The recent $5 billion in funding promised by the Inflation Reduction Act will inevitably help fuel the fire in demand for electric vehicle charging infrastructure in the United States. However, as the excitement and anticipation of these unprecedented incentives for EVs begins to wear off, the implications of how challenging it might be for existing utility grids to make use of these incentives to provide society with more chargers are surfacing.
Earlier this year, Mckinsey & Company predicted that 50% of zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs) by 2030 would “require 1.2 million public EV chargers and 28 million private EV chargers by that year. All told, the country would need almost 20-times more chargers than it has now.” This demand will only be exacerbated with the new IRA legislation and incentives for people to purchase EVs.
With such tremendous demand for EV charging, the already monumental backlog of charging site permitting and interconnections with U.S. utilities is expected to grow exponentially. Waiting years for charging stations to be connected to the utility grid so they can finally be put into use is a serious barrier to entry for businesses and building owners that cannot be ignored. Enter the exponential opportunity for off-grid EV charging solutions.
What makes grid modernization challenging?
Bottlenecks in infrastructure and permitting in a building boom are inevitable, yet EV charging faces particularly unique challenges, especially when you factor in grid connectivity. The reality is that permitting and approvals have gotten even more difficult over the last few decades, and while there are initiatives in place to alleviate this red tape, it still takes time for this to be executed.
Just last year, the Dept. of Energy released a new initiative to help cut back on the lengthy permitting and interconnection process as they found the average project (including solar, energy storage, and wind development) can take close to four years from the time it enters the interconnection queue to being up and running. However, like many government initiatives, change takes time, and for interconnections, this can mean years of delay, if not decades.
Additional factors making it hard to accommodate a new generation of power include the fact that utilities are often slow to add new generating capacity as they require new transmission lines. These can often take decades for permitting approval and subsequent construction to occur. On top of this, customer sites can suffer dramatically higher bills through demand charges with the addition of EV chargers, especially if they max out the number of grid-connected chargers the site’s service capacity can handle but still have a desire for more. Additionally, demand charges can quickly add up for facilities, businesses or individuals looking to add EV chargers to their properties. Because this monthly demand fee to maintain the electric utility’s infrastructure can fluctuate based on how much energy is used in peak months, grid-connected EV charging sites can quickly become expensive to use and maintain. Moreover, according to McKinsey & Company, the process to upgrade infrastructure and meet regulatory requirements can be lengthy and expensive.
What can be done to alleviate these pain points?
For several reasons, off-grid EV chargers are a great solution to these pain points. They can be installed quickly (sometimes as fast as single-digit hours); they are often less expensive, reduce grid impacts from EV loads, and they can be more flexible than grid-tied EV chargers.
In the face of permitting and interconnection challenges, off-grid charging solutions hold the key to meeting EV growth without the wait.
- More cost-effective: By generating solar electricity, users can avoid paying for power from the grid. This is particularly important for businesses, as demand charges typically make up a huge percentage of electricity bills. Due to the renewable nature of solar energy, once the infrastructure is in place, it’s free and relatively unlimited. With traditional, grid-connected chargers, the user has a lifetime commitment to pay for the energy. On the flip side, solar-powered charging makes it so users never have to pay for the electricity.
- Increased flexibility: Regardless of nearby grid connection capabilities, off-grid EV chargers can be installed anywhere, making them ideal for locations where connecting to the grid could be challenging — like in remote locations or sites with space constraints, or businesses with temporary leases. Often, a local utility will want a location to upgrade its energy services when EV charging is being offered to ensure maximum needed energy to charge EVs. This can be expensive, time-intensive, and, quite frankly, isn’t always necessary. Off-grid solutions can serve as an alternative to this lengthy and expensive initiative.
- Exponential environmental benefits: When renewable energy sources are used to generate electricity — like for an off-grid EV charger — carbon emissions are eliminated, which is a clear advantage over grid-tied EV charging. Grid-connected EV chargers often charge at night, which more often than not relies on energy produced from fossil fuels. An off-grid charger that stores daytime solar energy in a battery and then delivers it at night is ultraclean with 100% green power. Off-grid solutions provide a simpler way to provide EV charging while reducing the users’ overall carbon footprint.
- Resiliency and reliability: As they are not reliant on the utility grid, off-grid chargers can continue to operate even if there is an outage on the local network. As public safety power shut-off (PSPS) events and outages due to grid constraints, fires and other natural disasters become increasingly common, having a reliable alternative power source is critical to providing relief. Moreover, these solutions are ideal for critical applications such as emergency services, evacuation shelters, grocery stores, hospitals, and more. Off-grid solutions also protect utility infrastructure from large demand loads that could cripple distribution networks and its aging equipment. Utilities should view off-grid solutions as an insurance policy in their efforts to modernize grid operations.
The energy revolution of the 21st century depends on society’s ability to actually transition to cleaner energy solutions. It’s expected that utilities will be slow in adopting renewable energy generation broadly, especially when permitting and connectivity are added into the equation. Off-grid solutions sidestep the long wait times and eliminate the friction points of cost and availability that help the grid modernize and transition to 21st century energy needs.