Forget Fast Charging. America Needs to Fix Slow Charging.
As we race to an electric future, slower charging is stuck in 2015.
Breaking news: America’s electric vehicle charging infrastructure continues to disappoint. In other news, water is wet, the sky is blue (unless it’s orange), and nine out of the 10 people who might occupy the White House in 2025 probably aren’t going to do a damn thing about climate change.
It’s been that way for years, so why is it still the case now? Besides Tesla’s excellent charging network, EV infrastructure hasn’t ever been up to snuff, but there’s a now baffling incongruency between that and the actual EV market. Despite some fits and starts, this year is expected to be a record one for EV sales. New electric cars are coming out all the time and across every part of the pricing spectrum.
Why does our charging experience feel stuck in 2015, back when EVs were few and far between on the roads and mostly driven by early adopters?
One area in particular that’s lacking is Level 2 charging. Faster than a wall outlet but slower than the DC fast chargers that can fill up a compatible vehicle in 20 to 30 minutes, Level 2 chargers can juice a car overnight or add some miles during daily errands. And they’ll be crucial to an EV future — even if drivers don’t quite think of it that way yet. (Level 2 chargers are the ones you can have in your home garage, by the way.)
DC fast charging gets the lion’s share of attention in part, I believe, because so many new EV drivers are used to the gas station model. To them, getting gas is getting gas; there’s really only one way to do it and it takes about five minutes, tops. Adding more DC fast chargers, in theory, will not only enable longer trips but also ease that charging anxiety by making EVs more convenient to own.
But the truth is, we’ll need both fast charging stations for road trips and quality Level 2 charging for when our cars are parked at the office, shopping malls, movie theaters or anywhere else we might go. For starters, a gas car can’t get energy while it’s parked, so a good Level 2 charger is an immediate upgrade in convenience from internal combustion right now — if you can find one.
Second, there’s the energy consumption issue. Besides being expensive and labor-intensive to build, DC fast chargers use a staggering amount of electricity to charge cars quickly. Matt McCaffree, the VP of Utility Marketing Development at Austin-based Level 2 charging company Flash, gave an example of a DC fast charger station with 16 ports where each offers at least 150-kilowatt charging.
“If you multiply 150 times 16, then you end up with 2.4 megawatts of energy being pulled from the grid,” he said. “That’s the equivalent of about two 14-story buildings.” Put two such stations together, McCaffree said, and you get energy use on par with some landmarks in Denver where he lives: “That's the equivalent of a stadium,” he said. “That's the equivalent of Mile High or Ball Arena downtown.”
(By the way, relying too much on fast charging is bad news for your battery, too; that’s a ton of heat that can degrade performance over time, so it’s best not to use these on a daily basis.)
Given the fact that EVs are meant to solve energy and climate concerns, you’d think someone would step up and make Level 2 chargers better by now. But you’d sadly be wrong.
A study released last week by auto industry marketing and research firm J.D. Power and must-have charging app PlugShare reveals that even with much wider EV adoption, the problems around charging aren’t getting better. According to the firm’s data, it’s actually getting worse. Customer satisfaction with public Level 2 charging in particular is at its lowest point in the three years the study has been conducted. Fast charging fared better overall. But even in California, where charging is ubiquitous for the country’s biggest EV market, a staggering 25% of respondents said they found public charging unreliable.
If California can’t get this right, what hope is there for the rest of us?
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What’s going wrong here is nothing new. Many Level 2 chargers are still hard to find, shoved off to the sides of parking lots or other inconvenient places. Then you have the challenges of uptime, whether they’re actually working or not; the question of who’s responsible for fixing them, the charging company or the owner of the property where they sit; and the abundance of apps to pay for different charging networks, often through depositing money into a digital wallet before you can begin.
If gas cars were a new invention in 2023, and gas stations worked this way, we’d still be a horse-centric society.
Level 2 charging also doesn’t seem to be a huge focus of the federal government; though there is a grant program to fund such chargers in certain communities, more than twice as much funding is going toward DC fast charging. “[Federal] funding is disproportionately focused on the roadside charging and on the transportation corridors,” McCaffree said. “Again, that is an important use case that we need to have out there. But it is not the only charging solution that we should provide.”
To make matters worse, the $5 billion National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure (NEVI) program that offers grants for public chargers has rules around uptime. Specifically, grant recipients have to guarantee their chargers will be functional 97% of the time. But those only apply to the DC fast chargers — grants for Level 2 chargers are under a separate program and have no such strings. This means that while the federal government will require DC fast chargers to get better, Level 2 chargers may only do so if “the market” forces things that way via competition.
Of course, no businessman screams out for more regulation, but McCaffree thinks the whole charging industry would do well to follow those DC charging uptime rules on their own as a “baseline” for how to operate. “If the industry starts to just say, ‘Okay, we're going to stick to this,’ then I think that that will be sufficient. And that's a standard that is very reasonable.”
There’s also Tesla riding to the rescue of the whole EV industry by opening its charging network to other EVs, including its Level 2 “Destination” chargers. “It may provide a boost in fast-charging satisfaction among owners of EVs from other brands as they begin to use Tesla’s Supercharger stations,” J.D. Power’s EV chief Brent Gruber said in a statement. Then again, as great as the Supercharger network is, I question the wisdom of relying on one company to solve what’s about to be a national infrastructure challenge — especially a company run by, you know, that guy.
So it’s clear that as EVs get cheaper, faster, better and more capable of driving longer distances, public Level 2 charging needs to up its game too. I have some ideas on how to start:
National uptime requirements and pricing transparency. I’d be in favor of bringing the federal hammer down here, even if most charging companies aren’t. So far, EV charging has been a barely regulated free-for-all; if the gas station industry can thrive under such red tape, so can the electron business. I’d like to see Level 2 chargers beholden to those 97% uptime rules, with prominent displays for pricing — people often don’t even realize this.
An end to the proprietary payment apps. Whether it’s credit card point of sale, digital pay accessibility or, hell, even cash somehow, the “every charging network has its own app” madness has to go. This is another federal grant requirement for DC chargers, though it’s unclear how it’s going to be implemented.
Better education. This comes in on the part of the federal government, the charging companies, the automotive industry — really everyone involved. We cannot have EV charging exist under the gas station paradigm forever, and that means teaching drivers what types of charging they need for different situations and where to find them. Otherwise, you’ll have waves of new drivers pulling up to an “EV charger” in need of immediate juice, only to find charging will take eight hours. (I’ve done that myself in the past; the learning curve is real here and it is steep.)
An industry focus on making this work. McCaffree said much of the EV charging market was, until fairly recently, a “land grab”: getting as many chargers out there with as much brand recognition as possible, and not focusing as much on quality and customer service. Those days are over. “I think we as an industry… now, we have to focus on creating that consumer confidence in what has already been built.”
If they can’t, they won’t survive what’s coming any more than a car company that refuses to invest in electrification.
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