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Building Out Electric Vehicle Infrastructure: Where Are the Best Locations for Charging Stations?

Researchers from Ohio State University released a report chronicling how to best determine where charging stations can go to encourage electric vehicle adoption.

For cities looking to increase their electric vehicle ridership, a dilemma exists: What comes first, electric vehicles themselves or the charging station infrastructure?

In attempting to answer this classic “chicken or the egg” quandary, researchers from Ohio State University sought to discover how local municipalities can make more informed decisions about where to place charging stations — a pertinent determination because if municipalities decide to invest in EV-infrastructure, they will want to build stations in prime locations that are frequently used.

Using 1.1 million conventional vehicles’ route data that modeled typical driving patterns in the Columbus metro area, Ramteen Sioshansi, associate professor for Ohio State’s Department of Integrated Systems Engineering and a primary author of the report, said he developed a methodology to determine the ideal places for charging stations that could help spur electric vehicle adoption.

For Columbus, the primary targets are located on the I-270 beltway, a stretch of highway encircling the urban core. Sioshansi said he determined where to place charging stations based on major "points of interest" like grocery stores, retail centers and local landmarks. By using a test case in which 3 percent of light-duty vehicles were electrified, Sioshansi and his team were able to determine ideal charging station sites.

Additionally, by researching how long average vehicles are stopped in places, adding a simple electronic controller to charging stations could maximize efficiencies for multiple vehicle charging.

While the data for this study came from the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission, Sioshansi said it can be replicated elsewhere by plugging in data sets from any metropolitan area.

“The methodology is completely generic,” said Sioshansi. “It has nothing Ohio-specific.”

The algorithm used can be deployed in any location seeking information on the best sites for charging stations; in fact, the team has been contacted to run the same study for the Cleveland region.

While charging station location is a prime concern, it is only one hurdle EVs face in trying to break into the mainstream. Consumer adoption is another.

While EV sales do continue to grow year over year, they only make up 1 percent of the overall passenger vehicle market given the common problem of consumers' “reticence to jump on board with new technology,” Sioshansi said. “People are worried they’re going to end up owning a BetaMax VCR.”

But over the last five years, the electrification of vehicles has accelerated at a much more rapid speed. Electricity is ultimately more efficient than gasoline, and the growth of natural gas development and green technologies such as solar and wind have drastically reduced its cost.

Non-monetary benefits such as eliminating greenhouse gas emissions have been a huge draw toward electric vehicles, especially Tesla, whose first models were marketed to techies and those concerned with their carbon footprint, Sioshansi explained.

Building out charging stations also has an ancillary benefit of lowering strain on the electric grid during peak hours. Energy usage is most strained during the day while most generators sit idle at night, Sioshansi said. If more people used electric cars and charged them at night, he added, then energy produced by the generators wouldn’t be going to waste.

Cities should be thinking about where EV infrastructure will be set up sooner rather than later. With infrastructure, good decisions are hard to measure without the test of time, and “having a one-year view, you may end up making very poor decisions if you're that myopic,” Sioshansi said. “You may have infrastructure you build today 20 to 30 years from now.”

Ryan McCauley was a staff writer for Government Technology magazine from October 2016 through July 2017, and previously served as the publication's editorial assistant.