Nicole Voudren: Charged Up For EVs

According to Reuters, electric vehicle sales leapt 50% in the US in 2023, and are expected to grow by another 30% in 2024. But driving around your city or town, you’ll probably still see a lot more gas stations than electric charging stations. This week on Sea Change Radio, we learn the ins and outs of electric vehicle infrastructure from Nicole Voudren, an engineer, educator and consultant in the EV charging space. We look at how private industry, public utilities, and governmental agencies are all converging in this new vital area of the economy to help Americans transition away from internal combustion engine vehicles and get electrified. Voudren talks about the Tesla supercharging network, free, ad-based charging initiatives like Volta, and other ways that technologies are improving to help allay the range anxiety that many EV owners experience.

Narrator | 00:02 – This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.

Nicole Voudren (NV) | 00:15 – The industry’s a bit of a wild west right now, and we need lots of talent to get where we need to go.

Narrator | 00:25 – According to Reuters, electric vehicle sales leapt 50% in the US in 2023, and are expected to grow by another 30% in 2024. But driving around your city or town, you’ll probably still see a lot more gas stations than electric charging stations. This week on Sea Change Radio, we learn the ins and outs of electric vehicle infrastructure from Nicole Voudren, an engineer, educator and consultant in the EV charging space. We look at how private industry, public utilities, and governmental agencies are all converging in this new vital area of the economy to help Americans transition away from internal combustion engine vehicles and get electrified. Voudren talks about the Tesla supercharging network, free, ad-based charging initiatives like Volta, and other ways that technologies are improving to help allay the range anxiety that many EV owners experience.

Alex Wise (AW) |1:30 – I’m joined now in Sea, Change Radio by Nicole Voudren. She’s an engineer who provides education about EVs electric vehicles and the EV charging industry. She also works at a startup called Better Together Brain Trust. That’s BT two Energy, which focuses on turnkey EV charging assessments and installation. Nicole, welcome to Sea Change Radio. 

Nicole Voudren (NV) | 01:55 – Excellent. Thank you so much, Alex. I’m delighted to be here. 

Alex Wise (AW) | 01:58 – Well, it’s a pleasure to speak with you. We’ve done many pieces over the years about electric vehicles, and as a subset of that, we often talk about the infrastructure and the charging and range anxiety and some of these elements. But since the last time we did a piece on EVs, I became an electric vehicle owner. So I have a new perspective on the ins and outs of what it takes to drive around and what it means to be an electric vehicle owner these days in terms of charging. So what are some of the, the most exciting projects that listeners should be aware of in terms of populating this vast road network that we have in the United States with the ability to power an entire country that could someday run on electricity? 

NV | 02:51 – I think the most exciting is the, the funding coming through from various sources. You know, the federal government is all in on the electrification of transportation, and they’re providing, uh, significant grants and funding to states and localities. The local utilities, at least in the northeast where I live, and I know across the United States, are very supportive of EV charging infrastructure deployment and have various funding mechanisms for the capital expense. Because when you are changing from the current fueling infrastructure that we have to an electrified fueling infrastructure, there are a lot of industries that are at play. You have the transportation, the automotive, commercial real estate, utilities, um, you have private businesses, et cetera. So it can get very complicated. It can get very expensive, but the good news is that there is funding out there to support the deployment of the infrastructure, but also to support the adoption of electric vehicles.

AW | 04:06 – And what are the biggest barriers for deploying an EV charging station in general?

NV | 04:13 – The biggest hurdles we’re seeing for the DC fast deployment is availability of power. A lot of homes and businesses do not have sufficient power to provide the charging at the, you know, the 125 KW level. Definitely not any homes I’m aware of have that space or capacity in their electrical panel, right? 

AW | 04:35 – Even getting the level two can be an overhaul. Like in my home, for example, I have to do the trickle charging.

NV | 04:42 – Level one trickle charging through a standard 120 volt outlet.

AW | 04:46 – For somebody who doesn’t drive a ton, it, it works in terms of topping off from let’s say 60% and getting back up to 80% overnight. It can work for that, but it’s not taking you from 20 to 80% overnight. You need level two for that, right?

NV | 05:01 – And what the charging level folks need, both, you know, private businesses and, and homeowners and, and multi-unit dwelling renters, that sort of thing. It’s really dependent upon your dwell time and how long you’re parking in that space. But yeah, so the power availability is basically one of the largest hurdles to the deployment. But also capital availability. Who’s paying for this electrical construction? Because you need to get the power from its source, whether it’s, you know, the utility supporting and going straight from a utility transformer or if it’s coming from the building power, which is fed from the utility somewhere along, uh, along the way. And to get it to where the chargers are typically requires trenching, which needs heavy equipment, doesn’t always, but it can. And there’s a lot of costs incurred to upgrade the power to bring the power to the charger to pay for the charger.

AW | 06:00 – So I just recently heard that Ford EV owners can now or will soon be able to tap into the Tesla Supercharging network. Why don’t you talk a little bit about the niche that Tesla has carved out for itself and how that can hopefully expand the whole pie eventually in terms of EV charging capability for the country. It’s an impressive network. 

NV | 06:25 – Yes, it is the largest network as an EV driver and EV evangelist and advocate. I have always had the best charging experience at Tesla branded chargers in the Tesla network. And a lot of that is due to them being industry leaders in this space and just ahead of others in the deployment of their network. Last year, Ford announced that they were going to start using Tesla’s charge port, which is called the N-A-C-S North American Charging Standard, or also known as the Tesla standard. And it started a Sea change, if you will, where all the other original equipment manufacturers, the automobile manufacturers started to follow suit. And now Ford owners, Ford EV owners are able to use an adapter to use the Tesla network just like Tesla owners can. Um, slowly but surely, other vehicles will have their own ability to use an adapter, and the vehicle manufacturers are retooling how they manufacture the vehicles. So that way the max port, the Tesla port will be native to the vehicle when it’s manufactured, and adapters won’t need to be used in perpetuity. 

AW | 07:56 – And what’s the financial value proposition for Tesla allowing Ford owners to start using their charging network? 

NV | 08:05 – Well, Tesla to this point, has really had a hold over the EV adoption and, you know, EV the share of EV vehicles. And now that more and more manufacturers are getting on board, if Tesla didn’t tap into that market, they were potentially losing market share, but also losing potential revenue through their supercharger network. And I think it’s a very smart business of them to allow other vehicle manufacturers to not only use their charge port, but to access their networks. It allows them to offer different subscription-based charging memberships, and of course, they’re going to likely charge non Tesla owners a higher rate than Tesla owners just to kind of, you know, give people that inspiration to purchase Tesla over another vehicle.

(Music Break) | 09:00

AW | 10:08 – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Nicole Voudren, she’s an engineer and an expert on EV charging. So Nicole, one of the biggest barriers to creating, a level three EV charging unit or station would be electricity. Let’s, let’s get behind some of the financials and some of the companies that are making big investments as well as the government in terms of becoming the new gas stations. There’s a lot of money to be made in this space. 

NV | 10:40 – Yes, absolutely. There’s, there’s a lot of money to be made and there’s a lot of funding flowing, as I had mentioned before, with different grants and utility programs and all of that. No, I don’t believe any one company has the answer, but collectively we will find the path to these goals together. And you’ll see lots of fossil fuel, traditionally fossil fuel companies in this space because they understand fueling whether it’s a fossil fuel going into a vehicle or it’s electrons and electricity fueling the vehicle. So, you know, bp, British Petroleum is in the space, Shell is in this space. They’re acquiring different companies and partnering with different companies to maintain their market share in fueling and fueling infrastructure. 

AW | 11:37 – So let’s take Shell for example. They’ve invested in the Volta system, which is a free ad-based network. I don’t know if it’s national, but we have it here in California and there’s I think maybe 50 stations around San Francisco, which sounds good, but when you consider how many thousands of electric vehicles are out there, they’re almost never available because they’re basically giving away gas. It’s free electricity, you can just charge it for free as opposed to a Tesla supercharging station where they charge you, let’s say 35 cents per kilowatt. And at home it’s around half that generally. What do you guess is shell’s long-term goal in, in purchasing a company like Volta? I don’t really understand the business, like of Volta. I haven’t even noticed the ads while I’m using their units. They’re not in your face at all. But there must be a longer term play here than just advertising, I’m assuming. 

NV | 12:34 – Yes, absolutely. So Shell did acquire Volta. They also acquired Green Lots, which is a different EV charging network. So I, I think Shell is looking to other folks in the EV space to help them build a business model and gain a foothold in EV charging. They understand fueling in the retail piece of it, but they didn’t necessarily understand the behavior of EV drivers and the fueling needs and how they may differ from a traditional internal combustion engine vehicle. So they have acquired Volta, my understanding, there’s about 3000 public stations in the Volta network. It’s growing very slowly post-acquisition with Shell. I love it. I think it’s a great business model because it is free. The ads are not gaudy or to your point, just, you know, overly distracting as opposed to when I’m, I’m feeling at a gas station and I have the gas pump yelling at me. It was a very savvy move by Shell. And we are starting to see the utilizations that are necessary for profitable EV charging as a business, not just as a loss leader or as a, you know, a nice to have or an amenity. And we’re, we’re only going to see utilization and AV adoption and deployment of the charging infrastructure and networks increase. 

AW | 14:10 – And what about the utilities? Are there any laws prohibiting them from creating their own brands of charging stations? Like for example, we have Pacific Gas and Electric, PG&E, here in Northern California, most of California, I haven’t seen any PG&E chargers. Are those going to be coming? Where are the utility companies going to be angling to maximize their profits from this new network that’s being created? 

NV | 14:39 – It’s determined state by state, by the public utility commissions or Department of Public Utilities, whether the utilities are able to own and operate charging stations. So for instance, in Massachusetts, the utilities are not allowed to own and operate the charging stations. But in New York City, I’m aware of a curbside charging pilot that ConEd is doing with the city, uh, and the Department of Transportation in New York. Those are a partnership of those different entities deploying curbside charging stations. So it really depends on what state you’re in. They are likely best suited in most places because they know where the power is available. And otherwise you need to interface with the utility program to find where power is available, where it can be pulled from to build out the, the charging infrastructure. 

AW | 15:36 – So how, how does the pie get divided up? Generally, if the public utility doesn’t own the charging station, do they still get a majority of the profits from let’s say a $25 charge, or is it really the charging station that’s making most of the money off of that consumer, Nicole? 

NV | 15:54 – Looking at different charge point operators, those are the folks who own and operate charging stations that may not necessarily be like the property manager of the multi-unit dwelling or, you know, the retailer that you’re parking and plugging into. Traditionally, my understanding is that their margin, their profit is about 20 to 30%, and that you’re paying your utility bill from the revenue that you’re pulling in from that, and you’re trying to offset the capital cost of doing the install and then trying to get a little bit of a margin on top of that. Now, you also can have parking fees built into your charging stations. You can have dwell time, uh, penalties if you’re plugged in beyond your vehicle being at your full state of charge. There’s lots of other mechanisms to make revenue besides just kilowatt hour by kilowatt hour. Some states do require explicit signage regarding fueling Vermont comes to mind in particular where you need to be very explicit what fees are going to be charged to consumers when they park and charge at your stations. Whereas Massachusetts, it’s only petroleum-based fueling that requires that type of signage. So I think we’ll start seeing more nationwide standards regarding that sort of thing, so that way consumers can have transparency into what they’re paying for, because otherwise there are so many fees that can just get tacked on besides kilowatt hours.

(Music Break) | 17:38

AW | 18:16 – This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio, and I’m speaking to Nicole Voudren, who is an EV charging expert. Nicole. Let’s now turn to the government’s role in all of this. At the outset of our conversation, you said that was probably the most exciting element of transforming our network is that there’s big government dollars being put towards these efforts. How has the rollout gone? I know that there was an announcement like a year before the IRA, but that has amped up even more the, the government spending. How, how will those monies be distributed and what’s like a best case scenario for this rollout from a government perspective?

NV | 18:58 – Yes. So there was the infrastructure investment and jobs Act, also known as the bipartisan infrastructure deal. I believe that’s what you’re referencing, right?

AW | 19:08 – That was like late 2022, early 2023 right before the IRA, right?

NV | 19:14 – Yeah, exactly. And the current administration has a goal of 500,000 EV chargers, uh, to be deployed, I believe at 2030 is that date of that goal. And to accelerate the adoption of electric vehicles, reduce emissions and all the fun benefits of, of this type of, uh, endeavor. And they funding is $7.5 billion and it’s broken up between two different programs. There’s the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Program, also known as NEVI, which is $5 billion over the next five years. Well, once it was announced. So we are seeing NEVI funding and NEVI deployed EV chargers happening now on a state by state basis. They’re starting to trickle onto the market and become available. What’s happens is that NEVI had very particular requirements for charging stations and the deployment to qualify for NEVI funding and with the… 

AW | 20:31 – The Tesla network. 

NV | 20:33 – Yeah, with the Tesla port change, it’s affected some of those requirements. So now the administration is going to the industry with an RFI looking for feedback from the industry on how to be responsive to what has changed since NEVI has been, uh, you know, sent out there. There is also the charging and fueling infrastructure grant program that is the other two and a half billion dollars from the IIJA.

AW | 21:03 – When we’re trying to find spaces for the, these charging units, are they going to be alongside gas stations as well or replacing gas stations? Just in terms of the actual footprint of these stations, or, I know the Tesla network seems to be independent of gas stations, but it would seem like we have this vast array of gas stations around the country that, as you mentioned, the fossil fuel pumping stations for the last century have put a lot of, of, of capital into developing these points of purchase. Can there be synergies and economies of scale there? 

NV | 21:37 – There absolutely can be. We are seeing charging stations deployed that are co-located with existing fueling infrastructure, but we’re also seeing it independent of it. NEVI requires it to be within one mile of a national corridor. And, uh, so they’re going to be co-located with lanes of travel and interstates and in highways for the charging and fueling infrastructure program. It’s a different, different formula for the competitive grant, um, to kind of fill in those, the gaps of where charging deserts might be. And you know, we were, we were chatting before, what are the barriers to charging deployment, but there’s also barriers to EV adoption and this federal funding is trying to accommodate. One of the key barriers to EV adoption is range anxiety and range anxiety is when people are concerned that they’re not gonna be able to get from where they are to where they need to go without having easy access to a charging station. At this point, with the adoption rates of electric vehicles that we’re seeing, it’s not enough that there’s one or two charging stations along your route that you can use. You need to know that it is fully functional and has good uptime and reliability. You need to know whether it’s currently occupied by somebody else. So there’s just a lot of considerations to be made as these programs are being deployed and the funding is flowing. 

AW | 23:13 – And of course, once the technology improves in terms of fast charging, we’ll see a lot less of, of an issue about vacancies at a charging station. Does it have to come from the vehicle itself or is it the charging station that will decrease the charging time from, let’s say 20, 30 minutes to two or three minutes? 

NV | 23:34 – Both play into each other. There are a lot of vehicles right now that are not capable of accepting fast charging speeds. So if I were to take a Chevy Volta and try and charge at a 350 kw electric charging station, it’s not going to accept the full 350 kw because the onboard charger won’t let it. And that in turn affects the amount of time it takes me to get from the state of charge I’m at to the state of charge I want to be. So there’s an education that has to happen when people purchase or rent electric vehicles about what that vehicle is capable of doing. The size of the battery and the state of charge of the battery dictates the, uh, the charging time and speed. Also, the warmth of the battery warmer batteries, if they’re precondition, will be able to accept the charging better. And some vehicles just automatically do that. When you set your navigation to a charging station, it starts to prepare. But not all of them, I think, can anticipate that. 

AW | 24:48 – Does that make a big difference in terms of charging time? I’m curious about that. 

NV | 24:52 – I haven’t read the studies on the battery chemistry, but it makes enough of a difference that the best practice is to precondition your battery before you go to a DC fast station. That being said, I think that the overarching idea is that DC fast charging and level three charging is going to be very, very necessary. And it is, but the majority of EV charging is going to be happening where you’re parking your car overnight. So it’s going to be a lower level of charging and it’s going to, you know, take time to, to fill that battery because it has the time to fill that battery. We’re, we’re going to need to change our behavior myself, especially because when I drive my ice vehicle, my internal combustion engine vehicle, I’m running on fumes. My gas light is on, it’s yelling at me to stop and refuel. We will not be able to drive electric vehicles the same way. We will be starting full in the morning, and hopefully there will be more and more solutions deployed for folks who are garage orphans and, you know, they don’t have a deeded spot or they don’t have the privilege or luxury to install a charger in their garage. And that’s where, you know, public level twos and even, you know, workplace charging will come in handy and then hopefully just use, uh, mostly DC fast for when you’re traveling long range or you need a fast top up. 

AW | 26:28 – So, as an educator in the space, Nicole, maybe you can give us an idea of what kind of students are getting into this space. Is it mostly people from the constructions area or electricians who, who’s pivoting to becoming experts in EV charging?

NV | 26:45 – Generally, what I’m finding the majority of folks entering the EV charging space are already in an adjacent space. You know, the majority of companies out there that are, you know, competitors slash peers of BT two are in the energy efficiency space. They’ve done work for the utilities and have existing relationships there. They have a customer base they might have done lighting retrofits for, and now they have this additional service offering. They already have electricians on staff or as a subcontractor. So it’s just, you know, taking a business model that’s already worked for them and just kind of changing it a little bit for this space. As for who is seeking out education, it’s those companies wanting to hire more qualified people to build out that business model, or it’s people that see the funding that is coming and wanting to dive in with both feed and not knowing where to begin because the industry’s a bit of a wild west right now, and we need lots of talent to get where we need to go. 

AW | 27:57 – Nicole Voudren, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.

NV | 28:01 – It’s been my pleasure. Thank you.

Narrator | 28:17 – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis. And our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by Moby, Delaney & Bonnie and Albert Collins. To read a transcript of this show, go to SeaChangeRadio.com to stream, or download the show, or subscribe to our podcast on our site, or visit our archives to hear from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gavin Newsom, Stewart Brand, and many others. And tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.

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