Switching from a gas-powered car to an electric one is a lifestyle change, primarily because charging takes more time than filling up with gas and EV chargers are still few and far between. Public chargers are also less reliable than gas pumps, as almost anyone who has taken an EV on a road trip will tell you.
Canada currently has more than 16,000 public EV chargers, with about three-quarters of those categorized as Level 2, meaning that they charge more slowly than Level 3 fast chargers. A report from Natural Resources Canada suggests the country will need about 200,000 public EV chargers by 2030 and about 440,000 by 2035 to accommodate all the EVs it expects will be on the road.
While some cars can charge to 80 per cent from about 10 per cent at a Level 3 charger in about 20 minutes, you’re looking at about five hours to replenish your battery at a Level 2 charger connected to a 240-volt outlet.
But even when EV drivers find a charger, it may be in use or not be working properly, plagued by everything from frozen screens to glitchy apps to payment difficulties to bad network connections. Even vandalism.
How serious is the problem of EV charger downtime? That depends whom you ask. A June 2022 survey of 1,600 EV owners across Canada by Pollution Probe, an environmental non-profit, found that 21 per cent of those surveyed said the charging stations they attempted to use were often out of service. But a Canada Standards Report showed that as of January 2022, 5.9 per cent of Level 2 chargers and 4.7 per cent of Level 3 chargers in Canada were not working.
Right now, there’s no industry standard definition of downtime, but Frank Fata, global head for utilities and energy partnerships at Quebec-based EV charging station network Flo looks at it from the customer’s perspective. “When they drive up to a unit, they expect it to provide the service of charging the vehicle in a clean manner and without any complications,” he says.
Flo designs and manufactures all the units on its network, and primarily depends on its connected network operations centre to monitor the systems. While Fata couldn’t provide an average response time for downed units, he asserts that Flo has a 97-per-cent [in service] rate.
Fata also says the most common causes of outages are rarely the chargers themselves. “We are designing all kinds of sensors into these units so that we can detect cut cables, or damages to the unit in different ways,” he says, but admits there are no sensors that can detect a vandal’s spray paint on a unit, which is not only unsightly but may also obscure user instructions. Flo collaborates with utilities such as BC Hydro, Hydro-Québec, NB Power, Fortis BC and Alectra Utilities in Southern Ontario to share in maintenance of the chargers, but would not confirm whether the units will be inspected more often.
In the United States, many networks such as Flo hire a third-party EV charger-maintenance organization, ChargerHelp Inc., to keep their EV chargers running smoothly. “The numbers [of downed chargers] are scary; we don’t take pride in that,” says Jaime Duyck, chief revenue officer at Los Angeles-based ChargerHelp. When the company started in January 2020, it inspected more than 5,000 charging stations in the United States and found 30 to 40 per cent were down or had substandard performance. Of those, 97 per cent of the issues were non-electrical, meaning that the chargers did not have problems with installation or receiving power from the grid. Some of the issues included broken hardware, software not communicating properly, inadequate cell signals and other problems that the company is still trying to identify. ChargerHelp has more than a dozen clients, including Tesla, Rivian and other charging station manufacturers, charging station network providers, and owners and operators.
Duyck calls EV chargers software-heavy “glorified Internet of Things devices,” which makes them vulnerable to multiple failure points. Everything from software to hardware can break. “Software can’t see that a cable was cut or a latch is broken,” she says.
That’s why Duyck thinks it’s essential to visit charger locations. “If a charger is publicly deployed, it should at minimum be touched once a quarter to ensure that the station is working as intended and the driver experience is at the level expected.”
She thinks visiting, touching, surveying and managing the performance of public stations will be a key factor in getting ahead of problems. “The focus on uptime and reliability is getting better. Operations and maintenance needs to be a Day One conversation.” In other words, there has to be a plan to keep chargers up and running right from the start. According to Duyck, there is no equivalent of ChargerHelp in Canada.
Petro-Canada acknowledged in an open letter that it had experienced “difficulties in meeting the expectations of EV drivers” and conceded that the company is using “lessons learned and user feedback” to improve reliability.
According to David Fath, general manager of marketing at Petro-Canada, the company is working around supply-chain issues, as well as hiring more service providers (who are contracted from a third-party company) with different diagnostic tools.
“We’ve got people on site who can do a simple diagnostic test to make sure that the screen is on, the area around the chargers is clean, and work with the service provider to get it back up,” says Fath, but provided no specifics on downtime.
In Ontario, Hydro One and Ontario Power Generation’s Ivy charging network has been rolling out Level 3 fast chargers at OnRoute rest stop sites along Highway 400 and 401. Michael Kitchen, general manager at Ivy, says their chargers are connected and working 98 per cent of the time. Ivy relies on real-time monitoring through software, as well as online customer feedback and data from charging sessions.
Kitchen said preventive maintenance for Level 3 Ivy chargers is done at least twice a year and back-end software can often be used to troubleshoot and rectify an issue, as opposed to sending out a third-party maintenance provider.
Just before the holidays, Ivy sent out an email service alert to its customers about problems at “select charging stations.” In the email, Ivy said it was monitoring its network and working with the operations team and hardware partners to resolve any problems. In view of the inconvenience, fees were being reduced to 10 cents a minute, or $6 an hour, at those locations. Regular rates are 30 cents a minute or $18 an hour.
Deconstructing the public EV charging ecosystem
Every time an EV owner charges their vehicle at a public EV charger, they’re plugging into a vast ecosystem. All the components of this ecosystem are wired to interact with each other and facilitate EV charging. But while some components are easy to use and understand, others involve confusing jargon, abbreviations and acronyms.
The chargers themselves are referred to as Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment, or EVSE. Each unit includes all the EV charge cords, attachment plugs, vehicle connectors and electrical protection, allowing for the safe and efficient transfer of electricity from the utility to the EV.
These chargers are connected to a branded network, such as Flo, Ivy or Circuit électrique. The network is administered and supported by a variety of individual companies. In order to use a network’s public EV chargers, drivers must set up an account with each network, which can be done by downloading an app to their smartphone.
Sometimes, a network is part of a utility, which provides hydro-electric power to businesses and consumers. For example, the Ivy network is associated with Hydro One, Ontario’s provincial utility. In British Columbia, BC Hydro has its own network, and Electric Circuit/Circuit électrique is the EV charging network of Hydro-Québec.
Electric Circuit/Circuit électrique also manufactures its own charging stations, as do Flo network, Swtch and ChargePoint.
Increasingly, networks are partnering with each other to provide roaming, a more seamless way for EV owners to charge their vehicle. Roaming provides interoperability between networks, thereby cutting down on the number of network apps required by EV drivers for public EV charging. An example is the Flo network, where EV drivers can use the Flo app to charge at BC Hydro EV, ChargePoint, Electric Circuit/Circuit électrique and Greenlots charging stations.
Shell owns Greenlots, which makes it an example of a gas company that has its own EV charging network. However, not all Shell gas stations have EV chargers. The same is true for Petro-Canada, as well as Parkland, which operates Chevron, Esso and Pioneer service stations.
Some vehicle manufacturers have developed their own EV charging networks. Volkswagen, for instance, has Electrify Canada and Electrify America. Other vehicle manufacturers with their own networks include Tesla, Rivian and, soon, Mercedes-Benz.
Public EV chargers may be maintained and serviced in proper operating condition by specially trained technicians, known as service providers. They’re either part of the network, work independently, or are part of a third-party organization. Every network has their own approach for using these service providers to keep their chargers up and running.