A few days ago, Canadian newspapers published an interesting, but slightly misguided article on the issues of moving gas stations to charging stations. You can read it here.
The summary of this article is that the transition from gas to electricity for inter-city travel is too hard and too expensive. The article missed the fact that the transition is going to take years and that there are other factors at play that make the conversion of a highway service stations a potential money spinner.
Timing: Even if Canada stopped buying fossil/ICE cars today and switched over to 100% battery electric vehicles, it would take 10 years or more to replace the current cars on the road. We buy just under 2 million cars per year and there are about 22 million cars on the road. Many cars now last 15-20 years so the time for total replacement will be much longer. Given current projections my guess is that it will take 20 years or more for the transition to run its course.
Electrical supply changes: In 2016 the US generated about 65% of its electricity from natural gas (33.8%) and coal (30.4%) plus a small amount of oil and other non-renewables, 19.7% came from nuclear and 14.9 percent from renewables, Hydro (6.5%) wind (5.6%), biomass (1.5%), solar (0.9%) geothermal (0.4%).
US solar and wind capacity will continue to grow, even in the current political environment. As renewables grow, the issue becomes matching sunny and windy days to electrical demand. Storing electrical power for use later enables the power grid to make much better use of solar and wind reducing the use of fossil fuel. Tesla’s Powerwall is designed for a single home, but local, regional and grid energy storage systems are being deployed now.
As the installed base of renewables rises, grid storage becomes more and more attractive and important. By storing power in the grid or at the edge of the grid, renewable energy can be captured when excess is available and delivered back to customers when demand exceeds supply. If we are to move to 100% renewables, this will require a lot of power storage. Homes will have power walls and EVs connected to act as storage, neighbourhoods will have local storage and there will be lots of grid storage whether it is battery or other techologies.
How does this impact gas station conversion? Urban areas will not require as much public charging capacity as most EVs will be charged at home or work. Existing models of deploying Level 2 and 3 chargers will be extended, supermarkets, shopping centres, hotels and other destinations with parking will continue to deploy charges because they want to attract customers. Local gas stations will slowly disappear and are unlikely to be replaced directly. As home EV charging has about the same impact as running central air-conditioning, the impact on the grid will be small and will be off-set by home solar and battery systems.
Along highways away from urban centres the story is very different; there is a real need for significant infrastructure to support long distance EV travel. A typical gas station delivers of the order of 200,000km of range per day to the vehicles it services. This is a huge amount of energy and is highly variable. On a holiday Friday evening, some gas stations deliver much more gas than the average day.
The move from gas to electric does not need a one for one replacement of capacity as behaviour and patterns change as we move from fueling to charging. Rather than leaving on a trip in your fossil car with whatever gas you happen to have in the tank, your EV will be fully charged before you leave home. Your car will have a range of 4-500km before you need to charge. This may serve to limit the number of times we need to stop as Ottawa-Toronto would not need a charging stop and Montreal-Toronto would only need one quick stop.
What does a highway service station of 2025 or 2030 look like? The obvious change is that all the parking spots have high power EV chargers. A visit to the service station is just pull up, plug in and go find the coffee and the washroom. With a new generation of EVs charging at 150kW, 200km range added takes only a few minutes and you are on your way. As there is no holding a fuel nozzle in the rain to fuel up, more time is available to relax and take a break from driving.
So this all seems great but how do we get there? The obvious answer is slowly, there is a huge investment required to make this all work but there is a less obvious way this can all work and be economic. The one key technology is local battery storage to smooth demand on the grid. Tesla is already deploying battery storage and solar at their Supercharger locations with the long term goal of disconnecting Superchargers from the grid completely.
The scale required to support a highway service area in a world where most vehicles are EVs brings us back to grid storage. By building large scale energy storage at service stations to allow them to deal with holiday weekends without overloading the local grid service stations have a huge and potentially profitable asset they can use as grid energy storage. Grid storage works by charging when electricity supply exceeds demand when prices are low or even negative and then selling that power back to the grid when prices are high. This technology reduces the need to have lots of backup generating capacity in the grid.
Because we all tend to hit the road on the holidays, there will be a huge difference between the typical usage of the chargers and the peak usage. This means that the energy storage can be used by the grid most of the time, providing a significant revenue opportunity.
This model has the possibility to move service stations to an entirely sustainable future, both economically and environmentally. As service stations are largely rural, colocation of solar and wind farms is also attractive.
For highway service areas, the transition from selling gas to becoming a key part of the electricity supply system will not be easy, but it is achievable and potential profitable.