June 14th, 2020 by Loren McDonald
Workplace charging has long been touted as one of the keys to electric vehicle adoption, particularly in major urban and suburban office markets. But as potentially millions of office workers continue to permanently work from home a majority of the time after stay-at-home orders are rescinded, how might this impact the role of workplace charging in the coming years?
Millions of technology and white collar workers have functioned exceedingly well from home the last few months, and our mass telecommuting experiment proved that many office workers don’t need to sit next to each other to collaborate, to be productive, and to be innovative. Companies such as Twitter have said that employees don’t need to come back to the office, and Global Workplace Analytics forecasts that 25–30% of these office workers may work mostly at home in the coming few years.
In the heat of the moment, we tend to overestimate the rate of change, and I think this is true this time as well. As someone who has been a productive worker from home the past 12 years, I’m a huge fan of what in the ’90s we called “telecommuting.” But while most of us who work in regions like Silicon Valley don’t especially enjoy 2–3 hour roundtrip commutes, there can be significant pleasure in fostering work and personal relationships with your co-workers.
I love working from home, but my 25 year-old daughter absolutely hates it and can’t wait to get back into the office to socialize with her fellow employees. So, for many reasons, I’m not as bullish as Global Workplace Analytics that 25–30% of white collar office workers will remain working from home, but I do think it could easily be in the 10–20% range.
So, what if one-fifth of office workers in many major US markets stopped commuting to work all or most of the time? What direct impact might that have on EV charging?
This shift could have an impact not just on workplace charging, but other types of charging locations that now might be relied on more frequently from EV driving office workers. These include:
Fewer workers commuting to corporate campuses: Tech companies such as Twitter, Square, Facebook, Google, and others will let many employees continue to work from home once stay-at-home orders dissipate. Facebook expects that potentially half of its workforce might permanently work from home or remotely, and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced that all employees of the social media company would not have to return to the office.
In a recent CNBC|SurveyMonkey survey of tech workers, more than a quarter (27%) say they’ll want to work from home all the time from now on, and 36% say they’ll want to work from home more often than they used to.
Image Source: CNBC
Impact: With fewer workers needing to charge up at work, companies will not need to install as many charging stations to meet worker demand as EV adoption increases. On the flip, some progressive companies might increase the number of charging stations or make charging free (if they charged employees previously) to encourage employees to work from corporate offices at least a few days per week.
In a conversation with Alex Karos, Lead Architect of EV Infrastructure at General Motors, his take was that we are still so early in the EV charging infrastructure buildout, that any shift to more remote workers would generally just reduce the current overload of demand at many high-tech campuses.
And Michael Hughes, Chief Commercial and Revenue Officer at ChargePoint, told me that the EV charging company continues to engage with key workplace partners on a number of projects and they anticipate that as more workplaces welcome their teams back to physical offices, interest will continue to return.
He and several other people I spoke to for this article also mentioned that workplace charging, in many cases, has become “a requirement for meeting a set of corporate sustainability targets and remains a priority for employers.”
Suburban satellite offices: Many white collar workers who live in the suburbs will continue working from home rather than return to their 2–3 hour roundtrip commute to their company’s corporate campus.
To support these workers, however, some companies may secure dozens of small, flexible workplace locations where they can work 1–2 days per week or as needed for in-person meetings with co-workers, partners, and customers. One Silicon Valley corporate real estate executive told me, however, that it is too early to tell how significant a strategy this will be in their facilities plans.
Impact: If companies do embrace opening more of these suburban satellite offices, then it shifts the onus of adding more charging stations to the building owners/managers from the corporations. I expect in many or most cases the building owners will ask companies moving in to foot the bill of adding new or more charging stations.
“While single-use buildings may suffer long-term reductions in employees using office workplace parking, for multi-tenant office buildings, I would expect that there will simply be a larger number of smaller office suites after companies consolidate their office footprints to reflect the new work-at-home paradigm, and thus we will end up with the same number of cars.” —David Slutzky, CEO, Fermata Energy
Demand for retail charging stations increases: With fewer EV owners commuting to corporate offices to charge up, many EV owners will increasingly rely on Level 2 and DC fast chargers located at retail mall and strip center parking lots.
Impact: Look for mall developers/managers; large retail and supermarket chains such as Target, Whole Foods, Safeway, Kroger, Home Depot; and others to add more L2 and DC fast charging stations to attract these now non-commuting EV owners to their locations.
I spoke with Tonya Szerdahelyi, Specialty Leasing Manager at Vestar, which owns and manages 7 mall properties, each with an average of 4 free Volta Level 2 charging units. Szerdahelyi was still commuting during the lockdown to her corporate office at their Towne Center mall in Long Beach, and shared that even with the mall basically shut, the Volta chargers were always being used.
While Szerdahelyi couldn’t share specific future plans for charging stations, she did say that the Volta charging stations are seen by their mall tenants as a significant amenity and huge benefit to their customers. She relayed that their mall customers frequently request them to add more stations and she does expect Vestar to continue adding more charging stations as EV adoption increases.
David Slutzky, Fermata Energy CEO, had a different take, citing the trend away from a brick and mortar retail ecosystem to consumers increasingly doing their shopping online, which was obviously exacerbated during the stay-at-home orders period.
“I would submit that there may ultimately be a significant decline in utilization of retail properties, and I anticipate that with the advent of bi-directional EV charging, most charging events will happen at home,” stated Slutzky.
While it will be difficult to discern the specific driver of any future increased charger utilization at malls and retail locations, my own take is that until EV charging becomes commonplace at apartment complexes, retail locations will likely see solid increase in demand from home-based workers.
Multifamily — growth in Level 1 installations: With many electric vehicles owned by apartment-living high-tech and office workers now frequently sitting parked for 24 hours or longer instead of being driven to an office, the need for Level 2 charging lessens. One of the factors holding most multifamily dwelling owners and managers back from installing Level 2 stations is the combined cost of infrastructure, charging stations, installation, and managing the tenant billing and parking spot issues.
Impact: With Level 1 chargers typically delivering 2–5 miles of range per hour of charging, an EV sitting idle for 24 hours could add 50 to 120 miles of range. This is more than enough range for apartment dwellers to drive to nearby restaurants, to stores, and to see friends a few times per week.
With this reduced need for more range, many apartment owners might increase the number of low-cost Level 1 connectors and parking stalls dedicated to charging to help attract and retain tenants.
“Just recently, multifamily owners/managers are realizing that charging can be a property differentiator,” John Kalb, Founder and President of EV Charging Pros, a consultant to multifamily property owners. Kalb told me that he is currently in conversations with several property organizations that are exploring low-power, long-dwell 120V outlet solutions for their properties.
“It’s clear to me that multifamily property owners and management groups are searching for an EV charging solution,” he adds. “The cumbersome Level 2 permitting rules (electrical and accessibility issues), administrative and billing regulations (sub-metering and pricing of energy), and the overall business model (incentives might cover capital costs, hard to justify longer term operational expense) — do not make it easy to deploy and/or scale a L2 charging solution.”
Kalb explained that in most cases apartment owners/managers can install twice the number of outlets at half the cost of L2 deployments. But he says, “it remains to be seen how drivers will embrace this solution, but clearly it is in the best interest of the property owner.”
Slutzy, the Fermata Energy CEO, also added a different twist on multifamily charging, predicting that we may see property owners providing a fleet of EVs as a building amenity, offering tenants the right to drive the building’s vehicles when needed. He suggests the building owner would then use the vehicles as vehicle-to-grid (V2G) market participants while the vehicles are parked, subsidizing the cost of deploying this charging infrastructure.
Boon to home charging L2 installations: With fewer workers accessing Level 2 chargers at work or DC fast charging stations like Tesla Superchargers on their way to and from work, charging at home becomes even more important for those who relied heavily on workplace charging.
A neighbor of mine has a Tesla Model 3 and a few months ago I asked if he wanted to buy one of my extra Tesla Wall Chargers? He said “no thanks” since he charges up regularly at a Supercharger near his office.
Impact: Homeowners like my neighbor who now works from home more often might upgrade from a Level 1 setup at home to a faster Level 2 charging station. This could cause a bit of a boon in residential L2 chargers and create a further backlog and delays in securing a qualified electrician.
GM’s Karos, however, offered that the opposite might also occur. With many people in high-tech markets no longer driving 80+ miles for their daily roundtrip commute to/from the office, Level 1 charging might meet their minimal weekday driving needs. (See section above.) Charging on longer trips on weekends could then be met at public DC fast charging locations.
Vehicle-to-building (V2B) minimally affected: One of the exciting areas of the EV industry is vehicle-to-building (V2B), where companies tap into their employees’ EVs during peak demand periods (such as hot summer afternoons) to reduce or eliminate peak demand charges.
Impact: If there are fewer employees in the building and fewer EVs plugged in and connected to an office building, then the opportunity for V2G could be diminished. However, as Fermata Energy CEO David Slutzky explained to me, it can take as few as one or two EVs to level off demand during peak times. So it remains to be seen, but a significant growth in remote workers might not have any significant impact on the growth of V2B technology.
Karos mentioned that companies with fleet vehicles ultimately might be the easier route anyway for managing V2B two-way charging.
Increased interest in solar and V2G: An interesting side effect of a growing remote workforce is that home-based workers will see a greater use in electricity during daylight hours when the sun shines.
Impact: With EVs sitting in remote workers’ garages all day, there could be a jump in interest in both adding solar panels to the home and, when it becomes commonplace, adding vehicle-to-home (V2H) capabilities.
Karos at GM agreed that a byproduct of an increase in more people working from home would be greater awareness of electricity use and could lead to more interest in solar and vehicle to grid/home capabilities and thus greater interest in EVs overall. Karos added that more EVs charging at night, even if the electricity is generated from natural gas, helps make the grid more efficient and puts downward pressure on electricity rates — benefiting everyone.
In my conversation with Karos, he stressed multiple times that we are at such early stages with EVs and building out charging infrastructure, that the US remains “charging deficient.” His point was simple and clear, in that even if a significant number of office workers continue to work from home permanently, a significant growth in the number of workplace charging stations will be required to meet future demand.
Finally, Karos and I both agreed that the impact of the pandemic has opened the eyes of many consumers to how fewer gas cars on the road has led to cleaner air, and could increase interest in EVs — especially with range requirements being lessened among remote workers. Stay tuned for a future article on how an increase in the number of remote workers might impact sales of PHEVs and BEVs with a shorter battery range.
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