Batteries and Charging Stations Stall the Future of Electric Vehicles

A million chargers for electric vehicles or EVs will be needed along U.S. roadways by 2035, when automakers shift away from manufacturing internal combustion engine passenger vehicles.

Growing popularity and excitement around electric-powered vehicles or EVs point to a major shift for future transportation across the United States. But the road ahead will be challenging.

Much of the world’s environmental future is depending on EVs to reduce the demand for millions of barrels of oil and to help the world meet targets for CO2 emission reductions to minimize the impact of climate change. But a recent panel at the EHS Today Safety Leadership Conference in Cleveland, Ohio revealed roadblocks to the broad acceptance and use of EVs in the U.S. The panel brought together representatives from EV component manufacturers who, while raving about the tremendous business opportunities as the market shifts to EVs, also recognize there’s still much work still to be done. 

Of the roughly 250 million cars on American roads in 2021, only slightly more than 600,000 were EVs; a share that represents less than 1 percent. But electric looms large, with conservative estimates predicting that by 2030, 29.5 percent of new car sales in the U.S. will be EVs. 

Building an Electric Vehicle Infrastructure

The U.S. government is setting the stage for electric-powered roadway travel, passing the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) in November 2021. It provides funding for EV-supporting efforts over a five-year period, including:

  • $7.5 billion allocated to build out a network of 500,000 EV chargers across the country
  • Replacing the federal government’s 650,000-vehicle motor pool with EVs
  • Converting 500,000 school buses to electric
  • $600 million in grants provided to battery materials processing and recycling

Steven Sumner, the vice president of global equipment for welding and power-equipment maker Lincoln Electric, says building the needed network of roadside public chargers to support EVs will be daunting. The scope of such a project means placing one charging station equipped with four chargers every 50 miles along a 60,000-mile alternative-fuel corridor across the United States, he says.

“The biggest issue is not so much the hardware. It’s a massive construction project,” he says. “Every one of those charging locations is roughly the equivalent of 60 homes worth of power. The utility side of it is the bigger problem. I think that will be the bigger challenge of how fast this all gets completed over the next five years.”

Level 3 Chargers Needed

A third of those chargers need to be Level 3 DC rapid/fast chargers to eliminate what’s known in the industry as “range anxiety,” or driver concern that they can confidently travel longer distances with EVs. Level 3 chargers use direct current (DC) rather than the alternating current (AC); the type found in households, Sumner says. By way of comparison, Level 3 chargers can fully replenish an EV in 20 to 30 minutes while a Level 1 120-volt household AC outlet charger requires 40 to 50 hours.

Industry analysts say a million chargers will be needed along U.S. roadways by 2035, when automakers shift away from manufacturing internal combustion engine passenger vehicles. A third of these chargers need to be the Level 3 type, costing approximately $100,000 each, Sumner says.

A reserve charging capacity will also be necessary, says Scott Adams, president of eMobility at Eaton Electrical. The normal EV charging grid may not be enough to support demand during peak travel periods such as summer vacation months and the Thanksgiving holiday, and may require a reserve capacity, he says.

“We’ve seen in California during summer heat waves that people are discouraged from charging their vehicles because of the capacity it imposes on the electrical grid,” Adams says. “At the same time, if there were enough [idle] electrical vehicles to feed back into the grid, it could provide a solution.”

Lithium and Charging Standards

The current demand for EV batteries – having enough of them – is another major hurdle. Panel member Heather Soerries, a EHSQ specialist for Cirba Solutions, says battery recycling is essential today due to the scarcity of lithium available to meet expected EV battery demand into the 2030s.

“There’s been a huge uptick in the recycling of lithium products by companies that manufacture these,” Soerries says. “It’s zero waste and zero emissions – an environmentally friendly way to be good for the environment.”

On the battery charging side of things, the panel acknowledged a general lack of adherence to a single industry standard. Many EV automakers are taking a proprietary approach and some, like Tesla, have invested in their own charging infrastructures.  

“Because your battery is different than somebody else’s means that anytime you pull any electric car up to a charger it may not work,” Sumner says. “Thirty percent of all charging events today fail because the car and the charger won’t talk to each other. That’s really the biggest challenge – interoperability.”  

Better Chemistry and Lower Price

But there are positive developments taking place that will help put more EVs on the road. Kareem Maine, the plant director at General Motors Ultium Cells Battery Plant, says his company is focusing on improving manufacturing and lowering battery costs.

A primary effort here is changing the battery chemistry so that they can achieve a longer charging life. Changing chemistry also allows battery makers to retain the same form factors and won’t require changing the actual battery pack designs, he says.

“As new chemistries come out…you’ll get more range,” Maine says. “It’s advancing fast.

“As we are able to drive costs out, that should lower the cost of the actual battery cell…which makes up 80 to 90 percent of the battery pack where all the modules are located. If we can reduce that cost, it will significantly lower the cost [of EVs].”

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