A shoebox sized circuit breaker can solve the EV charging mess
For all its progressive politics, New York City is largely an EV charging desert. Home to about 2 million registered vehicles, the city has just 1,000 Level 2 public charging plugs — the slower stations that generally work overnight — scattered across 343 stations, according to the US Department of Energy. Fast-charging sites are even harder to find.
Parking isn’t really the problem — the city is full of garages and street-side spots — but electricity is. Every car charger requires a dedicated amount of available juice; put in enough chargers, and the power needed (the so-called demand load) climbs quickly. It’s enough of a logistical headache that the city’s developers have shied away from EV infrastructure, at least on a large enough scale to meaningfully drive adoption.
In Queens, the city’s largest borough, Vrindavanam Murali has been trying to make that charging math work. Murali is president of building consultancy ESD Global, which is tasked with accommodating the energy needs of some 12 apartment projects in the neighbourhood of Jamaica — including supplying each of 1,000 parking spaces with an EV charging cord. His initial calculations suggested the endeavour would take millions of dollars, plus months of wrangling a local utility into digging trenches, laying thicker cables and upgrading transformers. “We immediately saw there was a huge disconnect between the grid availability and the speed at which they wanted to implement the charging,” Murali says.
North Carolina-based Atom has spent nine years developing what it calls a better, smarter circuit breaker — a digital one driven by computer chips and cloud software, rather than the analog version that flips on or off based on physics and mechanics. An Atom breaker is white, about the size of a toddler’s shoe box and tagged with red, yellow and green stickers. Where conventional circuit breakers have springs, levers and magnetics, the most critical part of a 4-pound Atom box are semiconductors not unlike those found in a smartphone.
The company pieces its breakers together at its headquarters just north of Charlotte, along an assembly line of six workstations that look like basement crafting benches. Each breaker powers one charging port, and up to 12 breakers go into one box, or panel. In the next few weeks, almost 100 of Atom’s panels will make their way to Queens.
Because it’s digital, Atom’s breaker isn’t binary; it doesn’t just turn the power on and off. Rather, it can fluctuate the amount of electricity going to each cord like a dimmer switch. If a driver indicates via app that she’ll be out of town for days, the Atom box can dial the juice down to a trickle and amp up electricity to a higher-priority vehicle. If a landlord wants to avoid a time-based spike in electricity prices, the Atom infrastructure can virtually shut off the electron tap, ramping it back up at night when costs are lower. At the buildings in Queens, for example, power prices can swing by a magnitude of five in a single day.Read More…