Green Car Mapping: Deciding Where EV Fast Chargers Should Be Placed

With most major automakers rolling out big expansions of their electric vehicle lineups, it’s clear that there will be many more EVs on the road soon. What’s less clear is exactly where those EVs will charge when they’re not in their owners’ garages. 

Where can Americans expect to find public EV chargers in the future? Who will make decisions about this critical green infrastructure, and what will be the factors they’ll have to account for? Let’s examine the urgent questions at the heart of debates over where public EV chargers need to be placed. 

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Why We Need Public EV Fast Chargers

The vast majority of EV owners have home charging equipment installed where they park their vehicle. Getting a Level 2 charger at home is a relatively simple one-time process that requires a qualified professional electrician and a wall mounting enclosure. For commuters and others who drive shorter distances, this is plenty of charging capacity for their daily needs. 

However, EVs can’t truly replace fossil fuel vehicles until they’re capable of making the same long-distance trips that a fossil fuel vehicle can. Currently, the largest and most powerful production EV batteries top out at around 400 miles of charge capacity. That’s a lot, but it won’t even get you all the way across the largest U.S. states, let alone the country. 

Other accessibility barriers around public EV charging prevent people from integrating EVs into their daily lives. Many people are afraid that they won’t be able to find a public charger if they need to get somewhere in an emergency. Finding a public charger is also a big challenge for apartment dwellers and others who don’t have their own garage. 

Where Are Public EV Fast Chargers Available Now? 

Public EV chargers, particularly the fastest Level 3 type, are clustered in the areas where EV ownership is most common. In general, that means higher-income urban areas and along major highways, with far more chargers located in the northeastern and western United States than in the south and midwest. 

While this distribution is understandable, it’s definitely still an obstacle. These charging networks will need to greatly expand their reach before EV drivers will be able to rely on them. Range anxiety is real, and it’s not unfounded—even drivers who only occasionally need long-distance or emergency charging will find that those rare cases can make the difference on whether or not to go fully electric. 

Current public fast-charging availability also tends to cluster around public spaces like parking garages, hotels, and malls. While these spaces definitely need public fast-charging capacity, it’s also important for EV infrastructure to extend into residential areas. People who use street parking need reliable EV charging, but meeting the need may require some creative reconfiguration of neighborhood spaces. 

Finally, the current clustering of public fast chargers in wealthier areas makes it harder for lower income people to choose an EV for their primary transportation. Automakers are increasingly rolling out EV options aimed at budget-conscious buyers, but these buyers need somewhere to charge their vehicles, and right now they often don’t have it.  

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Mapping the Future of EV Charging Locations

Fortunately, there are data scientists and policy experts hard at work studying the locations of EV chargers. Numerous studies, by institutions ranging from MIT to McKinsey, have presented a variety of plans for installing public charging stations, with a focus on equity and building for the future. 

These plans are all merely suggestions, and the EV-charging strategy that policymakers ultimately craft will almost certainly have big differences in its final form. But they do outline some of the major concerns that will affect the placement of EV chargers, including: 

  1. Convenience: It’s vital to place EV chargers in locations where people will find them convenient to use. Policymakers need input from experts on human behavior, as well as data on which strategies have proven most effective for placing existing charging stations. 
  1. Charging Speed: Level 3 chargers, which can charge an average EV battery to 80% in under an hour, are the gold standard of charging. Although not every EV is currently compatible with Level 3 charging, plans for deployment of EV charging stations should usually strive for Level 3 infrastructure as the eventual goal. 
  1. Social Equity: People in economically disadvantaged areas need access to EV chargers, and those EV chargers need regular upkeep. Failure to develop EV infrastructure in these places will result in them falling even farther behind and aggravate conditions of environmental inequality
  1. Competing Standards: Multiple competing standards exist for EV charging plugs, including the rival CCS and CHAdeMO standards for Level 3 chargers. This can make it tougher for EV owners to find a compatible charger when they need it. But there’s good news, too: Tesla recently announced that it would begin allowing owners of non-Tesla EVs to use its nationwide proprietary charger network.
  1. Environmental Conditions: EV-charging stations need to be built to resist the environmental conditions that they’ll be subjected to. This requires strategic location away from floodplains and exposed areas, as well as use of tougher components like outdoor junction boxes that can stand up to the wind and rain. 
  1. Density: Ideally, EV owners shouldn’t be stuck with just one charging station option in a particular area. An EV-centric automobile ecosystem should have multiple charging stations available in populated areas, much as our current fossil fuel system offers drivers their choice of gas stations. 

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America’s transition to EVs will require a serious, good-faith effort to distribute charging stations equitably and strategically throughout the nation. If organizations both public and private collaborate and strategize effectively, we could see a cleaner and greener transportation ecosystem sooner than we think. 

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