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Clean energy journalism for a cooler tomorrow

EV chargers have a big reliability problem. Can the government fix it?

If you don’t own a Tesla, charging an EV in the U.S. can be a headache. Two federal programs aim to fix that with $7.5B and a host of new rules and standards.
By Jeff St. John

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An illustrated graphic with several different models of EV chargers against a blue background.
(Binh Nguyen/Canary Media)

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This piece is the first in a three-part series exploring the biggest problems with public EV charging — and how to fix them. Canary thanks EnergyHub for its support of the series.

Rosana Francescato is an electric vehicle enthusiast who likes to plan ahead. So when she and her husband drove their all-electric Chevy Bolt from the San Francisco Bay Area to New Mexico to visit family last fall, she plotted out every charging station along the route — both to minimize the time spent waiting for hourslong charging sessions and to ensure they didn’t end up stranded in the middle of the desert.

But despite her maps and spreadsheets, built with data pulled from apps that track charging locations and whether or not the equipment there is working, she and her husband still ran into a range of problems familiar to anyone driving an EV — or, that is, any EV that isn’t a Tesla.

In general, we had better luck with the large, established networks” like Electrify America and EVgo, she said, but only when they weren’t broken.” Francescato, a clean-energy communications consultant, estimated that roughly half of the direct-current fast chargers — the ones capable of replenishing her Bolt’s battery in 30 minutes to an hour — were broken at each station she and her husband visited.

A side profile shot of a large white rectangular metal device with the words "Electrify America."
(Barbara Lantz/Canary Media)

But even when the chargers Francescato came across were technically functional, they weren’t always usable. At the first stop on the journey in California’s Central Valley, the display screen of the fast charger was so scratched up that it was unreadable, she said. If a repair technician hadn’t happened to be at the site when she and her husband pulled up to help them out — and offer a free charge for their troubles — I don’t know what we would have done.” Virtually all EV charging sites are unattended.

Initiating a charging session was also often an ordeal, she added. There are all these different systems, and they all work differently. How to start a charge isn’t clear. And there’s no standardization.” Some chargers take payment via credit card swipe or tap — but sometimes you need an app.” The sheer number of apps is confounding, and bad cellular reception at a site can make downloading them on the spot impossible.

Francescato’s frustrating experiences underscore a problem that could stop the EV transition in its tracks: It’s still way too hard to charge an EV made by any company other than Tesla. A 2022 study of 657 chargers at 181 non-Tesla public charging sites in the San Francisco Bay area found that only 72.5 percent of them were capable of delivering a charge for more than 2 minutes. That’s despite claims of at least 95 percent uptime from the companies operating them.

The situation has not gotten better with time. J.D. Power reported in August that 20 percent of all non-Tesla EV drivers in its most recent study said they visited a charger but did not charge their vehicle, whether because the charger was inoperable or because of long wait times to use it, up from 15 percent in the first quarter of 2021.

Fear of inadequate public charging has now overtaken range anxiety” as the chief concern about EVs among the car-buying public, according to J.D. Power. Although the majority of EV charging occurs at home” — about 80 percent of it, according to industry data — public charging needs to provide a much better experience across the board, not just for the users of today, but also to alleviate the concerns of skeptical future customers,” said Brent Gruber, executive director of J.D. Power’s global automotive practice.

For the shift away from planet-warming gas-powered cars to happen on time — and for the Biden administration and states to meet their aggressive EV-adoption goals — this story needs to change. Two programs initiated by the 2021 Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, worth a total of $7.5 billion and rolling out now or in the months to come, represent the country’s best chance at solving this problem.

But it’s not clear whether the money — and the stipulations that come with it — will be enough to transform the entire industry in a lasting way.

The central role of federal standards — and the gaps that remain

Billions of dollars from state governments, utilities and charging companies are flowing into deploying new public EV-charging sites across the U.S. The country had an estimated 140,000 public EV charging ports at the start of 2023, although only about 28,000 of them were direct-current fast-charging ports. Those numbers are set to more than quadruple by 2030, according to tallies of investment commitments from companies and government funding.

But the efforts to maintain them in running order once they’re installed aren’t keeping up with the pace of deployment.

That helps explain why unreliable and inaccessible chargers have become the No. 1 concern among non-Tesla EV drivers, according to the nonprofit EV advocacy group Plug In America’s 2023 survey of that market segment. This has led to a major decline in satisfaction with the biggest public fast-charging networks in the country.

Chart of EV driver satisfaction with U.S. public EV charging networks outside of the Tesla network, 2022 vs. 2023
(Plug In America)
Chart of EV driver satisfaction with U.S. Tesla Supercharger network, 2022 vs. 2023
(Plug In America)

But that could change under a federal program that will direct $5 billion toward building out EV charging along major highways and travel corridors, and another $2.5 billion toward communities now underserved by EV charging. This program is central to the Biden administration’s goal of deploying 500,000 EV charging stations by 2030.

The $5 billion National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure (NEVI) program has already started disbursing grants to states — the first project broke ground in Ohio in October, and Alaska, Colorado, Hawaii, Kentucky, Maine and Pennsylvania had won awards as of last month. The $2.5 billion Charging and Fueling Infrastructure program opened up applications in March and is expected to issue its first grants early next year.

Under new rules, the states and companies using these federal dollars must meet a host of requirements — including a mandate that the charging stations must be operable at least 97 percent of the time on an annual basis, the first such uptime requirement” in the U.S.

And unlike the self-reported uptime data from major U.S. charging network operators — figures that don’t match the poorer performance numbers derived from independent studies — NEVI has set standards for how uptime is measured and what data is required to prove it.

Our vision is that any driver of any EV can charge using any charger, the first time, every time,” said John Smart, director of the National Charging Experience (ChargeX) Consortium, a public-private group formed by the federal Joint Office of Energy and Transportation that was created to provide technical assistance and guidance for federal EV charging funding.

Any project receiving NEVI funding must report its average annual uptime data in accordance with the metrics laid out by the federal government, Smart said. They’re also required to report more fundamental data that would allow a third party to verify their numbers,” he said.

Those are far more stringent reliability and data requirements than have been set by any other government-funded EV charging program to date — and they don’t apply only to uptime. The NEVI program also requires at least four charging ports capable of providing 150 kilowatts of fast charging to be installed at each station. The broader federal rules set minimum requirements for sharing data about the availability of each charging station and its charging price. And they require all stations to be able to charge any make and model of EV using a common set of technology standards and accept a variety of payment methods including credit and debit cards.

But why are so many public EV charging stations not working in the first place?

A multifaceted challenge

Studies show a litany of reasons as to why a given charger might be inoperative, from destroyed charging cords and unresponsive display screens to less obvious — but more frustrating — glitches in the process of initiating a charge and completing payment authorization once a customer has plugged in.

But the harsh fact is that too many things can go wrong to draw simple conclusions, said Marcus Alexander, a principal technical leader at the Electric Power Research Institute, a nonprofit group that conducts research on behalf of the utility industry.

Earlier this year, Alexander took part in a six-month survey of EV charging providers to try to determine the chief causes of charger failures and how to prevent them. But we didn’t come up with any easy answers,” he said.

Instead, the survey identified a variety of causes, ranging from vandalism to technology-interoperability problems. Resolution of faults can differ dramatically between different charge system operators due to supply chain difficulties, the availability of replacement parts, and the ability of reporting and diagnostics to quickly identify the correct problem,” the report states.

Some problems stem from the fact that this was an early market, and there was some equipment that wasn’t tested in the situations they would encounter” in the field, like extreme temperature swings or being covered in snow, Alexander said. That’s in some ways an easier problem to solve,” he said — you can simply replace the chargers with models that can withstand the weather. 

Still more problems have emerged as charging providers have sought to modernize their older equipment, Alexander said. Credit and debit card payment systems that have been retrofitted onto stations that previously used smartphone apps for payment are one common point of failure, he said.

It’s just a whole lot of growing pains,” he said. We need more training; we need the hardware to be built in a way that’s simpler and better designed for operation and repair,” as well as interoperability.

In other words, as the Electric Power Research Institute’s report concludes, achieving high reliability is possible, but requires a high degree of organizational alignment and sufficient funding.”

The point about organizational alignment helps to explain why Tesla’s charging network — which has more chargers than all other U.S. direct-current fast-charging network operators combined — is so reliable and highly rated. Tesla has designed its charging network to serve only its cars and its cars to work seamlessly with its chargers. It uses a unique plug shape and underlying software stack that doesn’t work with other EVs, outside of the relatively small number of Magic Dock” stations it has retrofitted to do so.

Meanwhile, every other automaker and charging-technology provider in the country doesn’t have the luxury of building technology that only works with one company’s EVs or one company’s charging station. They’ve had to design their technologies to interoperate with each other to the best of their ability. The process of developing common technology standards over the past decade has been fractious and complicated.

Each of the three biggest EV charging companies in the U.S. — ChargePoint, EVgo and Electrify America — says it’s actively addressing the problems at hand. They’re rolling out more durable chargers, launching programs centered on improving preventative maintenance, remote diagnostics, repair times and customer service, and beefing up staffing and training.

A white metal EV charging station with two plugs. Blue lettering reads EVgo.
(Barbara Lantz/Canary Media)

We’re learning in real time all the challenges regarding where a station may appear to be up, but is actually down,” said Anne Smart, ChargePoint’s vice president of public policy. We’re proactively and predictively monitoring the stations to make sure we know the stations are being repaired before there’s a problem, and fixing problems as quickly as possible,” she said. The important part is that it’s a holistic approach. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all fix for keeping stations reliable.”

Electrify America, launched in 2018 as part of Volkswagen’s $2 billion Dieselgate settlement agreement, has been replacing its older generation of 150-kilowatt fast chargers with 350-kilowatt Gen 4” systems that are more durable than what came before, said Anthony Lambkin, the company’s vice president of operations. They’re also more easily diagnosable, he said, using software designed by Electrify America that’s collecting hundreds of disparate data points to reach the type of reliability and performance levels that are expected of us and of NEVI and other programs.”

EVgo’s ReNew program, launched in January to enhance and improve” its fast-charging network, has brought down its average repair time at poorly functioning stations by more than half over the past year, said Sara Rafalson, EVgo’s senior vice president of market development and public policy. The program has also deepened the company’s inventory of replacement parts like charging cables and speeded up its replacement of older charging stations with newer equipment.

But the ReNew program is so much more,” she said. At its deeper level, it’s understanding why sessions fail and getting to the root causes.”

Still, the dire state of public charging has led legacy automakers such as Ford and GM to cut deals with Tesla — the company they’re all chasing in the EV race — in recent months. Many charging providers have likewise followed up with promises to provide Tesla’s technology at their stations.

It’s not clear, however, that Tesla will be able to keep up its worry-free performance as it shifts to becoming the technology of choice for other EVs. The company has already been experiencing problems at the Magic Dock” stations it has retrofitted to work with other EVs.

Today, Tesla chargers are communicating with one vehicle,” said Erik Fogelberg, general manager of North America operations for Spanish EV charger manufacturer Wallbox. It’s going to be much more complex when Tesla’s [chargers] have to communicate [with] and charge different vehicles” from different automakers.

Can federal rules keep EV charging on track? 

The major challenge for pure-play EV charging businesses — which either make money by selling chargers or by building, owning and operating them — goes beyond discrete problems and solutions. It’s a more fundamental issue.

Simply put, there aren’t yet enough EVs on the road to make these charging stations profitable in the short term, forcing companies or site hosts to spend money to deploy and maintain stations for years before they can be expected to earn back their costs. EVs made up just under 8 percent of new car sales in the U.S. in the third quarter of 2023, and the vast majority of EVs on the road are Teslas, so they’re not beholden to the public-charging companies.

Everybody’s getting better,” said Ethan Lipman, CEO of consultancy EV-PV and a longtime EV charging engineer who’s worked on some of the first public fast-charging deployments in the country. They’re just not getting better fast enough — and they don’t have business models that support maintaining the infrastructure.”

That’s why Lipman believes that if you’re going to give money to someone right now, it should not be for deployment — it should be for O&M,” or operations and maintenance. You can’t keep deploying stuff and not maintaining it.”

A Chargepoint EV charging station on a deserted city street
(Barbara Lantz/Canary Media)

This underlying chicken-and-egg problem remains a central conundrum not just for EV-charging companies, but for policymakers striving to ensure that there are enough public charging sites to spur people to switch to EVs.

That’s why the lawmakers who crafted the EV-charging grant and formula programs created by the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law fought for money to be available not just for deployment, but for operations and maintenance as well.

The NEVI program funding covers a host of operations and maintenance costs over the first five years of a station’s operation. That can include equipment leasing fees, cellular network and other communications fees, and hardware and software maintenance and repair costs.

That’s an important change from previous EV-charging grants and incentive programs that have underemphasized keeping chargers up and running, said Bill Ferro, a ChargeX member and CEO of EVSession, a company that works with vehicle fleet operators and other EV owners to find working chargers and diagnose problems with those that aren’t working.

But Ferro also worries about what happens after those five-year maintenance allowances run out. Are those units going to fall into disrepair? Are they going to drop offline because no one wants to own them? Are they going to be in the middle of some mega-acquisition process and we’re waiting for them to be moved onto a new network for someone to bring them online again?”

That’s why he sees the minimum uptime, reliability and interoperability standards set by today’s federal rules as just the starting point for a much more fundamental shift in the EV charging industry.

In Part 2 of this series, we’ll examine a major hurdle to putting the NEVI program’s promising new standards into practice: Those tasked with carrying out these mandates lack access to the data they need to enforce them.

Expect more from your EV program

Wherever you are in your utility’s EV journey, EnergyHub has a solution to meet your needs. Whether you’re focused on active managed charging, behavioral charging, or charging analytics, we leverage the industry’s largest partner network to maximize customer participation and impact.

Partner with a trusted implementer to effectively manage EVs alongside other device classes and deliver greater results.

For more on how EnergyHub is accelerating the potential of EVs to unlock grid benefits, check out our two recently released white papers: From obstacle to opportunity: How managed charging can mitigate the distribution impacts of EV charging” and Accelerating electric vehicle management — 8 key strategies for a successful EV program.” Learn more.

Jeff St. John is director of news and special projects at Canary Media. He covers innovative grid technologies, rooftop solar and batteries, clean hydrogen, EV charging and more.