What Will Electric Vehicle Charging Networks Look Like?

By John Hayden

With a target of 100% zero-emission vehicles by 2035, the Canadian government still has a long way to go.   Its electric vehicle charging networks goals are ambitious. Despite its plans to spend $880 million on an additional 65,000 charging stations during the next four years, only 4% of new vehicle sales are currently zero-emission,  notwithstanding all the buzz around electrification.

Gap between Theory and Reality

However, that still leaves a yawning gap between the number of charging stations on the drawing board, and the facilities that will actually be needed. As a benchmark, the European Union estimates that one charger is needed for every ten electric vehicles on the road.

As Canada’s total light vehicle fleet (sedans, SUVs, and pickups) is tipped to reach almost 40,000,000 x 2050, charger demands will be hovering around four million by 2050. This figure is even higher if California is used as a rough yardstick, with one charger needed for every seven vehicles.

In many ways, Canada’s current charging infrastructure recalls the horseless carriage days of over a hundred years ago. Prior to World War I, gas stations were thin on the ground, with chemists and general stores often keeping a few buckets of gasoline tucked away in the back. With no means of long-distance communication, drivers had to plan their routes as best they could, based on these locations and hoping that supplies held out.

Gas Stations – The Pioneers

It was back in 1907 that Canada’s first real gas station was opened by Imperial Oil in Vancouver. Its equipment included a pump with a length of garden hose running from a repurposed kitchen water tank, housed in a corrugated tin shed.

As the motoring craze flourished, entrepreneurs began to buy gas from wholesalers, setting up their own pumps with nozzles designed to fit the increasingly popular Model T Fords. Over time, tanks and nozzles were standardised, particularly as major oil corporations elbowed their way onto this promising market and started to build out the national chains where Canadians still today top up their tanks.

Lessons for Electric Vehicle Charging Networks 

The history of Canada’s gas station network is a great object lesson for ensuring the easy availability of this new fuel: electricity. Setting up a nationwide public electric vehicle charging network is no minor task, particularly as its gas-pumping predecessor has remained largely unchanged for well over a century.

Even at this early stage, there are clearly two key factors in this development process. Vital for the spread of gasoline-fuelled automobiles over hundred years ago, they are just as crucial for ushering in today’s electric revolution:

  • standardisation, probably industry-driven and allowing a single set of hardware to service a broad range of users. Who remembers the early days of cell phones, when manufacturers pumped up costs (and inconvenience) by designing their own chargers? Perhaps short-sightedly, Tesla is following in the uncertain footsteps of faded stars like Blackberry and Motorola, setting up a network of its own Supercharger stations along popular routes – but compatible only with its own EVs;
  • location, probably government-steered, with input from infrastructure planners on strategic station placement for a network of public charging stations, underpinned by research into demands. Major charging nodes at highway service centres are no-brainers, slotting seamlessly into gaps between convenience stores and tyre repair shops. Furthermore, on-street charging facilities will add appeal   to gathering places. These include malls, places of worship, and schools, as well downtown parking lots and tourism destinations.

Charging Time – Still A Major Hurdle

Many conventional gas stations are starting to install EV chargers alongside their pumps. However, they are still trying to find ways of dealing with long charging times.   Typically,  they may last well over half an hour, compared to just a few minutes spent pumping gas.  These durations will obviously shrink as fuel cells become more efficient.  Nevertheless, this problem needs a fast solution,  if Canada is to reach its ambitious EV goals.

One answer may be to forget about gas stations and focus on sales and hospitality-based businesses.  Similar to wall-plugs for smartphones and laptops,  charging stations could be tagged as customer benefits.  They would be an extra attraction, in parallel to free Wi-Fi access. An early bird jumping on this innovative marketing worm, IKEA is already offering EV chargers in its megastore parking lots.

Integrating With Everyday Life

Unlike the stand-alone layouts of many gas stations, urban charging stations could slot seamlessly into consumer hubs. With no need for underground tanks and single-purpose forecourts, any parking area is a suitable location.  Indeed, all that’s needed are anchor stores where people plan to spend half an hour or more.  Obvious locations are supermarkets and malls, cinemas and gyms, factories and offices, schools, and places of worship.

Off highways, these electric vehicle charging networks will be largely invisible. Probably , they will slip smoothly into our daily routines.  Just like topping up our smartphones whenever we see a free socket, we’ll be plugging in our cars.

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