For any alternative fuel in transport, the key question is: what about infrastructure? As in, how much does infrastructure cost, what are the environmental effects, and who is actually going to pay for it? Without answering these questions, analysis of alternative fuels often becomes nothing more than an introduction to the fuel’s chemical properties. In other words, not all that useful.

But, without going too far down the rabbit hole that is fuel station economics, let’s turn our attention to Japan where Bloomberg recently reported that it now has more electric vehicle (EV) charging stations than it has gasoline stations. The country currently has around 34,000 fuel stations, but also 40,000 EV chargers. That is quite remarkable, especially if you consider that EV charging stations only started to be built as late as 2010.

EV charging point in Amsterdam. Image by: Tali Trigg.

So what is behind this decline? Reasons include: a system-wide consolidation perhaps reflecting increased urbanization and thus increased concentration of drivers; decreasing car ownership; increasing fuel efficiency and thus needing to refuel less often; but also due to another simple fact: gas station owners don’t make much money on the fuel they sell, only about 25% of their profit comes from selling fuels.

However, let’s dig into the numbers from Bloomberg (who sourced the data from Nissan Motors) a little more and go through the underlying assumptions:

  • First off, these numbers do not reflect the difference between private and public charging, so note that this includes private car chargers only accessible to those living in a given residence.
  • Second, a fuel station usually has more than one pump, so the capacity to refuel, especially when you take the different times to refuel into account, makes it even less of an apples-to-apples comparison.
  • Finally, until EVs come with a higher potential driving range, it actually makes perfect sense that you’d need more charging stations compared to a gasoline/diesel-equivalent.

At the same time, current driving range is already sufficient for almost all daily trips. Consider that Americans drive the farthest worldwide, but only 12% drive more than 100 km (62 miles) each day, which almost all EVs can meet already now. And with improved apps and on-board information systems, drivers can more accurately plan trips and optimize charging patterns. Nevertheless, of course, we all still want battery technology development to continue unabated with improved cycles, range, and cooling objectives.

Staying with Japan, I put together some data on other types of fuel station and came up with the figure below. On the left-hand side (LHS) you see the number of petrol (gasoline/diesel) stations Japan over time, and on the right-hand side (RHS) you see the number of natural gas vehicle (NGV) stations and EV fast charging stations. Furthermore, you see a stable situation for natural gas refueling stations, but a sharp increase in the number of fast charging stations (I counted fast charging stations as they are almost all public for the sake of comparison).

Source: Figure done by author (Tali Trigg) using data from METI/JAMA.

Turning to the U.S., we see a similar steady decline for “mainstream fuels” (gasoline/diesel) between 1993-2012 (the least year in which Census data was available).

Refueling stations have come down at a steady pace for the past 20 years. Source: https://www1.eere.energy.gov/vehiclesandfuels/facts/2013_index.html

If we add EV charging points to the mix, then at the end of 2014, there were globally over 15,000 fast charging points and 94,000 slow charging points, with about 21,000 slow- and fast-charging points (not stations) in the U.S. Again, that’s quite fast progress given that almost none of them were in place in 2010. So how about the other main EV market, the U.S.? Well, we can see a similar inflection point not far off the horizon.

Alternative fueling stations have grown steadily since 2006, with EV charging stations ramping up fast. For sources and more detail: http://www.afdc.energy.gov/data/10332

As the figure above shows, the U.S. is already at about 33,000 alternative fueling stations, compared to the approximately 150,000 stations mentioned earlier (for 2012), so it might not be outrageous to suggest that what happened in Japan might very well happen in the U.S. in the near future.