Friday, June 14, 2024

EVC Infrastructure: Charging (Mostly) Isn’t About Chargers

Chargers (EVSE) are the most obvious and visible piece of equipment for end users, but they are the last piece of the puzzle. Sourcing EVSE has been the typical point of entry into the EV charging solution sales cycle, but it shouldn’t be. Aside from the fact that most OEMs and distributors are in the business of selling more, faster chargers and therefore might not be the best source of unbiased opinions on right-sizing your solution, there are many reasons why the chargers should not be on the top of your to-do list when approaching an EV charging infrastructure project. Here’s why not, and how you can avoid some common pitfalls:

Cost Driver Education

EVC solutions vary widely, and economies of scale factor heavily. But, roughly speaking, the price of the chargers – Level 2 (240v AC) or Level 3 (480v DC) – is a scant 10-20% of the total project cost, or less if the utility company charges a fee to bring new utility service to the site. Other key cost drivers include:

  • Due diligence, plans and permitting
  • New electrical service, transformer(s)
  • Switchgear, panelboards, breakers
  • Trenching and backfilling, conduit and wire
  • Sealing, striping, bollards and wheel stops, signage
  • Internet connectivity, lighting, security cameras
  • Project and construction management

Fast Chargers, Slow Process

Unless you need to take delivery of hundreds or thousands of units within a fiscal quarter, most chargers themselves are readily available. Switchgear, on the other hand, can take 40 weeks, or more for higher amperages or special configurations from the OEM. The same goes for larger transformers, and your utility company might be scheduling out a year or more to bring new service to your site(s).

You Better Ask Somebody

There are over 3,000 electric utilities in the US, ranging from multi-state conglomerates to local co-ops. Even within a single utility’s territory, I have received estimates for six months at one site and five years for another when requesting the same level of amperage. You just won’t know the capacity of their until you ask. So, before you decide you’ve found the perfect site, or figured out how many chargers you need, make sure there’s enough service available to meet your needs.

FYIs on AHJs and EPCs

Whether using a design-build or design-bid-build model for your project, it’s advisable to specifically include utility and permit coordination within the due diligence scope, and to have it conducted by an engineer (not a GC). You’ll want the same engineer who gathers information about the utility company’s requirements and equipment to design – or at least review – the specs of the switchgear that sit between the utility transformer and your EV chargers.

It’s Just A Phase

If you plan your charging infrastructure with only today in mind, you will very likely end up spending significantly more time and money in later phases.

  • Not requesting enough amperage from the utility, then being in the back of the line for more.
  • Failing to plan and execute make-ready work for later phases, especially laying conduit for stub-ups. Trenching is expensive and intrusive – you don’t want your yard torn up more than necessary.
  • Designing for the shortest conduit runs now, without considering the lengths of future runs.
  • Squeezing EV parking into existing, out-of the way stalls, then restriping the whole lot later anyway.

Share the Load

Once you know how your fleet’s duty cycles affect your present and future charging needs, you’ll be able to right-size your solution, including the selection of an automated load management system (ALMS). Load management hardware and software monitors the power being drawn by all EV chargers and limits the total amperage to ensure that the breakers don’t trip – or worse. This allows, for example, 30 chargers capable of 200A each (6000A total) to be fed by a 4000A service and switchgear. Up to 20 chargers could run at full power, but ALMS will reduce the power as additional units are activated. The newest, ‘smartest’ (AI-driven) systems will ‘know’ which vehicles need to be prioritized based on the state of charge and next day’s needs.

Demand Less, Supply More

Another potential benefit of ALMS is to reduce demand charge costs by limiting peak load – especially during high-tariff periods. Essentially, electricity costs more per kWh if you are off-taking more of it at one time. In most places, running a DC fast charger between 4-9pm is exorbitantly expensive and should be limited or avoided altogether. Tariff rates and schedules very greatly between utilities and even which plan you choose, and are changing as EV charging proliferates. This is yet another reason to engage your utility early and often.

Diligence Is Due for an Update

Everyone knows to call 811 before you dig, but the smarter move is to get a comprehensive data-driven view of every site early in the process – before schematic design, and sometimes even to inform your site suitability decisions. The traditional approach is to send “boots on the ground” to take photos with a smartphone – I have rarely if ever seen that result in a comprehensive set of clear, well-labeled photos that an engineer can run with. But there is a better way – a number of them, in fact. For less than the cost of a plane ticket, hotel room and rental car to get someone onsite, advanced technologies can capture more thorough, accurate information about a site than even the best engineer or project manager could.

  • Over: Drones not only capture images, but also elevations and other geospatial data. This ensures that chargers are not placed in low spots, and that any ADA accessible parking stalls are code-compliant.
  • Under: Ground-Penetrating Radar Scans (GPRS) capture detailed information about everything buried below grade. Knowing precisely where and how deep the gas and electric lines, sewers and other hidden infrastructure are buried will not only keep your employees, contractors, and assets safe, it will inform site design.
  • Through: Multi-lens cameras capture 360-degree views in and around buildings, which are stitched together with AI to build a digital virtual-reality copy of any space. This allows project developers and engineers to “walk through” your site remotely, and even take measurements that are 97% to 99.9% accurate, depending on the camera. The data output also serves as a base file for critical as-built plans, saving engineering time and cost while reducing opportunity for errors.

When Will Then Be Now? Soon.

Elon Musk’s naming of the ultra-fast Model S “Plaid” is a fitting nod to Mel Brooks’ iconic spoof film Spaceballs, but I find this line from the movie to be a more fitting reference for EVC infrastructure. It’s likely that your first EV charging installation won’t cover 100% of your future needs. Unless you’re developing a new residential high-rise, you shouldn’t – and probably couldn’t – convert 100% of your fleet or parking stalls to EV in 2024. But in a time not too far, far away, you’ll want to. So, while your parking lot is closed and those trenches are open, lay the conduit for your next phase(s). Then will be now will be now sooner that you think.

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