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From Gas Stations to Recharging Stations: Program Looks to Resolve Range Anxiety

Sept. 10, 2020
There’s been steady growth of EVs on roads worldwide—until the pandemic—but the lack of charging infrastructures has been a major limiting factor on their “breakout.” A pilot program underway in China looks to overcome that barrier.

Amidst a shift away from polluting fossil fuels toward clean renewable energy, electric-vehicle (EV) adoption has gradually increased across the globe over the last several years. According to the International Energy Agency’s Global EV Outlook 2020, approximately 17,000 electric cars were on the world’s roads in 2010. By 2019, that number climbed to 7.2 million, with 47% in China.

In the U.S., the Edison Electric Institute (EEI) reported that by October 2018, 1 million EVs were on American roads and by March 2019, the numbers had climbed approximately 10% to 1.18 million. But when the pandemic hit, so did the brakes on EV sales everywhere, with Wood MacKenzie predicting a global decrease of 43% in 2020.

Despite the setback, EVs maybe poised to rebound and gain traction in 2021 and beyond, particularly as a growing list of countries commit to achieving net zero emissions. Reaching this goal, however, will undoubtedly require a concerted effort to address the pre-existing barriers that have prevented widespread adoption. Here in the U.S., range anxiety from a lack of public charging stations is among the top concerns.

Naturally, mass EV adoption creates immediate challenges downstream, including the problem of charging millions of EVs. Early adopters in wealthy nations have opted to install home charging units in household garages, a solution that’s quick, easy, and largely unregulated. But that doesn’t begin to account for millions of renters limited to street parking, as well as EVs that can’t easily charge overnight, such as commercial vehicles.

Creating a Charging Infrastructure

In the same way an infrastructure was created over time to support gas-powered vehicles, an extensive network of charging stations will likely provide both the solution and the incentive, but at a lower cost if existing gas stations already in place can be transitioned to charging stations.

In China—where Ideanomics through its Mobile Energy Global (MEG) division is taking the challenge of on-the-go EV refueling through a pilot gas-station conversion project in Nanjing—there are more than 100,000 gas stations across the country. Most are operated by state-owned entities, with some owned and operated by foreign oil companies new to the China market.

Comparatively, in 2018 there were 70,000 EV charging stations in the country. However, only a small fraction of them were at gas stations, and most were single or twin charging facilities. It’s worth noting that just 36% were dc fast-charging, a necessity in terms of replicating the ease of experience for consumers compared to traditional gasoline and diesel refueling.

Most EV charging in China takes place at 220 V on an ac current, known as Level 2 charging. For a 30-kWh battery, it takes about six hours to go from 20% to a full charge using a Level 2 charger, which is the typical overnight home-charging experience. In comparison, dc fast chargers operate at up to 400 kW and can charge batteries from 20% to a full charge in an hour and in as little as 10 minutes—far closer to the typical “fill up” experience at a gas station.

Fast-charging stations are expensive to build, though. Consider Tesla’s Supercharger network, which charges at a maximum of 120 kW and costs an estimated $150,000 to $250,000 per station. In August 2018, the China Electricity Council (CEC) announced a memorandum of understanding with the CHAdeMO network to jointly develop ultra-fast charging with the hope of expanding the standard to countries beyond China and Japan.

Reallocating space at existing stations to charging requires gas-station operators to revisit their entire business model. Nevertheless, they must evolve—and do so rapidly—if they want to survive. Mass adoption of EV transportation puts gas stations at risk of becoming obsolete, which is detrimental not only to the energy companies, but also to national economies heavily reliant on taxes and tariffs collected from gasoline consumption. Moreover, charging innovation continues to evolve, quickly making existing technologies obsolete.

Nanjing is thus a perfect testbed for converting gas stations to EV charging spots. A mid-sized city by China standards, it has a population similar to New York City at around 8.5 million people. The capital of China’s eastern Jiangsu province, Nanjing, is the second largest city in the East China region and a significant commercial center. It’s also home to the first major pilot project on EV refueling launched in partnership with MEG, Contemporary Amperex Technology Co. Limited (CATL) and PetroChina, one of China’s largest energy companies.

The world’s third largest oil company, PetroChina operates gas stations throughout Jiangsu province and plays a leading role in energy distribution throughout the country. CATL is a Chinese battery manufacturer and technology company that specializes in the manufacturing of lithium-ion batteries for electric vehicles and energy storage systems, as well as battery-management systems.

As part of the MEG, CATL and PetroChina partnership, existing gasoline fuel pumps are swapped out for charging ports to create hybrid gas/EV stations. Those ports don’t need to be powered from the grid, which requires heavy capital investment in high-tension power lines and substations. Rather, they’re powered by onsite energy generation and storage systems that run on methanol, a by-product from natural gas supplied by PetroChina. It offers a significantly lower carbon footprint compared to traditional fossil fuels and represents a cost-efficient alternative in this first phase of transition. Using methanol also keeps oil and gas companies on a profitable path toward transition since they will still be in the fuel business, though those fuels will be used to produce electricity instead of burning it in an engine.

The program will be adjusted based on feedback from consumer and commercial users seeking to optimize efficiencies and determine which elements of the pilot to accelerate and which to discontinue. At the same time, experiments will be ongoing with various charging technologies to maximize return on investment.

Making the Transition Globally

China is the world’s largest EV market and home to the largest concentration of EV manufacturers and some of the world’s leading technologies. Given the scale and resources of the undertaking in the Nanjing gas-station conversion pilot, the world’s energy companies could learn valuable lessons on how to make the transition to charging stations cost efficient and scalable.

In the U.S., which is similar in land area to China, with approximately 115,000 gas stations, a few stations have added EV chargers to evolve with the inevitable shift to electric. One—RS Automotive—has even made a complete all-electric conversion. While major oil companies in the U.S. are just beginning to show progress, investment in the EV sector is significant and a positive indicator that confidence is very high.

While it’s easy to underestimate the value of this incremental approach to EV conversion, when rolled out—and with technologies advancing and charge times eventually reduced from hours to minutes—Americans in particular will enjoy the familiar gas-station experience, no matter which direction or distance their journey takes them.

Alf Poor is the CEO of Ideanomics.

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