Welcome back to The Electric!
For well over a century, people around the world have fueled their automobiles with ease, filling up at will at any nearby gasoline station. This history lies behind the drive to develop fast-charge technology for electric vehicles, and duplicate the gas station experience. This week, we look at the surprisingly large cottage industry of EV fast charging, and how it is so far making do with sub-optimal technology.
Before people will switch to an electric vehicle, they want to know they’ll be able to recharge when they want, as fast as they want, just as they are accustomed to with gasoline cars. Motorists consistently say in surveys that charging stations should be ubiquitous and get them on their way in three, five or a maximum of 15 minutes.
But problems of both physics and economics lie in the way. Pushing electricity so rapidly into a battery can seriously damage it. Even if the physics cooperate, fast-charging equipment—the technology needed to bring electricity safely and rapidly from the grid to the vehicle—is expensive. No one has yet managed to deliver a fast-charging system that will work every time without degrading the battery. Instead, we have suboptimal fast charging—the ability to charge part of the battery in 15 minutes, and to do so once every five or so times you charge it.
Now both industry and the federal government are working furiously to develop and deploy the technology. A vibrant, fast-charging cottage industry has sprung up in the U.S. largely unnoticed, with companies attacking discrete elements of the problem, from the electricity grid to the vehicle itself. Some or all the companies are expected to apply for part of $7.5 billion in federal funds approved by Congress to build some 500,000 charging stations, many of them fast chargers. Last Wednesday, senior Biden administration officials punctuated the effort in a conference call with Tesla CEO Elon Musk, General Motors CEO Mary Barra and the chiefs of nine other major automakers. It’s not known what precisely was said, but the administration released a statement suggesting that charging was a primary subject.
This doesn’t mean fast charging has been overlooked all this time: It hasn’t. But it’s a tough problem, and many researchers think we’ll never achieve a nickel- and graphite-based battery—the type favored by EV manufacturers—that can be fully or even partly fast charged every time you charge ...