Range anxiety is one of the biggest things holding back EV adoption. Having easy access to fast charging alleviates that fear, but I also hear from people concerned that everyone charging EVs at once will kill the grid. Will it? Let’s take a closer look at EV fast charging, the competing standards, and what it means for the future of our grid.
I’ve worked from home the entire time I’ve owned my Model 3, so I don’t have a heavy daily commute anymore. Most of the miles on my car are from road trips driving around the northeast of the United States. I’ve driven from the Boston area to Rochester, NY to visit family quite a few times with my car so far, which is about 400 miles one way. I also make trips down to New York City to visit my brother from time to time, which is about a 200 mile drive. I’ve gotten used to making 15 – 20 minute stops to grab some food, stretch my legs, and charge up my car on those trips. In the end the total length of the trip isn’t that different from a gasoline car. But that all comes down to the fact that I drive a Tesla Model 3, which can charge up to 150 kW at V2 Superchargers. So 20 minutes can mean a battery going from 20% to 80% capacity. And that goes up to 250 kW at the newer V3 Superchargers, so even faster there. But for those newer to EVs, there’s a lot of confusion around charging formats and speeds. Where you can and can’t charge … how long it takes … and why. Heck, there’s confusion for people who already own EVs.
Probably the most confusing thing about getting an EV is the charging standards. It’s a little bit of the Wild West when it comes to the connector types and charging speeds. When you buy a gasoline car, you don’t have to think about the type of nozzle that a gas station uses. They’re all the same. The only thing you have to know is regular vs. diesel gasoline. With an EV you’ve got CCS1, CCS2, CHAdeMO, J1772 … and Tesla’s proprietary plug. This would be like Shell using a completely different nozzle on their gas pumps than those used by BP or Mobile. To add to the overall confusion, we also have 3 different levels for charging stations, which ultimately equates to how quickly they can charge your car. Here’s how it breaks down.
Level 1 charging stations
Level 1 uses standard 120-volt connections, which is the same as a standard household outlet. The plugs that come with an EV are typically meant for level 1 or level 2 charging, but there’s an important thing to understand. While most of us refer to these as “chargers,” they’re actually not. They’re really just glorified extension cords. The charger that converts AC power into DC for the battery is actually onboard the car. Level 1 plugs work, but they can be very slow. When I visit my parents in the Rochester area, they let me plug into an outlet in their garage. I typically see 3-4 miles added to the car each hour. You can expect somewhere between 1.5 and 2 kW per hour. If you’re only using your car for daily commuting, you can probably get away with using this type of setup since you’ll most likely be charging overnight. But this is obviously not viable for on-the-go charging, or someone who drives over 30-40 miles a day. The type of nozzle depends on where in the world you live. In Japan and the Americas we have the J1772 plug. China has GB/T. And Europe is using a Type 2 plug.
Level 2 charging stations
Level 2 is also using AC power, but at a much higher output like a 240-volt power source. Something like you’d typically use for an oven or dryer. Just like level 1, the car is still doing the AC to DC conversion, which is the limiter for how fast the charge will ultimately be. This is the route I went when I got my Model 3. I had a 240-volt, 80 amp circuit put in and installed a Tesla wall connector in my garage.1 Even though I have an 80 amp circuit, the Wall Connector and Model 3’s onboard charger max out at 48 amps. While it’s much faster than Level 1, it’s still not fast enough for on-the-go charging. That’s why these are often referred to as destination chargers. I can charge my Tesla up in a few hours and typically see rates that equate to about 40-45 miles added every hour. Level 2 chargers usually deliver around 10-20 kW per hour. You’ll find Level 2 chargers all over the place at hotels, shopping malls, and grocery stores. They’re great for topping off your car while shopping, or charging for a few hours overnight.
Level 3 charging stations
Level 3 is where things get interesting. These charging stations tend to be pretty large and off-board the AC to DC conversion from the car. They’re capable of much higher energy throughput than your car’s on-board charger. That means the power being delivered through the cable and connector is already direct current. The car can dump the incoming power straight into the battery pack. The fastest DC charging stations out there today have a max output of 350 – 400 kW2, but there aren’t any cars available that can take advantage of that yet. The fastest cars today charge around 250 – 270 kW max, like the Tesla Model 3 or Porsche Taycan.3
It’s also these level 3 chargers that typically have different requirements for plugs. You can’t use the J1772 to deliver DC current into the car. It’s only good for AC power delivery. So in the Americas we’ve landed on CCS1, which stands for combined charging standard. It takes the J1772 plug and adds two additional DC connectors to the bottom. This means you can have one port on your car that can accept J1772 by itself or the full CCS1 plug for fast . In Europe and everywhere else they have CCS2, which takes the Type 2 plug and adds on additional DC connectors. It’s the same approach as CCS1. China’s GB/T plug is also capable of DC charging. In Japan they’re using CHAdeMO for fast charging. This is used in other areas still, but seems to be falling out of favor for CCS1 and CCS2 outside of Japan.
And then there’s Tesla, which has their own proprietary plug standard. Their one small plug is capable of handling everything from level 1 to level 3. The only difference you’ll see is that the Supercharger cables are much thicker than the wall connector. The Tesla connector is both a good and bad thing. The single plug makes it easy for Tesla owners, but requires plug adapters to use non-Tesla chargers. And it means that non-Tesla cars can’t use Tesla chargers without an adapter either. In fact, no non-Tesla vehicles can use Superchargers yet. Tesla had to add CCS2 ports to Teslas sold in the EU, as well as to their Superchargers. I’m not sure we’ll see a similar requirement in the US, but I’d love to see some kind of standardization here as well with Tesla and other EVs. The simpler we can make it, the better. I kind of look at it like Apple with the lightning port on iPhones … it’d be great if they’d just make the switch to USB-C like everyone else. But as a company, I understand why they don’t want to do that yet.
It’s the level 3 charging stations that are the key to long road trips, and this is an area that Tesla has a commanding lead over the competition with their Supercharger network. Around the world, the Supercharger network currently has about 1,870 stations with 16,585 Superchargers.4 The V2 Superchargers max out at 150 kW charging, but the newer V3 Superchargers, which are rolling out now, can charge up to 250 kW.
In Europe you have companies like Ionity and Fastned building out fast charging networks. In the U.S. you have EVgo with fast chargers that are mostly around 50kW and Electrify America installing 350kW charging stations. While none of those have the distribution of the Supercharger network yet, they’re working fast to try and catch up.
What it takes to power it
That covers the basics for the most common chargers and connectors in use today, but the underlying question of how this will impact the grid is a little tougher to answer. One of the arguments against EVs is that the more power hungry level 2 and 3 chargers put a big strain on the grid. And that if everyone was having to plug their cars in to charge, it would bring everything down. In theory, it seems like a valid concern. But it’s more complicated than that.
In 2019, EVs made up about 2.2% of car sales in the US5, and about 2.5% worldwide6. One projection has EV sales hitting 10 – 12.5% by 2025, and getting to 50% of sales sometime around 2035 to 2040.7 Boston Consulting Group also puts EV adoption hitting 50% sometime in the 2030’s.8 The rate of adoption is important because it gives utilities time to upgrade and grow with the adoption curve of EVs. If companies are able to incentivize charging patterns, like giving discounted rates to charge overnight instead of during the day, it can help distribute charging to off-peak times. Utilities would be able to reduce the amount of grid upgrades required by redistributing demand. In the Boston Consulting Group’s modeling, they showed that optimized charging patterns will reduce transmission and distribution costs by 70% per EV through 2030.9
Source: Boston Consulting Group
So what happens if they can’t shift the demand around with incentives? The same study showed that there could be a big spike in electricity costs in order to cover the grid upgrades. If utilities are successful, electricity price increases could be kept down to about $0.03 – $0.05 per kWh, which is essentially unchanged. However, if utilities don’t take proper measures, like those discounted rates for overnight charging, you could be looking at a 2% rate increase. Many utilities are already rolling out EV incentives to get ahead of this. Here in Massachusetts my utility is Eversource, and they have a program called ConnectedSolutions10 , which incentivizes installing a smart charger in your home. It’s essentially smart home technology that allows them to control the charging speed and times in order to balance grid usage. I actually participated in this program with my smart thermostat last summer, which worked out really well. From my perspective I didn’t notice much of a change, but it helped to spread the load on the grid.
But it’s not all up to the utilities themselves. Companies are introducing products to help manage the load as well. Enel X recently announced a new line of chargers that all integrate behind the scenes. Whether it’s home wall plugs or public chargers, they communicate on a network called JuiceNet, which can dynamically optimize the state of charge, energy consumption, and needs of the grid in real-time.11
Blink has introduced wall plugs that also have load management built in. These are designed with multi-family buildings in mind because you can install up to 20 of them off of a single-phase AC circuit. They share the available power between all of the plugged-in EVs. This reduces overload and installation costs.12
And finally, there are systems like Wallbox’s Quasar bi-directional charger.13 Not only can you charge your car, but you can use your car to power your home when needed. Vehicle-to-grid systems can also benefit utilities because they could siphon off small amounts of power from your car during peak load times, and then replenish that energy along with paying you for what they used.
Fast chargers, which require incredible energy throughput, also have some interesting solutions in the works. Some companies like, Envision Solar14 and Fastned15, are rolling out charging stations powered by solar and wind power. Combining battery storage with EV charging stations can also have a major impact. The stations can either store renewable energy generation from those solar panels, or the batteries trickle charge from the grid at lower rate and at off peak times. The batteries provide the high power bursts needed while charging cars instead of the grid. VW actually just introduced its first charging station with built-in battery in January.16 And EVgo has installed 14 battery storage systems so far to help balance demand.17
Are there challenges and costs to upgrading the grid to handle EV adoption? Of course, but they’re not insurmountable … and not guaranteed to drive electricity costs through the roof. We’re already seeing utilities and other companies introducing solutions to balance load and keep costs down. And we all need to remember that it’s going to take time for EVs to reach a level that would cause significant problems for the grid. As EV adoption ramps up, so will the changes to our grid and charging infrastructure. We didn’t have gasoline stations on every corner and an infrastructure to support internal combustion engine cars on day one either. This will be no different. Where some see roadblocks, others see opportunities. There are a lot of smart people and companies finding solutions to all of this, and I’m really excited to see where it goes.