To meet the needs of the millions of electric vehicles that may be on the roads over the next decade or two, we’re going to need a lot more places to plug in. The current facilities are limited to desultory stops in supermarket parking lots (and such places), and offer nothing approaching the peace of mind of the gas station network. There are currently about 44,000 EV charging stations in the U.S, according to U.S. government figures, compared to 168,000 nationwide that sell fuel.
Although manufacturers like Volvo, VW, and, of course, Tesla, have recently made big EV announcements (promising us nicer, longer range, cheaper EVs), the lack of charging sites is a serious impediment to greater sales and wider cultural acceptance of EVs, say industry experts.
The good news is that the flexibility of electricity–as opposed to a fuel like gasoline that has to be stored more circumspectly–eases the job of getting charging to more places. In time, the EV charging network may be more widespread than the gas station one, assuming the economics can be made to work and we free up mental and physical space for alternatives.
There are efforts to build out gas station-like networks of charging stations (BP for example says it’s “in discussions” with EV makers to put charging at its retail stations). But options exist beyond the station forecourt paradigm. One is to retrofit lamp posts and other existing street infrastructure, allowing street-level and residential-level charging. Another is to facilitate “peer to peer” (P2P) charging–that is, a sort of Airbnb for plugging in our cars.
An initiative in California is showing how P2P car charging could work. eMotorWerks, a large charging pole manufacturer, has teamed up with MotionWerk, a mobility startup that’s backed by a German power utility. In the trial, owners of home charging poles can offer their equipment to EV owners, who can see the sites mapped, and rated, on an app. The system combines eMotorWerks‘s bidirectional JuiceNet software platform–which manages the flow of electrons in and out of a car–with Share&Charge, MotionWerk’s blockchain-enabled app.
Blockchains are decentralizing accounting systems, where transactions are recorded across multiple computers. First invented for tracking bitcoin, they’ve since been adapted, in multiple variations, for tracking digital units other than cryptocurrency, including securities, insurance contracts, and in MotionWerk’s case, electrons. On its blockchain, energy flows are recorded automatically between poles and cars. In the future, it could also record flows between cars, and between buildings and cars, as well.
The German group was spun out a incubator started by Innogy, the utility. “We see people are reluctant to buy EVs because they are afraid that the range isn’t long enough,” says Franziska Heintel, head of US operations, in an interview. “With our platform, we aim to make life with an electric vehicle easier. On the blockchain, a lot of devices can be connected together and transactions can happen automatically.”
Surveys show that up to half of EV owners in the U.S. have home chargers, potentially putting at least 300,000 additional charging sites in play (there are about 700,000 EVs on the road today). Val Miftakhov, founder of eMotorWerks, notes that home poles are much cheaper to install than public sites. The former cost in the region of $1,000 after installation (the company’s home kits start at about $600 retail). A typical shopping mall deployment costs $10,000 all in (other estimates are higher).
Miftakhov says chargers in well-trafficked urban locations could generate up to $500 a year, according to his company’s calculations. If so, it would take only two years for EV owners to pay off their equipment costs. Moreover, in putting your vehicle on the network, you would be providing valuable backup to the grid. “All these vehicles in fact are a big battery on wheels that can provide valuable services to the grid to each other,” he tells Fast Company. “Eventually, we see things like shared batteries and shared energy coming into play.”
As with other parts of sharing economy, the question is always whether people really want to share. Heintel says it’s not for everyone. “You can compare it to Airbnb, when you don’t want to rent out your room because you don’t feel comfortable with a stranger,” she says. “You have people who can’t participate because their garage has valuable stuff in it. But other people feel more comfortable.”