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We have experienced a love of electric vehicles almost from the very beginning of automotive history. When carriages first lost their horses, it was a race between electric, steam, and gasoline. Steam lost the race early on, but electric vehicles (EVs) kept pace until the 1930s, when gasoline won out as the fuel of choice, for a variety of reasons — extended ranges, a faster growing infrastructure, and shorter fueling times, to name a few. It’s been on its “victory lap” ever since.

A resurgence in interest in electric vehicles occurred in the mid-1960s, as evidenced by an article entitled, “The Electric Car: Dream or Reality,” in the Electrical Workers’ Journal in December 1967. The article cited research and development from Ford, General Motors, and General Electric, and noted that the Federal Power Commission (now the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) predicted a possible market of 35 million electric vehicles by 1985! Obviously, that didn’t happen.

So, where are we today?

State of the Industry
First, we have to look at how the vehicles that the infrastructure supports are utilized. Used for mainly shorter, stop-and-go routes with return-to-base operations, EVs are “charging” ahead with new models, updated technology, and advanced comfort options.

Pike Research, a part of Navigant, projects the North American EV charging equipment market will see roughly 66,000 units sold in 2012. In 2011, around 18,478 plug-in vehicles were sold in the U.S. (around 48,000 sold globally). That’s a far cry from the 35 million vehicles we were supposed to have by 1985.

“Out of the 66,000 charging units, only 20 percent will be private units, which includes equipment installed by fleets,” according to Lisa Jerram, senior research analyst for Pike Research. “Right now, fleets are a small part of the total charging equipment market, because fleets have not yet been a major factor in the plug-in vehicle market.”

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Almost every major auto manufacturer has launched, or has announced plans to launch, a plug-in electric vehicle. “There are a number of different types of vehicles suitable for fleet purposes,” according to Brian Hanrahan, director, In-Home Technologies and Electric Vehicles at Florida Power & Light Company (FPL). “In addition to passenger vehicles, such as the Nissan LEAF and Chevrolet Volt, fleets are now able to order plug-in electric pickup trucks and other, more traditional fleet vehicles.”

However, the EV industry is still pretty new, and there is yet to be a strong network of charging stations. “The EV industry is very active. There are now a number of players that are getting large and some players that have been in the business for a long time. There are a lot of good companies to choose from,” noted Tom Saxton, vice president and board member for Plug-in America.

“Things are going well in the EV industry right now. When people are ready to electrify their fleet, we are ready for them. There are a few places to still go, some things we’d still like to do, but we have them in hand,” said Richard Lowenthal, founder and CTO of ChargePoint.

From ChargePoint’s perspective, software is seen as the main part of the ongoing electric vehicle story, as opposed to the hardware. “Asset management tools are important to EV fleets,” Lowenthal noted. “ChargePoint has a tool, called Fleet Manager, which reminds fleet managers to plug in vehicles, which is important due to the length of time required to charge.”

According to Jaycie Chitwood, environmental strategy and future fuels manager for Toyota Motor Sales, “There has been a significant increase in EV infrastructure over the past few years, primarily due to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funding.”

GE Capital Fleet Services, which recently opened its Vehicle Innovation Center, also sees growing infrastructure.

“We are seeing more public infrastructure being deployed every day, which is great news for commercial and public fleets,” said Deb Frodl, chief strategy officer and GE global alternative fuels leader. “We have deployed infrastructure for fleets at their depots, offices, and parking garages. For our own EV employee drivers, we are installing stations at their residences, as well as select office locations.”

There are many reasons for this increase in infrastructure, including a stronger understanding of the financial return, as well as the environmental benefits.

“Organizations are beginning to understand the return on investment (ROI) of an electrified fleet and the necessity of commercially available infrastructure,” according to Greg Fioriti, chief revenue officer for ECOtality. “We are seeing heavy interest in installing EV infrastructure in commercial and public places. We want to help establish a network of smart-chargers to encourage EV drivers to have range confidence.”

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Infrastructure Plays Catch-Up
However, while it may be growing, commercial and public EV infrastructure is still in its infancy, despite the wishful thinking in the 1960s.

“We sometimes forget we are still in the early stages of this industry. Many consumers are still learning about EVs, technology is still evolving, and business models for public infrastructure are still being developed,” according to John Nakamoto, manager, national sales training, technology & electric vehicle sales operations department for Mitsubishi Motors North America. “There are a lot of smart people working on many different aspects of public infrastructure. One example, like early stages of cellular, is interoperability across networks.”

But, while companies and fleets are “charging” ahead with EVs, infrastructure is still a huge barrier to any scale of adoption for fleets.

One current trend is the standardization of some EV components, including the connector for vehicle charging.

“There are some standards involving the electrical connector that all plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) produced currently now are using. That’s really helped provide confidence to buyers to know that as long as there is a station available, they can charge up. That standardization came about in 2010 and helped specifically address some issues that were around the early wave of EVs in the 1990s and 2000s,” noted Mike Simpson, vehicle systems engineer for the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL). “Also, there are concerns about what services each station provides and charging levels available.”

Infrastructure, albeit slowly, is definitely growing. “Several projects are happening on the national level, including the EV Project, which is putting massive amounts of infrastructure out in the public arena and collecting data on charging habits and where that charging should take place. We are installing more infrastructure than we have ever had in history. I think it’s great and we are going to continue to gather information around the charging habits on both the fleet and consumer side,” according to Ben Echols, electric transportation program manager for Georgia Power.

Chicken or Egg?
One fundamental question asked throughout the ages is, “What came first — the chicken or the egg?” Green Fleet posed a similar question to the infrastructure experts: Should electric vehicles be pushed for, to promote infrastructure; or should infrastructure be pushed for, to fuel production of electric vehicles?

Most agreed that infrastructure expansion and vehicle production need to occur simultaneously. “EV infrastructure is important for two reasons: it generates awareness, as stations are usually placed in high-traffic areas, and it provides a safety net for owners of pure electrics in the event they need to travel farther,” according to Michael Tinskey, associate director, vehicle electrification and infrastructure for Ford Motor Co. “The key is to find a fit rate of infrastructure deployment that is efficient.”

However, Hanrahan of FPL believes it’s not a “chicken and egg” issue at all. “FPL’s fleet of electric vehicles is served by private infrastructure installed at our facilities. We have not found a major need for public charging stations for our fleet’s purposes,” Hanrahan said. “We add infrastructure as our fleet grows — they grow together.”

At this time, Echols of Georgia Power believes fleets don’t really need to rely on public infrastructure. “It’s a different animal. None of the fleets that are currently operating electrics are relying on public infrastructure. And, I don’t think we want that. Fleet managers aren’t going to pay their drivers to just sit there for a few hours waiting for a vehicle to charge,” Echols said.

Saxton of Plug-in America agreed. “EVs are really best suited for local driving, which means fleets only need to charge the vehicles at the garage the vehicle is parked in,” he said. “To satisfy most of the useful things you can do with an EV, you don’t need much public infrastructure at all. Usually, a fleet will have a variety of vehicles, allowing it to choose between electric- and gasoline-powered vehicles, depending on driving distance and needs.”

Infrastructure is always going to be an issue with new technology. Just as there wasn’t a gasoline station on every corner when gasoline-powered vehicles were introduced, it will take time for EV infrastructure to take hold. “To some extent, you have to have successful vehicles and successful technology to really stimulate that infrastructure growth. And, I think, you are starting to see that,” Echols said.

Mitsubishi believes that the availability of electric vehicles should increase hand-in-hand with infrastructure. “We are starting to see numerous important developments occur in the expansion of infrastructure,” said Nakamoto of Mitsubishi. NRG Energy, a major utility in numerous areas of the U.S., recently launched eVgo, a private EV recharging network in the Dallas/Ft. Worth and Houston markets, with plans to expand.

Ashton of XL Hybrids agreed. “We’re hearing from fleets experienced with EVs that it needs to be a simultaneous consideration.”

Communication, according to Fioriti of ECOtality, is king. “We plan for infrastructure needs in a way that is closely tied to OEM projections, the conversion to electricity by fleets, and the needs of such prime stakeholders as utilities, permitting offices, and businesses.”

ECOtality is a strong proponent of collaboration between OEMs, regional planners, and infrastructure providers.

Michael Farkas, CEO and co-founder of the CarCharging Group, believes that EVs and infrastructure should be implemented somewhat simultaneously, “however, we feel that developing infrastructure will assist in the adoption of EVs, and, therefore should be slightly ahead.”

Pike Research doesn’t see much of a “chicken and egg” issue, due to the fact that most charging will occur at the home base of a vehicle. “This is true for consumers and is true for fleets as well. So, the fleet that uses plug-in electric vehicles will acquire the necessary charging infrastructure at the same time the decision is made to bring in PEVs.”

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Identifying Challenges
Now that it’s clear where the EV industry stands today, there are several challenges to overcome before widespread use and charging station availability is here. First, there is the issue of limited mass production and a lack of electric vehicle choices.

“While the lack of mass production of electric vehicles has limited the adoption in the commercial and public fleet sectors, major corporations have adopted EVs,” said Farkas of the CarCharging Group. “Given that the cost advantages are not evident at this time, most commercial or public fleets adopt EVs in support of their green initiatives. We anticipate that, as the costs and prices of EVs decrease, the fiscal advantages will become more apparent.”

Cost issues center on more than just the vehicles. “Those fleets that have purchased commercial EVs are finding that there can be hidden engineering, construction, and utility costs associated with charging infrastructure, especially in a fleet setting,” according to Justin Ashton, co-founder and VP of business development at XL Hybrids.

The cost and complexity of the installations are one challenge fleets face.

“Some installs are simple — just a few feet between a circuit panel with plenty of spare capacity and the desired charger location,” said Britta Gross, director, advanced vehicle commercialization policy for General Motors. “Other installs are complicated, and thus more costly, because there may not be enough capacity in the panel to serve a new load, or you may have to trench through concrete for long distances to get from the panel to the charge spot.”

At fleet facilities, facility managers are encountering electrical engineering, construction, and electrician costs that were higher than anticipated.

“If any trenching (or digging under pavement) is required to wire the charger in a parking lot or garage, costs can skyrocket up to six figures over the baseline cost, depending on the scale of the install,” said Ashton of XL Hybrids.

Installation costs were a recurring concern among the infrastructure experts.

“From a fleet perspective, there is the cost of installation. It can be quite expensive to install charging in an existing garage if you don’t have power feeds going out there. In new construction, it’s very inexpensive to run some extra wires,” noted Saxton of Plug-in America. “Even if you are not planning to deploy EVs in the coming year, it’s less expensive to plan ahead.”

Simpson of NREL agreed that the installation of EV infrastructure is still currently very expensive.

“The stations themselves are being produced at relatively low rates compared to other manufacturing industries. I think there is room for improvement on the cost of the stations; there is an economy of scale available to bring the costs down. There are some research efforts funding by both the DOE and R&D departments of the manufacturers that are looking at how to bring the cost down on the unit itself. The majority of the cost tends to be in installation, which includes the materials, the labor, and permitting,” Simpson said.

Lowenthal of ChargePoint also noted the benefits of pre-planning. “The cost of retrofitting an existing parking facility is about three times the cost of planning it from the start instead,” he said. “Planning for the future is quite important. The fact of whether someone is doing construction is key. We do like to see people prepare in advance to keep the cost reasonable. Once you prepare and you have your very first charging station, we see fleets start to build up. They buy a few cars to start to see how it goes. We recommend that fleets keep infrastructure one charging station ahead of vehicles at all times.”

Another challenge is time. While most would agree that the time to charge a vehicle is a concern, fleet managers must also plan for the time to install the infrastructure.

“The process can be very complex,” according to Chitwood of Toyota. “You are dealing with the local utility, city permitting, the contractor who will actually install the infrastructure, the electrician, etc. There is certainly time involved in the process.”

Yet another challenge for the industry will be coming up with a viable business model to support the infrastructure and vehicles.

“A business model needs to allow operators of public charging equipment to pay off the cost of installing charging equipment,” said Jerram of Pike Research. “The penetration of EVs in many regions is not very high, which makes it difficult to get a concentration of drivers in any region that will consistently provide revenue for a charging station.”

Hanrahan of FPL also noted the importance of business models. “A business model needs to define public infrastructure ownership and allow for consistent pricing models,” he said.

However, Tinskey of Ford is positive and believes most of the challenges have been addressed. “For example, the issue of allowing EV station owners to sell electricity was addressed in California and other states by the regulators,” Tinskey said. “What remains a challenge is getting an accurate (and real time) aggregation of the charge station locations. Also, enabling advanced features such as reservations and payments are not standardized and are preventing wider adoption.”

Overall, fleets need to find appropriate routes, so that EV drivers have plenty of range for the day, according to Ashton of XL Hybrids. Saxton disagreed slightly, urging fleet managers to identify the vehicle uses for which EVs are ideally suited, and deploy EVs for those uses.

There are no challenges too significant for EV infrastructure, according to Frodl of GE Capital Fleet Services. “There are only processes that need to be managed, as the EV infrastructure supply chain is different, involving a variety of stakeholders including utilities, municipalities, electrical distribution companies, and others,” Frodl said. “At GE, we’ve created an eco EV solution to help our customers easily transition to this new technology.”

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What About Grid Overload?
One concern frequently cited by fleet managers and opponents of electric vehicle (EV) infrastructure is “grid overload.”

According to Ben Echols, electric vehicle transportation manager for Georgia Power, this is not something to be concerned about. This is also not the first time “grid overload” has been a question regarding new technology. Some may remember when in-home air conditioners became popular about 50 years ago. More recently, computers and the influx of plasma televisions spiked fears of mass overload.

“This is not much of a concern in a fleet application. We can build for fleets. What’s more of a concern for utilities is where you don’t know where vehicles are being used, such as in a residential environment,” Echols said. “Even then, we’ve done some extensive grid analysis and we feel very confident that we aren’t going to be affected near-term. Planners are able to really mitigate that risk. We feel we have a very robust system.”

The same can be said of Florida Power & Light Company (FPL).

“FPL has the most reliable service of any investor-owned utility in the state of Florida, so customers who plug their vehicles into the electric grid can feel assured that they’re charging up with safe, affordable, and reliable energy,” said Brian Hanrahan, director, In-Home Technologies and Electric Vehicles. “FPL will continue to evaluate the best approach to meet the emerging needs of plug-in electric vehicle technologies, while keeping service reliability high.”

See part two of this article in the January/February issue to learn more about electric vehicle infrastructure.


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