pmain

    I think you are getting right to the point with your comment Steve. We do have the technology, yet we seem to be lacking the will, and neither climate change, nor peak fossil fuels seem to have galvanised the public into feeling they are “under the gun” enough to change their habits or instruct their governments to put more resources into hyper efficiency, alternative energy and climate change risk management.

    It originally came as a surprise to me, only because I understood comparatively little about industry and efficiency from an economic viewpoint, that companies who pursue hyper efficiency by employing the strategies that Lovins et al espouse in Natural Capitalism and Factor Four, are achieving more than government and environmental organisations have with public campaigns and appropriate policy. Searching for the opportunities from hyper efficiency, sustainable technology and the policies in social, economic and environmental arenas to support and enable them, as well as monitoring, evaluating and communicating the successes and failures of these attempts seems to be a way to get the “fossil fuel monkey” of our backs and to progress towards a more sustainable future.

    Unfortunately, I still have difficulty working out how to deal with the issue of “growth is good” at all costs and population growth which are as of yet not well dealt in their effect on sustainability and in the case of population growth liable to get you denounced as a Malthusian(and therefore ridiculed) or a promoter of eugenics aligned with the worst excess of Hitler, Mao, Pol Pot and Stalin.

    Don't get me wrong, I don't think their is no solution, I just feel it will be complex, span more than a few generations, and many people will suffer unnecessarily whilst humanity adjusts. Many people might say, that's nothing new, and I'll agree, but surely we can do better than this.

    • http://www.thepumablog.com Steve Puma

      pmain: all good points. One that needs to be addressed right away is the idea of compounding growth in business as necessary or even possible. Simple math will show you that continuous compounding or exponential growth is not possible in a closed system. The Earth is a closed system, and as long as the Earth is the defining system boundary, then unchecked growth is not possible.

      For some strange reason, even the most brilliant amongst us fail to grasp the consequences of this. We seem to be almost hard-wired to ignore it, because our individual evolutionary imperative tells us to accumulate as many resources as possible, to make sure that our own descendants survive. On an individual level, the short-term far outweighs the long-term.

      Therefore, it is imperative that we implement systems of economics and government that take into account the realities of limited resources, limited ecosystem services, and overpopulation. One major step forward would be for generally accepted economic theory to price resources at their true cost to society.

      Steve

  • PeterRijs

    The best idea for fast recharges seems to be in development at the Frauenhofer institute: Replace the electrolyte of Redox Flow batteries at a “gas” station in minutes: http://www.greencarcongress.com/2009/10/redox.html
    Existing infrastructure can be adapted to this purpose, ideal situation for continuing to tax vehicle power usage through controlled distribution infrastructure . . .

    • http://www.thepumablog.com Steve Puma

      PeterRijs, this is really fascinating. I don' know much about chemical batteries, but replacing the electrolyte wouldn't really be “charging” in the traditional notion. Doesn't this simply replace one liquid fuel (oil) with another (the electrolyte)? The article doesn’t say what the electrolyte would be…do you happen to know it is, and what the economics are? What about the environmental impact of extracting it? Can it be re-used/recycled?

      One nice thing about charging batteries with electricity is that it doesn't matter where the electricity comes from. While it might currently be coming from a coal-fired plant, in a few years it could be coming from a solar plant and in 50 years it might come from a fusion reactor or a space-based solar grid.

      I think that a chemical-based battery might be a good option, if you can “recharge” the electrolyte with a process that uses electricity, similar to the way that hydrogen can be generated from water or natural gas.

      Like I said, I am no expert on chemical batteries, so I would love to hear more about this technology.

      • JorgenV

        In the ideal world, this seems to have the possibility to be a closed loop system, so as such you are not replacing oil with another liquid. You don't burn up the liquid but rather use the embedded energy and then return the liquid to the infrastructure for recharging.

        If you can refuel your car this way AND are able to charge at home, you actually do not need a dense gas station network. How many gas stations would we need today if we had gasoline on tap at home? Given that proposition, you could have a viable startup infrastructure in place if only a single company builds refueling stations at a limited number of strategic locations per region. Case in point for that is the natural gas vehicles refueling infrastructure. I drive one of those cars and am able to go anywhere I want to most of the time while only needing access to about 10 refueling stations in the greater Bay Area and Sacramento area. The only limitations I face are network boundaries that make distant destinations out of reach.

        • http://www.thepumablog.com Steve Puma

          JorgenV,

          As I mentioned to PeterRijs, if you know of any web resources on this topic, it would be very informative for you to post the links here.

          Steve Puma

      • PeterRijs

        Steve,

        As Jorgen mentions, you drain the electrical charge from the liquid and replace it with charged liquid in minutes. The “gas station” then charges the liquid while in their tanks. If these could indeed be charged at home that would have some consequences for the distribution network..

        • http://www.thepumablog.com Steve Puma

          PeterRijs,

          This is very good news. If you know of any good resources on this topic, I would love to see you post them here.

          Thanks for your posts!

          Steve

  • The walking Man

    My understanding is that through out the world that average travelled distance for people communing to and from work was less than 120 km so if you have a vehicle that does 200 km/miles is more than enough miles for a car to travel. I know Australia like the US is hooked on cars but we should be moving towards best practice and solutions not just pandering to consumers desires to have large engine capacity vehicles.

    After all, the current available cars are only desirable because of past excellent marketing from the car manufacturers. So why should manufacturers not sell consumers the benefits of energy efficient, sustainable cars rather than the energy guzzling cars of today.

    Ian Cleland
    Toward Sustainable Futures
    The Walking Man

  • http://www.GetPlugging.com/ Mike Piscitelli

    Great article!

    The EV charging station infrastructure is getting ready to explode with an estimated 1,000,000 charging stations being installed by 2015. My company, Plug-In Vehicle Solutions is a EV charging station reseller. We also perform installation and maintenance for charging stations. Please check out GetPlugging.com for more information.

    Best,

    Mike Piscitelli
    Plug-In Vehicle Solutions
    630-248-8810

  • neilfrabstein

    I'm planning to get a patent on a breakhrough energy storage device for utilities that can store electrcity about 20 cheaper than batteries, including flow through batteries. Its 93% efficient at storing electrcity and then relasing it. It beats compressed air storage and flywheeels also. It's even more efficient than pumped hydro. It can also store energy for vehicle rechrging stations. I'm seeking investors and coprorate business spartenrs to take advantage of DOE Recovery Act funding. They will pay for 30% of the upfront cost of building prototypes or commercial facilities.

  • neilfrabstein

    I'm planning to get a patent on a breakhrough energy storage device for utilities that can store electrcity about 20 cheaper than batteries, including flow through batteries. Its 93% efficient at storing electrcity and then relasing it. It beats compressed air storage and flywheeels also. It's even more efficient than pumped hydro. It can also store energy for vehicle rechrging stations. I'm seeking investors and coprorate business spartenrs to take advantage of DOE Recovery Act funding. They will pay for 30% of the upfront cost of building prototypes or commercial facilities.

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