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San Diego will go off-grid to add more EV charging stations

Developing electric-vehicle charging stations can take months, even years, to complete, beguiling governments keen to slash transportation emissions. But a California-based company says it can cut the installation time down to as little as four minutes. The key: the stations will be off-grid.

Clean-mobility company Beam Global has agreed to a deal with the city of San Diego to install and operate at least 50 solar-powered charging stations. The project will come at no expense to the city, nor to the drivers that will use the stations to fill up, said Beam Chief Executive Officer Desmond Wheatley.

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“We’re seeing a really high adoption of electric vehicles,” said Cody Hooven, chief sustainability officer for the city of San Diego, in an interview. “The installation of public charging is not keeping up.”

Wheatley expects the chargers will be deployed next year, though the company still needs to recruit a sponsor to cover overhead in exchange for naming rights to the network and on-site advertising. Beam won the right to install its transportable chargers via a procurement the city of San Diego hosted.

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The public-private partnership with San Diego could be a blueprint for climate-conscious governments as they grapple with constrained budgets amid the coronavirus pandemic. That’s not the only potential benefit: In addition to helping cities meet driver demand for more chargers, it could encourage greater electric-vehicle adoption. Insufficient charging infrastructure has been a big roadblock to widespread EV use.

North America is a laggard when it comes to electric-vehicle charging. While the world now has more than 1 million public-charging plugs — the figure has doubled in just three years — most of the new infrastructure has been added in China and Europe. North America benefits from less robust public subsidy and support.

Governments, of course, have the option to pay for charging stations themselves, or to defer the costs of such infrastructure upgrades to homeowners or businesses. The latter option doesn’t necessarily benefit residents without home chargers, including renters and people who live in multi-unit dwellings.

Beam, formerly known as Envision Solar International, discovered the limitations of grid-tied charging: It was expensive, time-consuming and often required digging. The San Diego-based company completed its first off-grid project in 2012 — two chargers in Boulder, Colorado. Its product generates and stores its own electricity via lithium-ion battery storage, and is designed to fit the size of a standard parking space.

Wheatley envisions replicating the San Diego deal across America. He said he’s had informal discussions with other cities that he declined to reveal. “Everybody in government can’t wait to be first to be second.”

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