EV Charging Is a Mess. This 4-Pound Box Could Help Fix It
Atom Power says its smart circuit breaker will make charging electric cars as cheap and easy as using Wi-Fi.
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 neighborhood of Jamaica — including supplying each of 1,000 parking spaces with an EV charging cord. His initial calculations suggested the endeavor 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.
Then he discovered Atom Power.
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.
“We brought a lot of order to some of the chaos,” says Ryan Kennedy, Atom's co-founder and chief executive officer. “We've created a model that basically says: ‘Well, don't worry about energy costs.'”
Last year, Atom had orders for 1,000 breakers; this year it expects to ship 9,000, including the hundreds headed to Queens. All told, the company says it can set up a bank of chargers that use one third as much electricity as what is traditionally required, and cost half as much as systems that also require a grid upgrade. Atom also promises that its chargers are more reliable; because of the smart circuit breaker, they have to meet critical electrical safety standards, while chargers traditionally have to meet a lower regulatory threshold for appliances.
Kennedy, 47, says EVs are just the lowest-hanging fruit in a much larger sales strategy. “When we think of the grid, we tend to think of big stuff: wind turbines, solar farms, substations, that kind of stuff,” he says. “But there's a circuit breaker ahead of every single thing on the planet that consumes energy.”
“The killer solution”
Less than a decade ago, the Atom box was just an idea — one both difficult to execute and boring to pitch. After all, the technology behind a circuit breaker had remained pretty much unchanged since Thomas Edison sketched it out in 1879.
“It was probably one of the dumbest things that a venture capitalist could hear … and that's a long list,” says Kennedy, a journeyman electrician turned engineer. “But the outcome given the risk was extraordinary.”
By 2014, however, silicon semiconductors had become tiny and far more powerful. By 2017, Kennedy had mastered the trickiest part, packaging the computer chips and syncing them with software. He'd created his magic box, an achievement he likens to cobbling together an iPhone from a scrap heap. By August of that year, he had $100 million in financing from SK Inc., Korea's second-largest conglomerate.
Since then, Atom's mission has taken on new urgency: Some 6% of the new vehicle market is now electric, and charging infrastructure has replaced range anxiety as a stumbling block to wider EV adoption. In the third quarter of 2022, one in five US charging attempts failed, according to a recent study by J.D. Power, a rate that has been steadily climbing. Those using Level 2 chargers gave a satisfaction rating of 633 out of 1,000.
“The pain points are quite evident,” Kennedy explains. “Once you get past, you know, 10 chargers, the scalability becomes very, very difficult very quickly.”
And while the US has its share of electron deserts, the biggest charging hurdles are arguably local and urban: Only 5% of car trips span more than 30 miles and three out of four are less than 10 miles. Roughly one third of American households are multi-family, and one third is also the share of US households that don't have a private garage, as well as the share of people who rent, rather than own, their home. None of these overlapping groups are likely to have a dedicated plug to juice up a 5,000-pound appliance, which means electric cars won't fully crack the mass market until people can charge them where they work, shop and live versus en route to other destinations. Across the US, one third of drivers equates to some 81 million people.
The potential to bring those masses into the EV ecosystem is one of the reasons SK is so bullish on Atom: The company is all-in on electrification. In a joint venture with Ford, SK is spending $11.4 billion to build battery factories and an EV assembly plant in Kentucky and Tennessee. It also has a $1 billion stake in Key Capture Energy, a maker of massive batteries for surplus grid storage and an undisclosed stake in Sunrun, a residential solar giant. SK sees Atom as a way to boost the rest of its portfolio. “It's absolutely going to be the killer solution,” says Ian Huh, an SK senior vice president.
Eventually, Huh reckons EV charging will be akin to Wifi: ubiquitous and in many cases free. “It just becomes one of the benefits for the customer,” he says. “Selling electricity is not the way to make money. ”
If that thesis proves correct, the market shift could spin up a whirlwind of EV adoption; more free chargers would trigger more EVs, which would cultivate another crop of chargers. But even with its janky infrastructure and arcane pricing, the market is already exploding. Demand for on-site, level 2 charging has tripled in the past year, according to ABM Industries, a facilities giant that manages parking structures. Residential landlords increasingly see it as an imperative amenity and retail developers consider it a novel way to boost foot traffic, says Mark Hawkinson, president of the company's technical solutions group.
“It's like getting air conditioning in the ‘50s,” he explains, “there was this race to do it, but nobody knew quite how to do it.”
For a glimpse of that future, one might look at the 12 chargers outside of Atom's headquarters: They're free to the public, and only go idle when the building is approaching its predetermined power threshold. Last month, they charged 257 vehicles, including that of a local who plugs in and works from his Tesla.
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