News that Tesla plans to open its Supercharger network to non-Tesla electric vehicles (EVs) in the US has been welcomed by an industry that has struggled with a patchy electric vehicle charging infrastructure. After piloting the concept in 13 European countries, Tesla’s move to bring the program to the U.S. could alleviate near-term supply issues with the availability of fast EV charging.
Unfortunately, while this move will improve accessibility to EV charging stations, it does little to address the major challenges of EV charging. Beyond the rapidly growing need to build a more robust network of charging stations, the fundamental issues of EV charging infrastructure need to be addressed to support the upcoming increase in the number of EVs on the road. To address these challenges, fundamental changes must be made to the way we currently approach EV charging
Despite the expansion of superchargers, EV charging challenges remain
There are three main challenges in EV charging today: accessibility, speed and stability. Each of these challenges becomes more acute as the number of EVs on the road increases. With an estimated 22 million EVs on the road by 2030, requiring 100,000 fast charging stations across the country, tackling these challenges is critical as infrastructure scales.
Opening up the Tesla Supercharger network to non-Teslas helps alleviate some of the pressure from accessibility issues at the moment, but it does little to address the speed and stability issues of EV charging. Although the Supercharger network is generally faster than other charging stations, it still takes about 30 minutes to charge from empty to full, much longer than it takes to fill up an internal-combustion engine (ICE) car at a gas station.
Additionally, the design of supercharger charging stations relies on a connection to the grid drawing power from a central source to distribute to each charging station on site. Not only does this mean slower charging times when more vehicles are present, but it can also mean speeds and costs fluctuate with grid demand. Charging during peak hours when many other drivers are charging their vehicles can be time consuming and expensive.
In order to scale to the capacity that will be needed in just a few years, EV charging infrastructure will need to evolve significantly both conceptually and at the material level.
Energy storage-based EV charging stations are the future
However, companies are working on a different model – one based on energy savings. Charging stations that are able to collect and store energy from the grid (ideally during off-peak hours) will be ready to charge EVs directly without the need to draw from the grid during charging.
Also, energy storage EV charging units can effectively leverage the expansion of clean energy with renewable energy producers. Energy produced by solar facilities, for example, can be stored in these EV charging units and used any time an EV driver pulls up for a charge.
Finally, these charging stations will be able to feed power back into the grid when charging demand is low, supporting electricity demand in other ways when the grid is overstressed. It can prevent outages and failures by providing support to the larger network.
EV technology needs to improve to realize success
Advanced energy storage In order to make the most of EV charging infrastructure, some improvements must be made in EV technology, from batteries to individual components.
For example, EV charging requires highly efficient power converters that can change alternating current to direct current. The electricity from the grid will be AC which needs to be converted to DC for EV charging.
Historically, power converters have been a major source of power loss. These inefficiencies will result in shorter ranges and slower charging times for EVs. In addition, energy loss takes the form of heat and requires the installation of thermal management components to eliminate it. In an EV, this makes the vehicle heavier and further reduces range. So, how can energy converters be made more efficient?
One way to increase power converter efficiency is by using more efficient semiconductor devices. Semiconductor devices open and close to control the flow of energy across a circuit, such as when an EV is drawing power from a charging station or its battery. Practically, better semiconductor devices mean more efficient power conversion, lower losses and increased EV range.
Connectivity improvements in semiconductor devices and battery technology could greatly improve how EVs use electricity, speeding up the charging experience and increasing range.
The EV industry is already evolving in this direction
These are steps that are already being made by the industry. There are companies that are already developing their solid-state batteries for EVs. And improving component-level performance, such as making semiconductor devices more efficient than the insulated gate bipolar transistor (IGBT) currently used across industry, will help make the most of these innovative advances. Such technologies aim for a future of EV charging based on renewables, energy savings, and widespread adoption rather than creating a Band-Aid fix that puts pressure on the grid and does little to move the EV space toward a sustainable future.
(CEO of Daniel Brader Ideal Power Inc.)
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