The United States is a nation of cars. It has been since the early 20th century, when Henry Ford began mass-producing the Model T from his world-famous factory in Highland Park, Michigan. Back then, cars were more than a means from point A to point B. They were an expression of American ideals like individuality, independence and prosperity.
They still are, which might explain Americans’ continued appetite for motor vehicles: Despite alternatives like bikes, trains and buses, there are more than 108.5 million registered automobiles on American roadways traveling over 2.9 trillion miles per year, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation.
Cars are fast, comfortable and convenient. Unfortunately, they’re also harmful to the environment, suggests the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which says a typical passenger vehicle emits about 4.6 metric tons of carbon dioxide per year. In the United States alone, that adds up to approximately 1.6 billion tons of greenhouse gases per year from cars, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
Because of their impact on global climate change, many environmentalists would like to see Americans ditch their cars altogether. But in an engine-obsessed nation, that’s a pipe dream. As he pursues an ambitious agenda around infrastructure and climate, President Joe Biden is therefore betting on a solution that will help Americans reduce emissions without surrendering their driver’s licenses: electric vehicles (EVs).
Indeed, EVs are a major priority for the president, who in August 2021 signed an executive order designed to fuel EV adoption in the United States. By 2030, Biden declared, half of all new vehicles sold in the United States should be zero-emission vehicles, including battery electric, plug-in hybrid electric or fuel cell electric vehicles.
To achieve his goal, the president included in the framework for his Build Back Better Act an electric-vehicle tax credit designed to incentivize EV adoption among middle-class families.
But increasing EV adoption will take more than tax credits. Because of so-called “range anxiety” — motorists’ worry that EVs will leave them stranded when their batteries run out — it also will require a marked increase in the number of EV charging stations. Specifically, cloud-enabled smart charging stations. Because with the power of the cloud, electric vehicles can become as practical as they are powerful.
EV adoption is expected to grow from 1.5 million vehicles today to 18.7 million vehicles by 2030, according to Illinois power company Ameren, which cites data from the Edison Electric Institute (EEI). The jump in EVs will require an estimated 9.6 million public charging stations, it says.
Consulting firm McKinsey is even more ambitious. By 2030, it predicts, the United States will need 20 million EV chargers.
The present number of charging stations doesn’t even come close to that. As of early 2021, there were fewer than 100,000 charging outlets for plug-in EVs in the United States, according to market research company Statista. Of those, about 32,000 were in California.
Indeed, most charging stations currently are located on the coasts and in clusters around the most populous cities in between. They’re practically non-existent in rural and impoverished areas, Statista says.
Against that backdrop, the president asked that the Build Back Better Act include $7.5 billion for building EV charging stations across the country. Specifically, he wants to build chargers along highway corridors to promote long-distance and local travel, and to provide “convenient charging where people live, work and shop,” according to the White House.
Intelligent Energy Consumption
Whether there are 9.6 million of them or 20 million of them, smart charging stations are the key to EV growth. Whereas early EV chargers were just that—chargers—smart charging stations are much more. Part of the Internet of Things (IoT), they feature cloud-connected sensors and computer processors that collect and analyze large amounts of data in order to optimize energy consumption and distribution.
Some of that data comes from electric vehicles themselves, which automatically transmit information to charging stations upon plugging into them. For example, EV owners who plug into a smart charging station don’t need a credit card in order to fill up on electricity. They just need to enter a PIN, which allows charging costs to be tracked and automatically billed to the owner on a monthly basis, says Joost van Abeelen, former head of electrical vehicle charging services at ABB, a maker of EV chargers.
According to van Abeelen, back-end software also provides personalized driving information, such as how far your vehicle typically travels on a single charge, or whether a part is about to break. Armed with that information, drivers can be proactive about maintenance so as to ensure they’re never stranded without a charge.
Smart charging stations also are beneficial to station operators, for whom the cloud is a time- and money-saver.
“Cloud connectivity helps chargers keep up with the constantly changing environmental rules and predictive maintenance,” explained van Abeelen, who said smart charging stations receive automatic software updates via the internet just like a personal computer does, which keeps operating costs low.
Good for the Grid
Perhaps the biggest beneficiary of smart charging is the electric grid. That’s because EV charging stations can warehouse electricity in order to keep prices steady and promote the use of renewable energy.
This is done through dynamic load management (DLM), which gives the smart charging platform the ability to automatically and evenly distribute available power between the main charging platform and the electric vehicles being charged. The evenly distributed power protects the local grid from peak loads — spikes in electrical use that can drive up prices and overwhelm the grid, causing blackouts or brownouts, says Juha Karppinen, director at EV charging company Virta.
Power grids today are most often stressed on hot or cold days, when millions of people simultaneously are cooling or heating their homes. On a sweltering summer day, for example, your power company might encourage you to set your thermostat a few degrees higher than normal. That’s because if everyone cranked their air-conditioning at the same time, the power grid would struggle.
In a world of mass EV adoption, power grids could fail on a regular basis. To mitigate that, smart chargers are set up not only to deliver electricity to EVs, but also to take it from them.
Through load balancing, EVs can store surplus energy as a backup power source, according to Karppinen. When electricity is in short supply, he says, utilities could take extra power from the batteries of parked EVs that are connected to the grid via chargers. This reserve power could be utilized with little notice when demand peaks—which could make it easier for utilities to embrace renewable energy sources.
For now, utilities continue to rely on fossil fuels like coal and natural gas because they’re more reliable than renewable alternatives like wind and solar, power from which can vary depending on how bright the sun is shining or how fast the wind is blowing. Having reliable energy reserves from EVs on cloudy and windless days could strengthen the business case for clean energy.
“EVs can participate in the change to cleaner energy,” Karppinen said. “The EV tied to the grid can decrease emissions in transportation and in energy use.”
The future — an EV in every garage — is years or even decades away. But cloud-connected charging stations could help speed the transition.
Jean Thilmany is a freelance writer living in St. Paul who writes about engineering and technology.
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