• New York City needs a lot of EV chargers. How can its power grid support them all?
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New York City needs a lot of EV chargers. How can its power grid support them all?

Startup Revel’s Brooklyn superhub is the first of many charging centers NYC will need to meet its EV goals. Can it be replicated at scale?
By Jeff St. John

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An empty parking lot with many blue EV chargers
Revel's EV-charging "superhub" in Brooklyn is the first of many such sites New York City will need to meet its aggressive EV goals. (Nicholas Rinaldi/Canary Media)

For New York City to have any chance of fulfilling its ambitious electric vehicle plans, it’s going to need a lot more EV-charging sites like Revel’s superhub.” Located in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, the superhub has 25 fast chargers — the most universally usable high-speed chargers at any single site in the nation, according to Paul Suhey, Revel’s co-founder and head of rideshare and EV.

But how will charging sites like these find enough power on the already-congested grid that serves the country’s most densely populated major city?

Providing the public with a sufficient number of places to charge their electric vehicles in close proximity to where they live and work is critical to convincing them to make the shift to EVs and help New York City meet its aggressive transportation electrification goals. The city’s Electric Vehicle Vision Plan, unveiled earlier this month, aims to get 400,000 car owners to switch to EVs by 2030. To support that transition, the plan sets a goal of having about 46,000 chargers in place by then — 40,000 public Level 2 chargers, which take hours to refill a battery, and 6,000 direct-current fast chargers, which can do the job in as little as half an hour. Right now there are only around 2,000 Level 2 and 270 fast chargers in New York City and the adjacent Westchester County area combined.

Adding these concentrated load pockets to a congested grid isn’t easy, however. To find connected power on the grid right now where you can site and permit EV charging is very, very hard,” Suhey said. The wait time to build charging projects can keep developers on hold for a year to never, depending on the location and a lot of other factors.”

Adding EV charging capacity to the grid would be difficult enough on its own. But at the same time, the city is trying to shift heating systems in buildings from fossil fuels to electricity — a key strategy for reducing carbon emissions as the state moves to clean up its electricity supply on the path toward goals of 70 percent renewables by 2030 and 100 percent by 2040. Widespread electrification of other appliances including stovetops, water heaters and clothes dryers — another important climate strategy — will only add to the grid stress.

The upshot is that New York City is going to need a lot more electrical capacity, and fast. 

This is a global problem, as Christian Levin, CEO of Volkswagen-owned truck manufacturer Scania, stated in a Tuesday panel at this week’s Climate Week NYC event. When he talks to companies that are worried about switching to EVs, it’s not the vehicles” that are holding them back, he said. It’s the charging. We need to start to invest heavily into charging infrastructure, [and] we need…help from policymakers.”

But the EV charging buildout is also an intensely local challenge, as the experience of Revel and other developers in New York City indicates. It involves costly and complex work to extend power lines, install transformers and manage new grid loads.

How do we build the charging infrastructure to support that transition?” Suhey asked. That’s hard in and of itself.”

The Revel approach

Revel, a startup founded in New York City in 2018, sells its charging services at 39 cents per kilowatt at its Brooklyn superhub. The site is the equivalent of a gas station for EVs. 

Customer Javier Álvarez charges a Tesla at the Revel Superhub in Brooklyn, July 2021. (Nicholas Rinaldi/Canary Media)

Fully charging an EV at the superhub takes about half an hour.

The hub then serves another purpose overnight: charging up Revel’s fleet of shared electric mopeds and the Tesla EV ride-share service it launched earlier this year. The fleet charging provides the superhub with a predictable source of demand,” Suhey said.

The company hopes to build 15 to 20 more superhubs, many of them in New York City and environs, according to Suhey.

But it will be a significant challenge to find suitable sites that have both available grid capacity and space for numerous vehicles to park. The site where Revel’s Brooklyn superhub facility is located, with 7 megawatts of available power, was a needle in a haystack,” Suhey said. It formerly hosted a pharmaceutical factory with heavy power needs.

Revel is working closely with Con Edison, the utility that serves New York City, to locate potential sites. Other companies and agencies are doing the same. Con Ed will be a crucial player in New York City’s shift to EVs, just as other utilities will play a vital role in the transition around the country and the world.

Building the charging networks to meet New York’s ambitious EV plans 

More than 4 million vehicles operate in New York City on a typical day, and parking space for them is already tight. Garage spots in Manhattan can cost hundreds of dollars a month. The lengths to which New Yorkers will go to secure street parking are the stuff of legend. And many more residents have bought cars during the Covid-19 pandemic, intensifying the parking crunch.

As drivers shift to EVs and their cars need not only parking spots but parking spots with charging capabilities, the challenge will multiply. Few New Yorkers have access to garages where they can charge cars overnight. So planning is now underway to meet what will be an enormous need.

The state of New York, which is second only to California in the scope of its EV ambitions, last year committed to spend $750 million on EV infrastructure investments through 2025. Of that total, Con Edison will spend $290 million to install more than 18,500 Level 2 chargers and nearly 460 direct-current fast chargers through 2025 in its service territory, which includes all of New York City plus Westchester County to the north.

Con Ed’s PowerReady program, also known as the Make-Ready program, offers incentives to companies and government agencies of between 50 and 90 percent of the cost of prepping sites for EV charging. That work includes metering, transformers, wiring, trenching and other costs all the way up to the chargers themselves.

(Con Edison)

Revel’s superhub was subsidized by Con Ed’s PowerReady program. Other projects supported by the program so far include the city’s direct-current fast-charger rollout, charging network operator FLO’s deployment of Level 2 curbside chargers, and a first-of-its-kind charging setup in a midtown Manhattan apartment complex parking garage. All told, the program has received applications for more than 6,000 chargers since its launch, according to Britt Reichborn-Kjennerud, Con Edison’s electric vehicles section manager.

It’s clear the PowerReady incentives are necessary and a primary reason behind the increased activity,” she wrote in an email. Utility incentives help defray the upfront costs of EV chargers in this early stage of development, before there are a lot of EVs on the road.

Reichborn-Kjennerud said most of the projects receiving PowerReady incentives have fallen into the low-hanging fruit” category when it comes to grid upgrades and construction complexity. Even so, finding sites with a good location, a willing site host and adequate grid capacity can be challenging,” especially for larger EV charging stations, she said.

Larger EV charging stations will be important, though, not just to provide reliable recharging for passenger vehicles but also to serve the buses, vans, trucks and work vehicles that must eventually be electrified under the decarbonization mandates of the city and state. On Wednesday, New York City announced $75 million in funding for EVs and chargers for the city’s vehicle fleet.

The PowerReady program also supports city and state goals to expand access to underserved communities, Reichborn-Kjennerud said. A large number of projects…[will be] open to the public and/​or located in apartment buildings in the vicinity of disadvantaged communities.” That support is important because those projects tend to be harder to justify on economic terms at this early stage of EV adoption.

During a Climate Week NYC event on Tuesday, Brenda Mallory, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, emphasized the need to deploy EV charging in a way that meets the Biden administration mandate to support low-income communities and communities of color. Being able to charge your vehicle in a private garage is generally not an option” for many members of these communities, she said. Agencies have to work closely with electric utilities to make sure we’re thinking and acting now for full-scale electrification.”

The grid constraints that threaten EV charging growth

Con Edison’s maps of sites with sufficient capacity to host EV charging indicate just how congested the city grid is. Many of the transformers in its core territory are marked red, indicating the lowest level of hosting capacity available. Sites in green are the only ones likely to be able to currently support loads approaching or exceeding 1 megawatt or more, which is what larger charging hubs like Revel’s would require.

(Con Edison)

Even if individual sites can handle the load, the grid network they’re connected to may not be ready for many of them to be turned on at once. How does the power deployed here affect upstream substations [and] upstream feeder lines?” Suhey asked.

Fleet vehicle charging sites in particular could stress existing grid circuits and power supplies past their limits. A new study by utility National Grid, which serves the Northeastern U.S., and Hitachi ABB Power Grids projected the impact to an unnamed metropolitan area if all of its medium- and heavy-duty commercial fleets switched to electric vehicles. The research found that a majority of feeders would be overloaded or at risk of overloading as a result.

(National Grid and Hitachi ABB Power Grids)

A lot of the fleets are clustered in specific areas, and that’s going to drive some of the more substantial impacts,” said Brian Gemmell, National Grid’s clean energy development officer.

Solutions to the EV overload: Managed charging, vehicle-to-grid charging and battery deployment

One way to reduce the grid strain caused by EVs is through managed charging. An April study of New York City by consultancy ICF found that shifting charging away from peak evening times and into the late evening and early morning could shave about 2 gigawatts of winter peak load from the 800,000 Level 2 chargers and 60,000 direct-current fast chargers needed to meet the city’s goal of a zero-carbon economy by 2050

(ICF, Con Edison and National Grid)

Suhey explained several methods Revel is using to balance its superhub’s grid load. The first is keeping its ride-share fleet on the road during peak times and off the road overnight,” leaving the chargers open to the public during commuting hours. The second is joining the GridRewards program of demand-response provider Logical Buildings, which offers Con Ed customers incentives for cutting power use to help the grid.

Vehicle-to-grid (V2G) systems that tap EV batteries for grid services could also help. Revel is planning V2G pilot project at its Red Hook, Brooklyn service center. Amply and CPower are working on a similar concept with school-bus company Logan Bus, and Con Edison is running V2G pilot with Lion Electric buses in Westchester County.

But both managed charging and V2G are limited by one key factor: how long vehicles can delay filling up their batteries before they need to hit the road. That’s why fast-charger providers are starting to add batteries to store grid power when it’s plentiful and then use it to charge vehicles when the grid’s under stress.

Revel is adding a battery to its Brooklyn superhub, and Con Edison is working with demand-response provider Centrica to install a battery alongside 18 fast chargers in Brooklyn. Beyond protecting the grid from excess draw, batteries can help limit demand charges, the fees imposed on customers for using electricity during periods of peak demand that can add project-killing costs to charging hubs.

It’s time to think big

At some point, it’s highly likely that Con Edison and other utilities with major EV charging plans will have to invest in upgrading their grids to meet future loads.

That’s a work in progress in New York City. Con Edison is working with stakeholders and state regulators to facilitate the buildout of the scale of the infrastructure necessary,” Reichborn-Kjennerud said.

On-the-ground experiences in China, the world leader in EV deployment, highlight just how far U.S. cities have to go to prepare their grids for these goals, said Dave Mullaney, a principal on RMI’s Carbon-Free Mobility team. The nonprofit research organization’s analysis of Shenzhen, Southern China’s tech hub, tracked the massive investments that support the nearly 100,000 electric taxis, vans, buses and light trucks that now serve that city. (Canary Media is an independent subsidiary of RMI.)

We need to think much bigger. Revel just built New York’s largest charging superhub with 25 charging plugs. A mega-charging hub in Shenzhen has 500,” Mullaney said. We’re going to have enormous industrial-scale loads popping up in dense neighborhoods. We have to be thinking about what we need to do in the next 10 to 15 years to get there.”

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.