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Special Report: Infrastructure – Zero-Emission Czar

With California’s mandate that by 2035 all new vehicles sold in the state must emit zero emissions, the race is on to build the electric vehicle charging infrastructure to accommodate the expected crush of electric vehicles. And one local organization stands at the center of the effort to convert the region to zero emission vehicle transportation: Pasadena-based Calstart, a group of 300 member companies and organizations all tied to the electric vehicle sector. Calstart also is in the midst of disbursing hundreds of millions of dollars in state funds to build out the zero-emission vehicle sector. Calstart’s chief executive is John Boesel, a former state legislative aide and Wells Fargo Bank executive who joined Calstart in 1993 as vice president of technology programs and became chief executive in 2001.
The Business Journal spoke with Boesel about the state of the region’s electric vehicle charging industry and his organization’s role in speeding the transition.

Question: What does Calstart do?
Answer: Calstart is a consortium of 300 member companies ranging from a startup working on a new electric vehicle battery going up to large-scale car and truck and bus manufacturers. The consortium also includes utilities, suppliers, fleets, investors and other parties. The membership extends beyond California to include companies such as UPS, Fed-Ex, Frito Lay, Ford, Tesla and truck manufacturer Peterbilt. Our goal as a consortium is two-fold: to get more zero-emission vehicles on the road and to boost employment in the sector.

John Boesel, the chief executive of Calstart, wants to increase employment in the zero-emission sector.

Do you see the Los Angeles region as the nation’s leading hub for companies developing/deploying electric vehicle charging infrastructure?
L.A. County, with its 10 million people, may end up being the county with the most (electric vehicle) chargers anywhere in the nation. As things stand now, about half of all EVs sold in U.S. are sold in California, with a high concentration of those EVs sold here in L.A. County. Given this, we fully expect to see more EV charging done in this county than any other county.

What about companies in the electric vehicle charging infrastructure space? Is L.A. the leader?
Right now, I would give a little more edge to Silicon Valley. There’s ChargePoint (based in Campbell), which probably has the largest number of chargers deployed of any company in the nation. In the L.A. area, EVgo is the largest deployer right now. Overall, you see more companies in Silicon Valley pivoting to the electric vehicle charging space, while here in L.A. you tend to see more startups.

What are the key ingredients prompting the formation of startups in the Los Angeles region that are developing/deploying electric vehicle charging infrastructure?
The huge size of the market is driving things forward. There’s simply more demand for electric vehicle charging stations here than anywhere else in the country. Also a driver is the focus on accelerating the transition from diesel to electric trucks in and around the ports. The California Air Resource Board has really targeted that region. There are lots of routes coming out of the ports that are compatible with today’s battery-electric trucks. I expect we will see a growing concentration of electric truck-charging depots and charging stops here – probably more so than anywhere else in the state.

What are some of the key obstacles/challenges for companies in this space seeking to set up shop in the Los Angeles region?
Right now, companies are still searching for the right business model. Look at what Tesla has done: it’s a one-click experience to figure out where the nearest charging station is and how to get there, then plug and charge right away, have a simple payment system and ensure the reliability of charging equipment so there’s no long periods of downtime. The other charging companies need to be able to offer a comparable user experience to what Tesla is offering its customers. And right now, the business models of the companies here generally don’t seem to be quite aligned with this.

What do you mean when you say the business models are not aligned?
Well, you can’t just sell equipment to someone else to operate, which is what a lot of companies are doing here. You have to be able to reap a higher return on investment on that charger – to generate profit from it. You also have to focus on charger reliability. The key is that a company’s (charger) system must be accessible, reliable and affordable.

What do you see as the key challenges standing in the way of the L.A. region having sufficient EV charging capacity by 2035, when the ban on sales of new internal combustion-powered vehicles takes effect?
I think the goal is definitely achievable. The problems can be managed as there are engineering solutions to them. It will be critical that we see the grid transformed over that period and that we have more reliable renewable power. Right now, being able to get renewable power in fall and winter when we don’t have as much hydro and solar is a bit of a challenge. You also have to store renewable energy to be called upon when needed. A lot of the EV charging does get done overnight, so that’s a help because there’s capacity in the system to handle overnight charging.

Is enough being done to ensure that every multifamily resident in Los Angeles County has access to an electric vehicle charging station at – or within a reasonable distance of – their place of residence by 2035?
That’s a real issue right now. It’s much easier for someone living in a single-family detached house to charge their EV at the cheapest rates. We need to get multifamily owners in this in a big way. Right now, they are not being terribly cooperative. There may have to be some sort of mandate for multifamily property owners, combined with financial incentives.

Any other strategies on the multifamily property front?
Yes. Right now, a lot of attention is on multifamily properties with parking spaces. But in Los Angeles, there are many multifamily buildings with little or no onsite parking. That means residents have to park on the street. And what’s being done for those people? In Europe, for example, some cities provide power for EV street charging by tapping into the power in streetlight posts.

Anything else?
We also need to look at getting employers more involved, providing more electric vehicle charging at the workplace. I think public funding should be used to make sure that every public-sector worker – from the teacher to the firefighter – can go to work and get their vehicles charged.

 

The huge size of the market is driving things forward.
John Boesel
Calstart

 

Speaking of funding, please describe the funding programs that Calstart administers on behalf of the state for electric vehicle charging infrastructure buildout.
We have one program called Energiize that’s focused on the commercial-vehicle sector. That program is funded up to $270 million to provide incentives for infrastructure for hydrogen-fueled or battery-powered electric trucks and buses. So far, we’ve allocated $60 million from that program.

Are there any other programs Calstart is disbursing funds for?
Yes, a program called Communities in Charge that is authorized for $90 million to be spent building up Level 2 charging infrastructure. We’re now setting that program up with the California Energy Commission; it’s expected to be up and running early next year.

Just to clarify, what is Level 2 charging?
Level 2 charging is at 240 volts, double the standard electrical plug outlet one finds in homes. Wiring must be specially adapted to accommodate the higher voltage flow. Level 2 chargers can charge a car completely overnight. These are distinct from Level 3 “fast chargers” EVgo is deploying in public spaces that can charge a vehicle in 30 to 45 minutes.

EV Charging Station
A ChargePoint EV charger at work. The company is a member of the Calstart consortium.

Any other initiatives that Calstart is working on?
We’re just launching an effort to solve the user experience for charging for light-duty vehicles (cars, sport utility vehicles, etc.) We’re also kicking off a national program to promote the workplace charging that I referenced earlier.

What’s ahead for the Calstart organization itself?
Over the last three year we’ve been growing at 40% a year. We’re up to 145 employees and 300 member companies. It’s super exciting to see how many new companies are entering this space. We could easily see ourselves hitting 400 member companies in a couple of years.

 

Howard Fine
Howard Fine
Howard Fine is a 23-year veteran of the Los Angeles Business Journal. He covers stories pertaining to healthcare, biomedicine, energy, engineering, construction, and infrastructure. He has won several awards, including Best Body of Work for a single reporter from the Alliance of Area Business Publishers and Distinguished Journalist of the Year from the Society of Professional Journalists.
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