Do EV chargers belong at gas stations?

Posted on December 02, 2020 by Charles Morris

In the early years of any major technological transition, consumers tend to see the new tech through the lens of the old—early TV shows were basically radio shows with video, and early web sites looked like pages from low-budget magazines. Many imagine that, once we’ve made the transition to electric vehicles, we’ll continue to make periodic stops at fueling stations, simply replacing gas pumps with charging stations. 

Above: Shell is beginning to install EV chargers at some of their gas stations across Europe (Source: Shell UK)

This is a myth that the oil industry, and certain carmakers, are keen to perpetuate, because if you compare the half hour that it takes for a DC fast charge with the five minutes or so it takes to gas up, you’re bound to conclude that EVs are impractical. Of course, EV drivers know that this isn’t the way it works. We charge our cars overnight at home, and use public charging stations only for long highway trips. On balance, keeping an EV charged is more convenient than gassing up a guzzler, not less.

At least, that’s the way it works for the suburban drivers who made up most of the first wave of early EV adopters. As electrification spreads, however, it’s becoming plain that the millions of drivers who live in multi-unit housing, and don’t have the option of charging at home (or at work) need another solution.

As more countries and regions announce plans to phase out ICE vehicles (including places like the UK and the Netherlands, where large segments of the population live in urban dwellings with no assigned parking spaces) the issue of infrastructure is being forced to the fore. How can a government mandate that everyone drive an EV if not everyone has a practical place to charge?

This seems likely to prove a transitional issue. A decade from now, most vehicles may be driving themselves, and if so, they should be quite capable of charging themselves. Dynamic wireless charging may also be part of the solution. However, the task at hand is to get everyone driving electric, and that’s not going to happen unless everyone can plainly see that there’s plenty of charging infrastructure to go around, and that charging isn’t going to be a problem.

Obviously, a rapid expansion of infrastructure is needed, and not only in dense urban areas. As Chris Taylor, writing in Mashable, notes, California presents a charging conundrum. The state has by far the largest number of EVs per capita, but only the fifth-highest number of chargers. Governor Gavin Newsom’s recent decree that fossil-burners would be phased out by 2035 included no specific plans to build out infrastructure.

Above: Wawa is installing Tesla Superchargers alongside its gas station pumps at many of its locations in the US (YouTube: Wawa)

Would charging at gas stations really be so bad? After all, there are plenty of them around, they’re widely distributed, and by definition they’re located conveniently for drivers. For years now, they’ve been earning their profits on soda and chips, not on gasoline, so their owners shouldn’t care much whether it’s ethyl or electrons that brings in the customers.

The movement to electrify gas stations is already well underway in Europe. BP’s UK-based charging network subsidiary Chargemaster already has DC fast chargers up and running at several retail sites, and the company plans to roll out 400 ultra-fast chargers at BP sites across the UK by the end of 2021. Total and Shell are also moving aggressively into the EV charging space. In June, Germany announced that it would require all of the country’s 14,000 or so gas stations to add EV charging stations.

It’s probably safe to assume that Germany’s mandate will work out better than a premature and ill-considered effort in Russia. In 2015, Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev decreed that all gas stations must be equipped with public EV chargers by November 2016 (at the time, it was estimated that there were about 500 EVs in the country). We’ve seen no news on the progress of the initiative, but Statista reported in 2019 that there was a total of about 123 charging stations in Russia. One Russian journalist noted that enforcement of the decree has been “patchy and sluggish.”

Chargers are being installed at gas stations in South Korea and Japan, and they’re popping up here and there in the US too. The most famous example is in Takoma Park, Maryland, where a gas station owner replaced his gas pumps with four high-powered 200 kW charging stations.

Mashable’s Mr. Taylor imagines gas station forecourts becoming places to hang out. Nobody wants to hang around a grotty gas station (nor do they need to). But an EV charging station has no stink and no noise, so there’s no real reason it couldn’t be an attractive place to spend half an hour. Add some comfortable benches, a little park with a duck pond, a taco truck...why not?

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Written by: Charles Morris

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