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Tina Casey headshot

U.S. Energy Dept. Aims For "Extreme" Fast EV Charging -- Without Bumping Up Costs

By Tina Casey

Despite the Trump Administration's rhetoric on fossil fuels, the U.S. Department of Energy is still keen on seeing more electric vehicles on the road. The agency has been pouring millions into research aimed at bringing EV costs down, to help pick up the pace of adoption. However, cost is just one obstacle. Another major roadblock is EV charging, which takes significantly longer than filling a gas tank.

The Energy Department has worked out a pathway to achieving high-speed EV charging that is more competitive with gassing up. The only question is, who's gonna pay for all this?

EV charging is a major problem -- and a solution

In the introduction to a newly released report on electric vehicles and EV charging times, the Energy Department's Vehicle Technologies Office drifts far away from President Trump's usual rhetoric on "energy dominance:"

Decreasing energy consumption across the U.S. transportation sector, especially in commercial light duty vehicles, is essential for the United States to gain energy independence. Recently, powertrain electrification with plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) have gained traction as an alternative due to their inherent efficiency advantages compared to the traditional internal combustion engine vehicle (ICEV).

The report focuses on all-electric, battery powered EVs (not gas-electric hybrids or fuel cell electric vehicles). It notes that powertrain costs have been plummeting, but the market for EVs is still hovering around a barely perceptible level of about 1 percent of sales.

Based partly on studies showing that EV adoption shoots up where faster EV charging stations are available, the Energy Department posits that slow charging times still throw a formidable barrier up against widespread EV adoption.

Interestingly, studies also show that fast-charging stations are rarely used even in areas where they are available. That's possibly because EV owners mainly prefer to charge at home, or charge at their workplace, where they can plug in and leave their car to charge for longer periods. In effect, public fast-charging stations are mostly a buffer against range anxiety. EV owners like to know they can charge up relatively quickly on the road, even if they rarely need to do that.

Who's gonna pay for all this?

Today's fastest-charging EV stations are still significantly slower than the time it takes to fill a gas tank, but improvements are already in store.

Volkswagen, for example, is working on 350-kw EV charging stations in California as part of its "diesel-gate" settlement.

Plans are even more ambitious in Europe, where a group of auto manufacturers has been putting together a network of 400 extreme fast-charging stations at the 350-kw level.

To top them all, the new Energy Department report draws a scenario for "extreme fast" EV charging at the level of 400 kw or more.

The 400-kw mark is essential to meeting the agency's goal of increasing EV range to 300 miles while reducing charging times to a maximum of 15 minutes.

The problem is that extreme fast-charging requires new -- and significantly more expensive -- EV battery technology to go with it.

That leaves the Energy Department with a dilemma: EVs will become far more convenient, but EV ownership will become more expensive and exclusive.

Group hug for U.S. taxpayers!

With a fast-charging vehicle for the 99 percent in mind, the Energy Department has just announced a new $15 million funding program for early stage R&D aimed at holding EV battery costs down while introducing new technology compatible with extreme fast-charging.

Aside from tweaks to the battery technology itself, the new funding initiative also addresses costs associated with power transmission and distribution infrastructure that will be needed to hit the extreme fast-charging mark, including charging stations.

The application process is just getting under way and the Energy Department expects to select awardees next spring, so stay tuned for updates.

Meanwhile, the funding opportunity announcement for the new EV initiative includes a rather sharp indictment of the Trump administration's energy policy:

...Growing our economy requires transportation, and transportation requires energy. The transportation sector currently accounts for 70% of U.S. petroleum consumption. Twenty five percent of U.S. petroleum consumption is imported. The U.S. sends more than 10 billion dollars per month overseas for crude oil, and the average U.S. household spends nearly one-fifth of its total family expenditures on transportation, making it the second-most expensive spending category after housing. Oil price volatility also affects our national economy and household budgets, causing difficult fluctuations in annual household budgets and business operating expenses.

If you caught that thing about "oil price volatility," that's shorthand for the fact that the petroleum marketplace is global. No matter how much oil the U.S. produces, onshore or offshore, gasoline consumers will always be at the mercy of global price swings. That volatility factor can be reduced to a minimum in markets that rely on the killer combination of renewable energy plus storage.

It's also interesting that the Energy Department has gone out of its way to point out that transportation costs have a stranglehold on household budgets. EV adoption could ultimately help bring that proportion down, and enable households to spend more income on, well, just about anything else.

Photo (cropped): US DOE, Vehicle Technologies Office.

Tina Casey headshot

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.

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