Want faster, cheaper EV charger installations? Stop digging

Shoals Technologies’ new aboveground cabling system can be deployed in a fraction of the time and eliminates a lot of the guesswork — and extra cost.
By Jeff St. John

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Shoals Technologies eMobility test center in Portland, Tenn.
Shoals Technologies’ eMobility business takes costly and time-consuming underground trenching out of EV charging deployments by putting everything, including cables, above ground. (Shoals Technologies)

Sometimes the biggest cost reductions for clean energy technologies come not from innovation in labs or factories, but from simple and commonsense improvements in how they’re deployed in the field.

For electric-vehicle charging infrastructure, that field is the parking lot — or, in the case of Shoals Technologies Group, on top of the parking lot. And Shoals’ latest improvement is a system for laying cables and wires aboveground, not below.

Last week, Shoals, a major provider of electrical equipment for the solar, energy-storage and more recently the EV-charging industries, announced that it has received certification to UL Standards for its first set of aboveground eMobility charging solutions.”

These solutions include everything needed to connect EV chargers to the power grid besides the chargers themselves. That means the equipment to convert grid power to charging-ready power, the standardized cabling arrays to carry that power where it’s needed, and the raceways” — aboveground cable housing structures that run across parking lots and can withstand being driven over by trucks weighing tons without buckling or shifting, leaving the cables inside undisturbed.

By eliminating underground trenching, this aboveground infrastructure could help slash 20 to 40 percent off the cost of typical EV-charging installations and cut the time to get the permits, equipment and skilled labor to do that work from weeks or months to days, according to Jeff Tolnar, senior vice president of eMobility at Shoals. It also converts the literally sunk costs of cables and power equipment buried under parking lots into modular and mobile capital equipment that can be picked up and moved to meet customers’ changing needs.

In other words, it’s taking Shoals’ expertise in driving down costs in solar projects and applying it to the EV-charging space, he said. Shoals is a vendor of balance-of-system” equipment that’s needed to connect items like solar panels into functional systems.

Tolnar — a serial entrepreneur who joined Shoals last year and whose last company, EV-charging software provider Greenlots, was sold to Shell in 2019 — said it’s been an enormous amount of fun” to build out the new aboveground eMobility line.

It’s also a way to try to shave off a portion of the tens of billions of dollars needed to build charging infrastructure to support a shift from fossil-fueled to electric vehicles. 

The Biden administration last week authorized the first tranche of $5 billion in EV-charging infrastructure grants created by last year’s infrastructure law, which also directs billions of dollars to EV charging for communities, school districts and federal agencies. States including California and New York are also directing billions in state and utility funds toward charging-equipment buildouts. And more than $6.4 billion in equity and debt financing has been channeled toward private-sector EV charging providers in the U.S., according to advisory group Atlas Public Policy.

But multiple studies have shown that the steady cost declines for ever-more-capable EV chargers over the past half-decade or so haven’t yet been matched by a corresponding drop in the costs of installing them.

A January report from consultancy ICF highlighted the wide variation in installation costs as a key source of uncertainty about how much it will cost to get hundreds of thousands of chargers in the ground. Data from California EV-charging projects showed that the installation costs for DC fast chargers varied from as low as $4,000 to as high as $137,000 per charger.

Chart of DC fast charging costs. the average cost of equipment is $37,140, the average cost of installation is $66,045
Installation costs can be far higher than the costs of EV chargers themselves and are far harder to predict. (ICF)

A 2019 report from decarbonization think tank RMI summarized other obstacles for U.S. EV-charging projects: The costs of permitting delays, utility interconnection requests, compliance with a balkanized framework of regulations, and the reengineering of projects because they were based on incorrect information, among others, were frequently cited as more significant cost drivers than charging station hardware.” (Canary Media is an independent affiliate of RMI.)

Shoals’ aboveground modular system doesn’t solve all of these problems. But it does help with two key challenges, Tolnar said: First, EV charging costs too much to deploy. Second, the site host is disrupted for far too long” during installation.

A snap-together, truck-proof EV-charging Erector Set 

Shoals’ aboveground raceways contain eight channels for cables to run through. They come in walk-over” formats no higher than a typical street curb and drive-over” formats about the height of a speed bump. The chief engineering challenge is making sure they aren’t crushed or shoved out of alignment by heavy vehicles driving over them, Tolnar said.

When you’ve got a 50,000-pound vehicle hitting it constantly, the issue is, what’s my shear force?” he said. Shoals uses earth screws, an alternative to dug concrete foundations, to anchor the raceways in place. Test installations at its headquarters in Portland, Tennessee and in real-world environments have shown that the company’s raceways move less than a couple of millimeters after hundreds of drive-overs by fully loaded Class 8 trucks, according to Tolnar.

With that durability, Shoals’ system removes the need for expensive and time-consuming trenching for the cables that run from the power center that’s connected to the utility grid to the individual charging ports that vehicles plug into. That eliminates the lengthy process of waiting on a trench to be dug, for conduits to be laid, and then an inspection, then you backfill again, then you inspect again,” he said.. The Shoals aboveground system can lay the same cables in just a few days, he said.

Drive-over EV charger cabling raceway
One of Shoals Technologies' drive-over cabling raceways, well worn from repeated testing with heavy-duty trucks at the company's Portland, Tenn. eMobility testing center. (Shoals Technologies)

John Halliwell, senior technical executive at the Electric Power Research Institute, sees potential for Shoals’ approach. He said that trenching or boring underground channels for cabling is one of the more costly and onerous parts of a big electrical project, whether it’s putting in streetlights or EV chargers. We’ve been putting lights in parking lots for a long time, but I would bet you money that no electrician would give you a flat price for that,” he said. Before tallying the final cost, they need to figure out things like: What am I digging up? What am I running into? What local ordinances do I have to deal with?”

Anywhere you dig, there may be gas lines, water lines, sewer lines,” he said. Those take time to map out with local utilities, and trench lines may need to be rerouted to avoid them, he said. Making cuts in streets or sidewalks adds costs and requires landowners to get local government approval.

This means that eliminating trenching can lead to huge cost savings” in certain circumstances, he said. Still, he added, Will it be cheaper at every site? Probably not.” 

Tolnar argued that its systems can save costs in a number of ways. The modular nature of an aboveground project means that much of it can be done by general labor, rather than by licensed electricians. And licensed electricians are like gold these days. To find them and use them efficiently is a high priority.”

That modularity extends to the pedestals that Shoals has designed to quickly plug into different Level 2 and DC fast chargers, he said. We’ve changed out a Level 2 charger in about 15 minutes,” compared to the hours it typically takes to disconnect and reconnect chargers that aren’t preconfigured for ease of replacement.

In fact, Shoals’ aboveground equipment can be entirely lifted up and moved to a new location. That’s something he’s learned could be quite valuable for EV fleet owners such as school districts buying or leasing electric school buses.

A lot of those school buses are on leased properties,” Tolnar said. In a typical deployment, 40 to 60 percent [of the charging equipment] is buried underground. You can’t rip those out and reuse them.” With the Shoals aboveground equipment, I can take my toys with me. We call it permanent but portable.”

Getting a new technology onto the ground 

Shoals also believes its new system can help streamline the permitting needed from city, county or state entities for this kind of electrical and construction work. These authorities are all unique and have their own opinion,” he said.

But Shoals’ new UL certification can give permitting authorities confidence in its factory-produced components, Tolnar said. We’ll work with them every step of the way — we’ll get them documentation, we’ll work with them to get a better understanding of this method.”

Halliwell agreed that Shoals and other companies with novel approaches to EV-charging projects, such as the heavy-duty charging systems being integrated in cargo containers, need to work with permitting agencies and electrical contractors. Once they’ve inspected some of these and seen two or three installs, they may know what to expect,” he said.

Shoals hasn’t yet named any customers that are currently using its aboveground eMobility system, but it has some well-positioned partners promoting it. Last year Shoals announced a collaboration with global business consultancy Ernst & Young to work on methods to optimize deployment time and capital efficiency” for customers exploring EV-charging deployments.

And early this year, Shoals launched a strategic agreement with Luminace, the North American clean-energy-as-a-service business of Brookfield Renewable Partners, to work on renewable energy and EV-charging projects. Pairing solar and batteries with EV charging is increasingly common for customers that want lower-cost and lower-carbon solar power to charge vehicles, as well as batteries to cushion the costs of pulling power from the grid.

Finding sites with the physical space and power grid capacity to support lots of EVs charging at once is a big challenge. Some companies are using software to schedule charging to avoid overtaxing the grid, combining batteries with novel power electronics technologies to manage these grid constraints.

No single innovation will be able to eliminate all of the cost uncertainties facing EV-charging projects, Halliwell said. I root for every company that comes up with a different approach,” he said. If you can put more charging hardware out there for the same amount of dollars, that’s good for everyone.”

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.