SemaConnect Blog

February 19, 2015

Urban planning for EVs: Moving beyond the chicken-and-egg

When it comes to discussing how best to accelerate the adoption of Electric Vehicles (EVs), it doesn’t take long for the talk to turn to chickens and eggs. Which comes first – the electric car or its charging station? It’s a perennial question that refuses to go away, even as sales of EVs have climbed, and adoption rates tip-toed towards the long hoped-for tipping point.

There’s a lot hanging on the answer. Visions for a once-in-a-century shift in our personal mobility towards a cleaner, greener technology rest on a careful channeling of scarce public and private monies. Should we be investing in driving forward adoption rates of the electric cars themselves? Or should funds be directed towards the ramping up of electric charging infrastructure?

Getting the balance right that is the sort of problem that has kept EV manufacturers – and urban planners – awake at night. But recent research into real-world data on EV use is finally starting to shed some real-world insight. And it looks like the ‘build it and they will come‘ school may have been onto something all along.

Build don’t rebate

Two researchers from Cornell University, Lang Tong and Shanjun Li, published a study last month that looked at EV sales across 350 U.S. urban areas between 2011 and 2013. They found that those cities with the most charging stations sold the most EVs. Based on their numbers, Tong and Li reckon that the $1 billion that the U.S. government spent in tax rebates could have yielded five times the increase in EV sales, if it had been directed instead at building EV charging stations.

That’s a significant finding. But for those tasked with rolling out charging infrastructure across the nation’s cities, the question of where, not how many, is probably most pressing. After all, for all the comparisons made between EVs and fossil-fueled equivalents, EV drivers have a very different relationship to their ‘fuel’. For a start, they can fuel-up overnight, at a fraction of the cost of the gas station tank-fill. And secondly, every place they drive to has the potential to be the next fuel-stop.

Location, location, location

That makes the EV driver’s fueling behavior, when out-and-about, very different from that of their gas-guzzling cousins. It’s a point picked up by another recent study into charging behavior, undertaken in a city rapidly moving forward fast on EV infrastructure – Amsterdam. In a paper presented in Tel Aviv last year, three German researchers from the University of Freiburg found that EV charging is more a matter of parking than of refueling.

They looked in detail at the use of 273 charging stations in the Dutch city over 6 months. What they discovered was that the charging stations that were best utilized were the ones near locations of long-duration visits (shops, workplaces or healthcare facilities, for example). Many very visible, but less well-located charging stations were bypassed. So while EV stations placed in prominent locations may help alleviate ‘range anxiety’ (or rather range anxiety’ anxiety), they often don’t make much difference to the actual EV driving experience

It’s a finding echoed, on a smaller scale, by a report into a program to push forward EV use in Raleigh, North Carolina. It concluded that “the intent of public charging is not to recharge a car completely, but to top off or add range while the user is frequenting local businesses.” It’s a message that may increasingly appeal to savvy business-owners and employers. Build that EV charging station, and perhaps the customers (or skilled employees) will come to you

Martin Leggett is a freelance writer from the UK, who specializes in writing on the strategic impact of environmental issues. After a 10-year sojourn as an analyst at Brady plc – a Cambridge-based provider of services to commodity investment banking professionals – Martin set himself up as self-employed writer at the beginning of 2010. Since then he has written for a number of environmental websites and companies– including cutting-edge clean energy startups – and has been one of the principle journalists for green news website, The Earth Times

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