Andrew Moseman has covered science, technology, and transportation for publications such as The Atlantic, Inverse, Insider, Outside, and MIT Technology Review. He was previously digital director of Popular Mechanics and now serves as online communications editor at Caltech. He is based in Los Angeles. Read MoreRead More
Every Office Should Have an Electric Car Charger
It would be a gamechanger for EV adoption — and for the electric grid too.
The United States now has thousands of fast-charging stations lining its interstates and major highways, making most of the country accessible to electric vehicle drivers. We have slower “Level 2” chargers at grocery stores, hotels, and an assortment of other places where people might spend a chunk of time. But we have relatively few charging stations at work, where most of our hours outside of the home occur.
Even as EVs have gone mainstream in California and begun to break through across the nation, it’s still relatively rare for a company to have installed chargers in the garage or parking lot so employees can get juice while they work. It’s difficult to determine exactly how many, but a 2021 report by the National Renewable Energy Lab found just under 10,000 private workplace charging ports, and the Department of Energy’s Station Locator lists just under 14,000 total private ports as of this writing.
This is a problem. For the great transformation from gasoline to EV to run as smoothly as possible, we need to charge at the office.
Most EV charging happens at home, which makes sense. Because electric vehicles have generally been expensive, early adopters tend to be the high-income types most likely to have a garage and the ability to put a Level 2 charger in their home. Those folks can not only charge their batteries overnight but also tell the car to do so when electricity is cheapest.
Now, fast-forward a few years. Picture a world where most people have an EV and the grid has made a big move toward renewable energy so that those EVs fulfill their potential for reducing automotive greenhouse emissions. Suddenly, our charging model has some major issues.
Lots of drivers will come home and plug in their cars during the early evening, that troublesome time when solar power is falling off for the day but energy demand rises as people turn on home AC and appliances (a problem that gets thornier as the autumn days get shorter). Those who delay their charging sessions to the wee hours may pay less for that off-peak electricity, but they’re sure not using solar power.
As they stare at the possibility of millions of thirsty EVs trying to fill their batteries, a lot of energy experts are focused on aligning that demand with our renewable energy supply. For example, Iain Walker, a research scientist at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, tells me recently that his team has modeled test cases for the Pacific Northwest to see whether the region’s infrastructure could handle a swell of new EVs.
“Can we electrify half the vehicle fleet and not have to build any more plants? The answer is yes,” he says. “But they can only do that if you're smarter about when you do things, not just how much of it you do.”
In many places, including the giant automotive markets of Texas and California, that means cars need to charge during the sunny hours of midday when solar energy is plentiful. That, in turn, means people need to charge at the office.
Such a setup is the opposite of what we have now. Home chargers are incentivized to fill their batteries during off-peak hours, and so are drivers who are reliant on visiting public fast charging stations. Across Los Angeles, for example, many of Tesla’s superchargers sell electricity at several different rates throughout the day. It’s typically costly in midday, when more people are on the road, and often half as expensive late at night. This helps to balance electricity demand, and it reduces lines at the charger, since many people who can wait until night time to pay less will do so. But it certainly doesn’t solve the solar issue.
Fast-charging stations point to another reason we need work charging: Not everybody can plug in at home. My apartment complex doesn’t have shared EV plugs in its parking lot, but my employer is one of the few with dozens of chargers available in its parking structures, which means I can accomplish most of my week-to-week charging while typing away in my office.
Without workplace charging, many future EV owners who can’t plug in at home will be reliant on visiting fast-charging stations whenever the battery gets low. Which is, in a word, annoying. Because chargers are still relatively sparse compared to gas stations, even in an electrified city like L.A., it could mean driving miles out of our way or carefully planning errands around sitting at the supercharger. And given that charging still takes longer than pumping gas, it’s a bit of a time waste to live this way.
There is hope on the horizon. Because of the workplace upheaval that COVID caused, far more people now work from home — a place where they can decide to install a dedicated charger (or even just run a long extension cord from an outlet) without waiting for their employer to take the leap.
And crucially, the tax credits to help people and businesses put in EV charging infrastructure are back. Those incentives had been set to expire at the end of 2021, but their reinstatement through 2032 was part of the Inflation Reduction Act. Now, companies can earn a tax credit for up to 30 percent of the cost of EV charging installation, provided they follow the designated labor and construction practices. The act also raised the maximum credit for businesses from $30,000 to $100,000 for projects built after 2022.
Of course, having dozens of employees charging simultaneously will strain a business’s own electric systems. That’s why workplace charging may go hand-in-hand with load management technologies that decide which cars receive maximum charging rates, and when, to keep EVs from overwhelming the capacity of the parking garage.
The battle over returning to the physical workplace is far from settled. But perhaps, a few years in the future, those who must commute to the office might at least enjoy a full battery when 5 o’clock rolls around.
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