How Are Electric Car Charging Stations Powered [Science Behind It]

Electric vehicle (EV) technology has grown leaps and bounds in the last decade, hurtling the automobile industry towards electrification en masse. Many people who have driven petrol-powered vehicles their entire lives are swiftly buying electric cars in their bid to save the planet from simmering closer to a boil.

Nonetheless, since EVs are considered just as clean as their power source, it is not unlikely for one to wonder “how are electric car charging stations powered” to determine if they are indeed making the right decision. 

Back in time, when they were first introduced, electric car charging stations looked like something right out of a futuristic sci-fi movie.

However, since the future is pretty much here – at least in terms of transportation, you most likely see these sleek and clean charging units while driving to work or dropping your kids off at school every day.

You may have also seen different types of electric cars being charged at these stations while their owners scroll away on their phones, waiting for the vehicle to have their fill of the electricity. 

In theory, charging your electric car is not much different from charging your smartphone or laptop.

Though if you are planning to buy an EV solely to reduce your carbon footprint and not because these cars are substantially cheaper in the long run and have a higher residual value than their traditional counterparts, you may want to learn the science behind electric car charging stations and understand that driving these vehicles may not be as environmentally friendly as you may think.

How Are Electric Car Charging Stations Powered
How Are Electric Car Charging Stations Powered

Please keep reading to find out all about how are electric car charging stations powered.

How Does Electric Vehicle Charging Work?

Many people are reluctant to buy electric cars because they are worried about getting stranded on the side of a deserted road after their vehicle runs out of charge. Apparently, it’s a common concern.

However, if you have driven diesel or gas-fueled cars for many years and have never found yourself stuck on a roadside with an empty tank, there is a good chance you won’t have this experience while driving an electric car either.

Transitioning from combustible-engine to electric cars may require some getting used to – and yes, that includes figuring out where and when to charge your vehicle.

Nevertheless, if you are curious about how the whole things work, here is an explainer that will answer most (if not all) of your pressing questions about the topic.

Like every other chargeable device, electric vehicles also need an EV charger to keep their battery full. This device pulls electric current from a charging station or an electric outlet and delivers it to the battery pack inside the car.

Thus, when you pull up at a charging station, you plug one end of the charger into the charging port on the side of the vehicle while the other one remains hooked to the charging station or the home outlet.

As for the science behind electric car charging stations, these innovative units harness electricity from one of many sources, including the grid, and then transfer it to your vehicle.

The car stores this electrical energy in the battery cells, which in turn power the motor that allows the wheel to turn and thus propels the car forward.

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How Are Electric Car Charging Stations Powered?

As electric vehicles continue to gain popularity, EV charging stations are also becoming a common sight in most parts of North America.

From Superchargers by Tesla to the Electrify America initiative by Volkswagen, you can find charging stations scattered around in all major cities and towns across the nation.

Although they have become highly accessible, the electricity in these EV charging units does not mysteriously manifest itself. So, the question is, from where do charging stations get their power?

Let’s rip off the band-aid: many charging stations today are powered by fossil fuels.

This fact should not come as a surprise since this power source is widely available, abundant in nature, and, most importantly, cheap.

Therefore, while electric cars may not emit hazardous gases from their tailpipes like their traditional alternatives, their power source is not as clean and climate-friendly as most people expect.

While fossil fuels do not power all EV charging stations, a vast majority of these units are connected to the grid – just like your home.

How Are Electric Car Charging Station Powered
How Are Electric Car Charging Station Powered

According to experts, the United States generates an estimated 89% of the energy from fossil fuels, including natural gas, coal, and petroleum.

All of these natural sources release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. On the other hand, only 11% of energy comes from renewable sources, such as solar power, biomass, and hydropower, to name a few.

Traditional vehicles account for nearly one-fifth of all emissions in the country, emitting approximately 24 pounds of carbon dioxide and other planet-killing gases for every gallon of gas.

Therefore, as we reach the tipping point for vehicle electrification, it is becoming increasingly important to ask how eco-friendly these high-tech and visually appealing cars actually are.

Furthermore, combustible-engine vehicles are responsible for creating back-end pollution. When the oil burns to power an individual car, it turns into carbon that gets released out of the tailpipes.

Meanwhile, electric cars are responsible for front-end pollution because their charging stations draw power from fossil fuel combustion. The emission at the combustion plants accounts for around 73% of global sulfur dioxide emissions and about 25% of global carbon dioxide emissions.

However, that being said, not all electric car charging stations run on fossil fuels. The rise of renewable energy sources has encouraged many charging station companies to shift to clean energy to power these cutting-edge vehicles.

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Using Renewable Energy to Power Electric Car Charging Stations

Have you ever stopped at an EV charging station to refill your car and noticed a solar panel placed on top? If yes, it means that the charging station is using green energy to generate power.

Those ultramodern panels offset the required grid power by a fraction of a percent. It is also important to mention that solar energy only makes up about 2% of the renewable power used by the grid. The rest comes from wind and hydro energy sources.

The US Energy Information Administration states that the national grid uses various powers to generate electricity. Therefore, EV charging stations may use other energy sources depending on where they are located.

For example, the electric car charging stations in many parts of Nevada utilize hydroelectric energy generated from the Hoover Dam. Meanwhile, most charging stations in California harness power from solar panels and wind farms.

To put it simply, if you want to play your role in saving the planet, consider charging your electric car at a station that uses a renewable energy source.

Read How many solar panels does it take to charge an electric car?

Types of Electric Car Charging Units

Now that we know where do charging stations get their power let’s talk about the main types of electric car chargers to further understand the science behind electric vehicle charging?

These are the three main types of electric car chargers:

Level 1 Chargers

The Level 1 electric car chargers typically provide up to five miles of range per hour of charging. These chargers are compatible with the standard 120 V outlets installed in homes and residential garages.

So, if you let your EV charge overnight in front of your home or inside your garage, this could be a perfect option for you.

However, relying on a Level 1 charging unit is not recommended while commuting long distances or going on a road trip.

Level 2 Chargers

Level 2 electric car chargers add 20 to 25 miles of range per hour of charging. With additional equipment, these chargers can efficiently handle the higher-capacity 240 V and 280 V outlets generally found in residential buildings and commercial complexes. They also have a decent charging speed.

Furthermore, there were more than 22,800 Level 2 EV charging units in the country in mid-2020. So, rest assured, you probably won’t have much trouble finding these chargers while driving along highways or interstates.

These chargers also have weatherproof handles and cables that are neither too heavy nor extremely lightweight.

Almost every electric car available today – including those manufactured by Tesla – is compatible with Level 2 chargers, which are also known as SAE J1772.

Level 3 Chargers

If you are looking to charge your EV battery in a matter of minutes, you should ideally look for Level 3 chargers, which are commonly referred to as DC Fast Chargers.

A massive upgrade over Level 1 and Level 2 EV charging units, these chargers can refill your electric car battery up to 80% in around 30 minutes.

They provide up to 80 miles of range per 20 minutes of charging and are equipped with leading-edge technology that can easily handle 480 V outlets.

Most of the electric vehicle charging stations along busy highways and high-traffic routes utilize DC Fast Chargers to ensure quick fill-up.

Tesla’s Supercharger network also delivers similar performance. However, non-Tesla drivers have access to two main types of DC Fast Chargers: CHAdeMO and CCS. If you own a Nissan or Mitsubishi EV, you can conveniently use the CHAdeMO chargers.

Tesla owners can also buy an adapter to use these EV charging units when needed. Meanwhile, if you drive any other type of electric car, you can use the CSS chargers.

where do charging stations get their power
where do charging stations get their power

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How to Find Compatible Electric Car Charging Stations?

If you have recently decided to buy an electric car and are worried about which fast-charging station might be compatible with your EV, several apps can help you out of this conundrum with a few taps on your smartphone screen.

You can install the Chargeway app to find DC Fast Chargers situated on a particular route. Alternatively, you can also download PlugShare, ChargeHub, or Open Charge Map to find nearby EV charging units.

These apps will not guide you to the station but also inform you whether it is occupied by another vehicle, allowing you to make an informed and timely decision.

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How to Use an Electric Car Charging Station?

You cannot discuss the science behind electric car charging stations without talking about how to charge an EV.

Please note that almost all public charging stations require EV drivers to register an account. It allows them to store the credit card details and provide you with a card that activates a charging unit. It would be best to keep this card in your center console or glove compartment to ensure easy access at all times. 

We have also broken down the steps to charge your EV for further convenience.

Step 1: Open the charging port located at the side of your vehicle.

Step 2: Pick up the charger placed on the charging unit

Step 3: Plug in the cable and wait for the battery to refill.

Like regular gas stations, the display on the charging station will tell you how much electricity has been added to your EV and how much money you need to pay.

You will also be able to notice a phone number on the charging station. If you have any questions or require assistance, you can call it to speak with a representative.

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The Bottom Line

If you have ever asked yourself, “how are electric car charging stations powered,” this comprehensive guide has most likely answered your question.

Most EV charging stations are powered by fossil fuels, while a small number of units generate electricity from renewable sources such as solar, wind, and hydro.

Some charging station companies have also announced their commitment to building sustainable charging networks, which will ultimately make electric cars zero-emission.

However, even until we reduce our reliance on fossil fuel combustion to create energy, it is pertinent to note that electric vehicles substantially offset the volume of greenhouse gases emitted by gas-powered cars and trucks on the road.