Electric vehicles will never be mainstream without a charging network that grows in tandem. Luckily, that’s already happening. And supply chain hiccups aside, the two are likely to keep pace, according to ChargePoint CEO Pasquale Romano.
ChargePoint makes and sells EV charging infrastructure to independent businesses, then adds them to an online network that shows customers where they are. The company’s chargers form the largest online network of independently owned stations in the U.S., and it has expanded internationally as well.
When Romano took the helm at ChargePoint over a decade ago, he believed in his bones that demand for a charging network would continue to build, even at a time when EVs were a rarity on the road. While that increase in EV demand has mostly come to pass, building out the charging network is still in beta mode. That’s set to change this decade, though.
ChargePoint’s new report on the future of electric mobility predicts that we are approaching a tipping point for EV adoption, one that utility policy and rate designs will evolve to accommodate. It also predicts that the search for somewhere to fuel (read: charge) will soon be a digital experience governed largely by apps, and that home charging will take off.
In light of the report’s launch on Tuesday, Romano sat down with Protocol for an interview about his expectations for the coming years, including whether charging networks will grow quickly enough to accommodate the surge of demand that he anticipates.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Do you think we’re approaching a tipping point when it comes to EV adoption?
What's actually happening is a demand shock, not a supply shock. A long time ago, we defined the EV tipping point as the threshold where we have electric choices as consumers, regardless of what kind of car we drive. Do you drive a pickup, a compact car, a luxury sedan or an SUV? How much did it cost? When we have electric choices that cover not all but most of what consumers drive, then we will have a prayer of penetrating the mass market. And I think we’re there.
But auto manufacturers have had to pick up production capacity. They have to buy factory equipment and the materials to make these things. Production capacity doesn’t grow on trees. So they make a fixed number of cars per year, and they want to transform some percentage of those to electric and then every year increase that share until they aren’t making gas cars anymore. That’s a multiyear planning cycle. I don’t think auto manufacturers expected demand to flip this hard.
The thing is, there's plenty of material in the Earth to support what we're doing: You're already seeing great battery recycling capability starting to get operationalized. I think we'll hit some hiccups and misalignment in timing, but it’ll all work itself out.
Have issues with the supply chain caused any problems for ChargePoint in recent years?
You can make a McDonald’s Happy Meal toy and you’re being hit by supply chain issues. If you make a physical thing, you’re being hit by supply chain issues. So yes, we’ve been affected. We’ve managed it well, so it hasn’t kept us from growing handsomely, but it's a struggle every day. And the reason is that there’s a randomness to it. You don't know what is going to go short, and then it goes short instantly.
I don't think auto manufacturers expected demand to flip this hard.
In the Charging Forward report, you say that the ChargePoint network has grown by more than 300% in the last five years; that roughly parallels EV sales in Europe and North America, which grew 340% in that same period. Do you anticipate that the expansion of ChargePoint’s network will happen at roughly the same pace as purchases of EVs?
When you zoom way back, there isn't a whole lot of surging that's going to happen. When you look at a vertical within EV charging, you might get a policy that could cause the network to grow more quickly. So you might have a policy campaign like [the Biden administration’s initiative] the NEVI program that will affect the build ahead or other things that can cause some ebb and flow. But in totality, the network will be built at the same pace as cars, generally. And it has been for 15 years. You might have a year where something bursts ahead a little bit, but if you average over just a few years, the network will pretty much grow with cars. And it doesn't need to go any faster.
I’ve heard concerns about access to charging for people living in multifamily housing, like apartments in big urban centers where garages are thin on the ground. Can you speak to those worries and how they might factor into the development of the ChargePoint network?
One of our fastest growing segments is our multifamily program. It’s a very simple problem, and a very cost-effective problem. We have a charging-as-a-service program for multifamily dwellings, so we can even cover a lot of the last little bits of hardware and bill the tenant directly for the electricity, just like if it were your house, but instead, you’re renting it.
Where policy comes in is that a lot of utilities are starting to realize charging where a customer lives is important. So they say, “We’ll cover everything up to the point of that first charger: the line extension, the upgrade of that utility infrastructure.” Programs like that tend to work out pretty well as an example of the companionship between a utility and a company like us. Our prediction is that it's going to become a competitive problem for most apartments and condominiums within five years or so. That's why they build gyms, that's why they put pools in. They'll have to have charging, and it’s easier than building a gym or putting a pool in. Already, enough are gaining that awareness, especially in areas where there is high EV penetration. So I think that problem is going away.