Are increased charger use and improved charging economics the keys to better charger reliability?
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EV Charging
May 31, 2024
John Lorinc

In the complex quest to improve the EV charging experience, networks must tackle the question of which comes first: higher charger utilization rates or improved reliability?

How high does the utilization rate of a portfolio of public charging station have to be to justify maintenance costs? And, even more critically, to what extent does charger reliability determine usage?

In the complex quest to improve the EV charging experience, networks must tackle the question of which comes first: higher charger utilization rates or improved reliability?

In a pair of high-profile moves last year, the Canada Infrastructure Bank (CIB) unveiled financing deals with two partners — a gas station chain and an EV charger network — worth a total of $430 million that will see the deployment of 4,000 fast-charging ports at hundreds of locations across Canada.

EA Spotlight: Charging Experience
Increasing EV adoption in line with Canada’s 2035 goals will only be possible when EV charging is a seamless, stress-free, reliable experience. This ongoing series examines the issues, obstacles and solutions required and charts our progress towards that goal.

The Parkland and FLO deals are too new to deliver any crisp financial conclusions. “Our partners are in the early stages of deploying charging infrastructure with financing provided under the [Charging and Hydrogen Re-fueling Initiative],” according to a CIB spokesperson. “We plan to share further updates on our progress later this year. Stay tuned…”

When those analyses do surface, EV industry insiders will look for evidence showing which conditions make a compelling case for the economics of public charging within these kinds of larger portfolios.

The macro variables are well known: location, urban density, EV market share. Yet other critical questions still lack answers: How high does the utilization rate of a portfolio of public charging station have to be to justify maintenance costs? And, even more critically, to what extent does charger reliability determine usage?

Fighting a drag on adoption

“If charging infrastructure as a whole is seen as unreliable,” says Jeff Turner, director of clean mobility at Dunsky Energy & Climate Advisors, “this puts a drag on EV adoption. I think it’s fair to say that, right now, there is a real impact. There are likely folks in Canada who have decided not to switch to an EV yet specifically because they worry about charging and have seen some headlines about unreliable chargers.”

That hesitation creates a Catch-22: slow adoption means low utilization rates for many public charging networks and locations — anywhere from five to 15 per cent. For networks, those numbers make it much more difficult to justify timely maintenance and service.

“You’re buying a product that’s supposed to last four to five years,” observes Chris Mendes, founder of FractalEV, a charging hardware start-up. But, he says, the accumulated cost of service calls to electricians on a charger over time may add up to more than that hardware originally cost. “The whole thing is not about the hardware price. It’s not really about the installation price. It’s really about how many service calls you get.”

And, as Turner says, “A broken charger can’t earn any revenue.”

In one of the first systematic reliability evaluations, a University of California (Berkeley) team published a 2022 study of San Francisco public fast chargers, which found that their up-time was about 72 per cent, well below the 95-to-98 per cent levels reported by some charging networks.

In response to a growing volume of consumer complaints and recommendations from standards organizations, regional and national governments have sought to establish clear reliability standards. Canada, though late to the party, will begin including minimum standards in NRCan’s next round of ZEVIP funding for charging infrastructure.

Reliability solutions are emerging

Recent assessments have focused on the lack of uniform error codes on chargers — the subject of a Sept. 2023 report by the Charge X Consortium, a division of the U.S. Joint Office of Energy and Transportation. “The standardization of error reporting in the EV charging ecosystem is critical to improving EV charging reliability,” the authors warn.

(More recently, Charge X has promoted best practices for payment systems on chargers, and more consistent user interface, as another means of raising consumer confidence by reducing unpredictability.)

Mendes says charging networks should be investing in technologies that allow for some measure of remote servicing. “That’s what FractalEV is trying to fix. How do we fix things remotely? How do we know about problems and understand what the problems are?”

He points out that 75 per cent of the problems with Level 2 chargers are network related — loss of connectivity. “We have backup redundant networking so we can still access chargers in many cases and fix networking issues remotely,” Mendes says. “Just being able to do that is enormous value. If you’re talking about sending an electrician to fix a networking problem, it’s super expensive and electricians are not the right people. You’re talking about specialty electricians at that point and it gets really painful to deal with them.”

Linking utilization to reliability

But how high do utilization rates need to be in order to offset maintenance costs associated with technical glitches, vandalism or weather?

“We keep a 15 per cent utilization as a helpful benchmark of where things start to get…interesting,” Turner says. He adds some public charging networks in California are achieving utilization rates of 20 and even 30 per cent, while others limp along at five per cent.  

Hindering demand for fast chargers is that they require more time than a gas station stop.

“It is so different than the gas station model we’ve been used to,” says Mendes. “We’re talking about distributing refuelling energy across all these different sites [that] have typically not been in the refuelling business and are not structured or organized to do that.”

Turner points to another confounding factor: there is demand for amenity-adjacent EV chargers in more remote locations. These include routes to cottages, ski resorts or other recreational destinations. But overall utilization will likely remain low. Meanwhile the cost for service calls farther out of urban centres will be relatively high.

Even in high-traffic areas, co-located amenities are critical. “When I have charged my EV at gas stations, it’s okay and I’m glad it’s there,” Turner says. “But it doesn’t take very long before you start to feel pretty bored.”

Larger commercial rest stops, like Ontario’s ONRoute, offer EV charging and amenities. Turner says supermarket parking lots are also emerging as another venue with potential.

“You’d be hard pressed to find anybody who can’t kill 20 to 30 minutes in a grocery store once a week,” he observes. “We have seen really good collaborations in Canada and in the U.S. with grocery stores offering chargers.”

These include IGA in Quebec and New Brunswick and BC Hydro and Great Canadian Superstore in B.C.

Supply-side considerations

The economic viability of public charging also depends on supply-side considerations, says Mendes. He points out that while a growing number of workplaces want to install chargers for their employees, many remain unclear about the hardware and the networks — all considerations that will determine whether those chargers become a fiscal drag.

“There’s very low education levels from the buyers of hardware,” Mendes notes. “They don’t really know how to evaluate them and they don’t know generally very much about what is important for hardware. So it’s very, very difficult for them to make good just good buying decisions.”

Still, the combination of the escalating federal EV sales mandate and the availability of public subsidies means private capital will continue to flow into the charging network. “We’re increasingly seeing a lot of interest from the private sector and there will absolutely be a lot of charging sites that will be profitable businesses,” Turner says, adding that reliability will increasingly become a point of differentiation in the market.

“When they use public chargers, they will tend to avoid charging networks or specific chargers that have poor reliability. Chargers and networks that have a good reputation and that encourage repeat customers will see higher utilization and therefore greater profitability than unreliable chargers.”

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