It is no secret that the burgeoning electric vehicle market faces something of a chicken-and-egg conundrum. People have very real range anxiety, which can be alleviated by a public charging network. But vast charging networks can only make money if lots of people have electric vehicles.

This problem is only magnified when it comes to direct-current fast charging, which is being installed worldwide despite a standards war and many questions about the business model.

During a recent webinar conducted by Navigant Consulting, Fast DC Charging: CHAdeMO, Combo Chargers and the Future of Electric Vehicle Charging, panelists tried to map the road bumps ahead.

For early enthusiasts that want an electric car but don’t live in a single-family home, networks of fast chargers will be particularly important, said John Gartner, research director with Navigant. His firm estimates that there will need to be about one DC fast charger for every nine EVs.

The Problem of Cost

DC fast chargers are significantly more expensive than level I or level II EV chargers. The cost dropped $10,000 in just the past year, to about $16,000 in 2012, although installation costs can match the equipment costs. Level II 240-volt charters are a few thousand, by comparison.

The cost will continue to come down, but it is unclear how low it can go. Even so, Navigant expects about 100,000 fast chargers deployed worldwide by 2020, mostly in Western Europe and Asia.

Some networks are popping up in the U.S., including NRG’s Freedom Charging Network in Texas, a planned highway network of fast chargers along the West Coast and another in Tennessee.

One option to offset the cost of the chargers, especially for fleet managers, is to leverage the EVs during other times in ancillary service markets or maybe even demand response programs. The EV to grid (eV2g) concept, as it’s known, is fraught with its own set of challenges, however.


The Problem of Peak

The problem of cost is not just about the upfront investment, but also about who shoulders the cost when drivers plug in as they run errands on a hot summer afternoon.

The EV Project, partially funded by the U.S. Department of Energy, has found that when people plug into fast chargers, they tend to fill up, instead of just topping off to get home.

It’s hard to know what behavior might look like if EVs catch on, said Garrett Beauregard, executive VP and general manager of eTec Labs at ECOtality. Currently, Volt drivers go about ten miles farther per day than Leaf drivers. But would Leaf drivers go farther if they had more access to fast charging? If people rely on fast chargers to fill up the issue of demand charges for peak electricity use could be a real problem. Beauregard said that the charges vary, and could be as low as $16 in Glendale, Calif. to more than $1,000 in San Diego Gas & Electric’s territory.

One solution is scale. If there are 100 cars, rather than just one, that incur the flat demand charge, that is spread out over all of the vehicles.

Another answer is to bring down the power consumption. Some chargers are in the 20- to 30-kilowatt range, compared to 50 kilowatts for other DC chargers. Last year, ABB launched a new 20-kW DC fast charger for less than 10,000 euros.

“You can game the system to ramp it up and down over the fifteen-minute window to avoid demand charges,” said Beauregard.

A third fix is to change the pricing structure all together. If people have to pay more for DC fast charging, maybe they’ll charge earlier in the day or wait until they get home and charge at night. In some areas like Portland, Oregon, the utility, Portland General Electric, has waived demand charges for EVs.

Lastly, Beauregard suggested that if the fast chargers were integrated with renewables (as Tesla is planning) or sophisticated building control systems, the charger could operate as needed and be offset by shifting other load.

The Problem of Standards

Another chicken-and-egg issue is the charger itself. While international automakers have agreed on the lower-level chargers, there are two competing standards for the DC version. The competition is mostly between two standards, Japan’s CHAdeMO and the Society of Automotive Engineers’ SAE J1772. The U.S. and German automakers (and most of Europe) have gotten behind SAE, while Japan and other parts of Asia are in the CHAdeMO camp.

“It’s VHS and Beta all over again,” Beauregard said of the standards fight. “It will take five to ten years to get to one final standard.” Some automakers have held back from installing either one, hoping the debate doesn’t take a decade. With fewer outlets in cars, there’s even less of a reason to install fast chargers.

Another potential problem is stranding drivers whose cars support the losing standard five years down the road. One of the challenges is that, unlike most other sectors, the charging companies and the automakers are two entirely separate entities. “There’s very few other marketplaces where two totally different groups combine to make one system,” said Beauregard.

The easy solution, in the short term, is that it could just be one more specification that’s customized by region.

The EV Project will collect data for one more year, which will help create a framework on how people drive and what solutions they need to inform the DC charging marketplace.   

“Don’t be fooled -- significant opportunity exists for companies with strong technologies,” said Richard Martin, editorial director at Navigant. “Long-term success [of charging companies] will depend on incorporating DC fast charging.”

Of course, maybe the next wave of EV enthusiasts will just buy plug-in hybrids.