Rue Phillips is the co-founder and president of SkillFusion, a platform that connects electric vehicle operations and maintenance service providers with a nationwide credentialed talent pool for electric vehicle service equipment O&M obligations. Rue has been at the forefront of developing online platforms that connect cleantech asset owners with a local and on-demand installation and service workforce, first in the solar sector with 365 Pronto and now in the EV charging sector. Rue also hosts EV Chat, a podcast with a rock'n'roll spin elevating industry leaders and making their knowledge and insight accessible to those across the electric vehicle space. Rue recently spoke with Plant Services editor in chief Thomas Wilk about the challenges of finding skilled workers for the EV infrastructure industry.
PS: When you I spoke earlier, you mentioned that a lot of the failures actually aren’t so much mechanical failures as they are network failures, that's at least a large contributor to charger downtime. It’s less mechanical than it is network.
RP: I absolutely agree that for the machine itself, the equipment, the EVSE, the failure of that is pretty low, they are pretty reliable. However, network and communications is a different thing, and that's what SkillFusion is really, really focused on, is that that main failure point in the electric vehicle infrastructure. So yeah, we're training a whole new vocation, if you like, out there to fix this most common problem.
PS: Are we looking for, say, hybrid technicians where they'd have mechanical and network troubleshooting experience? What does the pipeline look like for training these specific EV infrastructure technicians?
RP: Well, you know, the word technician is a little vague and it's overused right now. You don't need to be an electrician to be called a technician nowadays, and that's a problem because we’ve got people out there, you put a tool belt on them and they're doing the work of electricians. It's dangerous, and it's not right. It's also taking three or four attempts to fix an EV charger. What we have done is we've drawn a line in the sand that says, “this is the work that a trained worker could be doing if he's not an electrician, and this is the work that needs to be done by a trained electrician.” Totally different. So we've come up with a new credential called an EDT. It's a diagnostic technician that basically can do the communication and the network faults, and some mechanical, you're absolutely right, some mechanical, but not electrical. Electricians should be doing electrical work, Tom.
PS: I think a lot of our listeners just pumped their fists when it came to the safety message, because that's one of the mantras in the asset management side of industry, is “a reliable plant as a safe plant.” A lot of consultants tell me they're not in the business of helping people fix machines, they're in the business of helping people go home safely at night.
RP: Indeed, 100%! Safety is at the forefront of any part of our training.
PS: I'm curious, you mentioned that reliability numbers are proprietary, and I completely understand that. Is there a ballpark figure out there for how reliable these are, like the mean time between failure for EV chargers, or the average downtime for an electric charging station?
RP: Well, the mean time between failures, again, that's kind of top secret, if you like, from the individual manufacturers. What I can tell you is on my podcast, I ask all the CEOs and the scientists, and the PhDs, and I say “give me a score of 1 to 10 of where you think we are with our existing infrastructure.” And we get a 6 at best, we get a 60% out there, so you know, this is the general consensus within the industry.
And that's not pointing any fingers, Tom, that's not saying this manufacturer or that manufacturer. But basically what we're saying is, there is a problem that needs to be sorted out, and I think most of the problem is this: the contractors that are coming into the market now, the EV market, are specifically focused on the installation component. Service or maintenance for whatever reason doesn't appeal to them yet. So let’s say they've installed 4 to 10 EV chargers and one of them goes down, and they've got to pull their electrician off one of their jobs to go and do a minor service call. We've got to fix that, we’ve got to do something about that mindset.
PS: That's interesting, and I hear you about not pointing fingers. I appreciate that you're taking the temperature of industry, and it sounds like it's fair to partly cloudy, like we're going in the right direction, but work to be done.
RP: Absolutely. Yes, we have.
PS: It sounds a lot like introducing things like AI technologies into more traditional mechanical asset management, that there are people who are applying these technologies appropriately, but there aren't enough experts yet. And frankly, lubricating the bearings on a time based route can be more critical sometimes than introducing something very advanced like AI.
RP: Absolutely, I mean, we're using AI within our software platform and VR. So it is the future, and if we can infuse that to increase the reliability of products out there for the general public, absolutely I think it's beneficial.
PS: Let me ask you a final question about road trips and electric cars and the reliability of electrical infrastructure along the way. I'm in Chicago, and we're at one terminus of Route 66, traditionally the starting point where Route 66 goes from here and it ends in Los Angeles. I know a couple of folks who have made that trip, and a lot of those folks would be interested in doing it with an electric vehicle, if they could, but I don't know anybody who has done that yet, it's all been gas powered. You introduced me to a new term, when we talked before: “range anxiety.” How reliable are the charging stations going to be? Could you describe for our listeners what that experience is likely to be right now? How reliable is it versus driving a gas or diesel powered vehicle? Can you get the same range in an electric vehicle? What happens when the charging stations are down?
RP: That's a great question. Range anxiety right now is probably the main point that when someone wants to go and buy an electric vehicle, they have that range anxiety. The facts are this though, that most of the journeys that are made, and I can quote California right now, are like less than 50-60-70 miles, well within the range of a 290-mile electric vehicle. They are increasing, battery technology is getting more advanced, and the range of electric vehicles actually is getting further. The range anxiety comes more from the reliability of the charging infrastructure, rather than watching the tank of the electric car. I can tell you that the work in rural areas, there will be electric chargers every 5 to 10 miles, there really well. Now, I recently did a road trip from Los Angeles to Phoenix, AZ, I think it's roughly around 390 miles, and that was just short 50 miles from the range in my electric tank, so to speak. I knew there were chargers along the way. It was desert, one straight road in the desert. There were probably two charging stations within my extended range, and I could do it as long as those charges work.
PS: And that’s the trick, making sure they’re working.
RP: There goes the anxiety. It's like, I don't know what I’d do, I'm going to have to be told if I get there and these chargers are not working. Thankfully, when I got there, they were working. I had a coffee, I had a fast charge, and I was on my way, as well. But that's what we call range anxiety. It's more towards the infrastructure than it is the actual vehicle itself and its range.
PS: And as you said, that’s where the upkeep comes in. Installation is great and it's still needed in plenty of areas, but then you’ve got to balance that with making sure the installed base actually it's functioning and reliable when people need it.
RP: Absolutely, and SkillFusion, what we're about is to enhance that workforce out there with skilled workers so we can keep that infrastructure running.