Unlocking EVs: Solving the Congestion Charging Problem

The Inflation Reduction Act, which U.S. Senators Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) negotiated in July, was signed into law by President Biden on Aug. 16. As a result, electric vehicle (EV) buyers (for both new and used vehicles) will get generous subsidies from the federal government—totaling as much as $7,500 per EV. Nearly every expert expects that this demand stimulus will put EV adoption into hyper mode, exacerbating the already growing problem of access and availability to charging infrastructure.

On July 25, The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) reported on the distress felt by Sarah Nielsen, executive director of Electric Transportation at Consumers Energy Corp., a major utility. She reportedly worries that Michigan will need about 10,000 chargers by 2030 to meet the state’s goal of two million EVs. The WSJ’s reporter, Jennifer Hiller, noted, “The state has around 225 fast chargers available to all drivers, according to federal data.” Hiller added, “The U.S. has fewer than 5,000 locations with 10,000 individual fast chargers that anyone can use, according to government data.”

For years, Tesla owners have complained about long lines at Supercharger stations, especially during busy travel times when simultaneous charging lowers the speed for everyone. It was so bad during the long 2019 Thanksgiving holiday weekend that Tesla deployed a mobile charging station between Los Angeles and San Francisco in a failed attempt to deal with the rush. Moreover, Tesla plans to open its Superchargers to non-Tesla EVs, which will increase the congestion and charging times.

The shortage of recharging stations is not going away anytime soon. And consider this: on top of these new federal subsidies, another boatload of fresh funds is streaming toward the EV sector from Washington, D.C. Over the next several years, $7.5 billion will flow out of the federal government for EV charging infrastructure. Under the terms of President Biden’s $1.2 trillion Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the monies will mostly flow to states and cities for their installation of charging stations. However, Biden’s team wants to ensure that private investments are also emphasized. For that reason, the White House announced on June 28 the securing of $700 million in “private sector commitments to make EV charging more affordable and accessible.”

Experts are increasingly concerned about the ability of the grid to survive the effects of spiking demand for electrons that result from rising EV adoption. This federal legislation, also known as the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, goes a long way toward providing funds for new charging stations, but it does not push utilities to expand their grid capacity; many are quite reluctant to engage. This posture, as adopted by some utilities, is rooted in two harsh realities, which they are now facing:

  • Every utility’s current capacity to deliver electrons is already strained. This is especially so now that cooling demands have risen markedly due to the effects of climate change in big sections of the U.S.
  • As currently configured, the grid has a very limited capacity to cope with the spike in demand that occurs during EV recharge. Reconfiguring the grid in ways that make it possible to accommodate this type of demand isn’t going to be easy, nor is it going to be cheap. And it’s not going to happen in the near-term.

Putting aside the hesitations of utilities, the central question before governments and enterprises has been this one: what will it take to accelerate EV adoption? Biden’s Executive Order of August 2021 calls for half of all vehicles sold to be powered by electrons or alternative fuel by the end of the decade.

One critical solution, which is now getting traction in the field, is the e-Boost Mobile unit (Figure 1). e-Boost units are available in a variety of configurations, ranging in power from 50 kW to 600 kW, and provide mobile EV charging. They include any combination of charging plugs and adaptors, an important fact as no standardization for charging stations or adaptors exist in the U.S. e-Boost units can be disbursed in any number of strategic locations, such as near highway exits, next to overcrowded charging stations, at events, or to support municipalities, communities, and schools, especially in rural areas.

1. e-Boost, a product of Pioneer Power Mobility, a division of Pioneer Power Solutions, overcomes gaps in geography, financing, restrictions in regulations, and zoning laws to bring electric vehicle charging to almost any location at any time. Courtesy: Pioneer Power Mobility

“e-Boost was introduced to the Mille Lacs tribe at a time when I was searching for a way to inspire and show the young ladies of our tribe a path forward into STEM [science, technology, engineering, and math] careers. But how can they aspire to pursue STEM careers when they cannot gain access to reliable power and internet connectivity? e-Boost answered the call for a resilient, sustainable, and mobile solution to our EV charging needs, on-demand power, and internet connectivity. Along with Valhalla, e-Boost made our March 19th event an incredible success, and a step forward for tribal and rural America to gain the same access and opportunities to EV adoption that the rest of metro cities in America experience,” said Chief Executive Melanie Benjamin of Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe.

The 500,000 U.S. school buses are the largest public transportation network, moving 26 million children daily. According to some estimates, about 95% of school buses still run on diesel fuel, which, when compared to other fuels, can emit 25 to 400 times more mass of particulate black carbon and associated organic matter (soot) per mile.

e-Boost is a resource that can reduce stress on the grid, while decreasing the U.S.’s reliance on fuel sources that produce significant amounts of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. They are powered by propane, which emits significantly fewer GHG emissions than power from the grid, diesel, or gasoline. Propane is an approved alternative fuel as described in the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) Alternative Fuel Corridor guidelines.

Moreover, e-Boost supports the criteria for both power levels and charging speeds as outlined in the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure (NEVI) Formula Program Guidance, which gives public and private stakeholders a roadmap to the $7.5 billion EV infrastructure funding in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. e-Boost units can be deployed immediately during electrical “make-ready” and other municipal zoning-related waiting periods. They can later serve as a backup power to provide resiliency and connectivity during power outages.

Numerous additional advantages are cited by users of these mobile recharging units, including:

  • These units are rapidly deployed as “EV Level 2” or “EV Level 3” charging stations, requiring no costly electrical permitting, nor the constant “guesstimating” about zoning approvals. No delays from permitting or construction is a very big deal, especially to fleet manufacturers and dealerships, who need to pilot and demonstrate their lineup in order to accelerate EV adoption by fleets, both public and private.
  • With direct-current fast-charging, these units can, in most cases, reach up to 80% recharge in less than 20 minutes.
  • These units provide a pathway toward net-zero by radically reducing the level of carbon emissions associated with gasoline-powered or diesel-powered electron generation. Both renewable liquid propane gas (rLPG) and renewable dimethyl ether (rDME) became commercially available this year. Studies now show that the commercial-scale production of rLPG has driven its Carbon Intensity (CI) to 19%. The combination of rLPG plus rDME can drive the CI to 0%. (Diesel has a CI of 110%, the highest contributor of all the energy generation fuels, while gasoline is at 100% CI.)
  • Moreover, e-Boost future-proofs investments, a key consideration in the distribution of NEVI funding. This year, the largest propane retailers announced the availability of rLPG and rDME, which e-Boost units can utilize without any modifications.
  • Automatic refueling at each site is enabled by sensors, which detect and transmit fuel level information to local propane distribution partners, as well as detect maintenance issues. These features provide long-term operational support that prevent stranded assets—another key consideration in the distribution of NEVI funding.
  • Charging networks haven’t had the best record for operational maintenance. e-Boost units are serviced by Pioneer’s Critical Power Group, which has been servicing generation assets for three decades via a nationwide network.

Gordon Feller (@GordonFeller on Twitter) is a leading advisor on energy futures and provides insights to top executives at many of the world’s leading organizations. From his Silicon Valley base, he’s worked during 40 years with large companies, associations, universities, governments, and international organizations, and he’s published more than 400 articles.