The US charging infrastructure needs to expand rapidly to drive widespread consumer take-up of electric vehicles (EVs), according to Cathy Zoi, CEO of EV charging company EVgo. “Without infrastructure everywhere, we are not going to have drivers comfortable buying EVs,” Zoi says. “For the US to really buy into the EV revolution, there needs to be easy charging in the central heartlands.”
In parallel to geographic expansion, EVgo’s mission is to build a consumer-friendly proposition. Zoi thinks charging stations should be easy to find and should incorporate a host of customer-friendly offerings, including having their own names. “If you identify a charger with a long string of digits, it’s easy to get it wrong. So we decided to name our chargers,” she says. “Since then, they all have their own names, as well as offering value-added partnerships and reservation functions.”
To learn more about how the charging landscape is set to evolve, McKinsey’s Allie Medack sat down with Zoi at the M30 summit in April 2022. An edited transcript of their conversation follows.
Allie Medack: You are accelerating electrification. What is EVgo’s role in the future of mobility?
Cathy Zoi: We are the largest public fast-charging network in the United States right now.
Allie Medack: Can you tell us a little bit about that jump from, I think, a 100,000 to two million chargers, and how are you thinking about that massive change?
Cathy Zoi: Sure. Right now, EVgo has about 1,800 fast-charging stalls across the United States. And we’re in more than 60 metropolitan markets and 30-plus states. But by 2030, you are going to be able to do a 15-minute charge everywhere you want to. We are part of that fast growth. EVs got their big start in California, which accounts for about 60 to 70 percent of EVs in the country. But that’s changing. We see a lot going on in Florida, Colorado, and Texas—places that you wouldn’t necessarily think of as early adopters of environmentally friendly cars. But it is all happening.
We are working with General Motors right now, for example, and they are intending to sell EVs across America’s heartland. So we are building chargers where they intend to sell cars. That means in Indiana, Arkansas, and Michigan. As I say, they are going to be everywhere.
Allie Medack: What does it take to do that? What ecosystem do you need?
Cathy Zoi: The key is that revenues need to equal costs, so we need enough EVs on the road to use our infrastructure. Where there are not quite enough EVs yet, we partner with car companies like Toyota, Nissan, and General Motors, and they support us in building infrastructure before they sell the cars. We also partner with governments. There are state government programs and local government programs that, again, financially support the building of this essential infrastructure. And we partner with utilities. Electric utilities are excited about electrification of transportation. I know one former utility CEO who said, “Hey, EVs are the most exciting thing that’s happened to the electric-power industry since the invention of the central air conditioner.” So we are partnering with them to make sure that the electric grid where we are building our fast-charging stations can handle the load that EVs are going to put on the local system.
It really takes a village to get a fast-charging station built. The construction is fairly straightforward, but all the other pieces of the collaboration mean that four to eight charging stalls can take anywhere from 12 to 18 months.
Allie Medack: The other core piece of this is the consumer. What does consumer education look like?
Cathy Zoi: We tend to build in metropolitan areas where people are. And what we are finding is that folks with EVs who live in an apartment need to use fast charging, and they love to fast charge when they’re doing their grocery shopping. But we’re also finding that even folks with home charging, if there’s a fast charger that’s conveniently located in front of their favorite grocery store or nail salon, they will plug in and top up just like many of us do with our cell phones.
So having fast chargers conveniently located is a cool thing. The other thing that EVgo does is that we add special extras on top of the charging experience. So, for example, we built this cool software that provides store coupons. We have a partnership with a grocery store chain in Northern California. You get a coupon—$10 off your grocery shopping cart.
Allie Medack: That’s amazing.
Cathy Zoi: And we get 40 percent click-through rates. People love it. We also have a reservations function, so if you want to go grocery shopping at 10 a.m. on Saturday, and you want to be sure that there’s a charging stall available, you can make a reservation on EVgo’s system.
Allie Medack: There are so many different aspects of this business model. How are you thinking about that user experience, the customer experience aspect of charging?
Cathy Zoi: The customer experience is an absolute top priority. For a long time, EVgo has been committed to charging all EVs. Whether you have a Nissan or a Chevy Bolt or a Tesla, you can come to an EVgo charging station and charge. We built software so that if the charging station is inside a parking garage, you can seamlessly go into the parking garage without having to pay for the parking. It doesn’t need to be a gas station experience.
Allie Medack: What are you most excited about right now?
Cathy Zoi: I’m excited about making that customer experience seamless. And we are friendly: we even name all our chargers. For example, in Washington Union Station, the charger is named after presidential “First Dogs.” Rather than using digits, we decided it would be easier for customers if we had unique names across the country. And then we started to name them based on hometown heroes. So, in Long Beach, we’ve got Billie Jean for Billie Jean King, Snoop for Snoop Dogg, and Nicolas for Nicolas Cage.
Allie Medack: Excellent. And what are the big barriers that you’re overcoming right now in terms of scaling?
Cathy Zoi: Sometimes the process is long, with the approval processes and things like utility energization, so that is a challenge. My biggest concern is that the OEMs are not going to get the chargers they need to justify making the cars.
Allie Medack: What can you as an EV-charging provider do?
Cathy Zoi: We have plans to get 10,000 EVgo fast-charging stalls out there by 2025, but if the market slows down, we will slow down our deployment. I don’t want to do that because I firmly believe we need to address climate change, and we need to get out there and enable the electrification of transport. And the research shows that as a potential buyer of an EV, you feel more comfortable if you see the charging infrastructure.
I firmly believe we need to address climate change, and we need to get out there and enable the electrification of transport.
Allie Medack: How are you thinking about the proof points, the milestones that you are excited about achieving to show the market that EVgo is the leader in the space and will continue to be the leader?
Cathy Zoi: The segment that I’m really excited about doubling down on is fleets. They are a few years behind the retail market in electrifying. EVgo is working with a number of fleet providers to build depots and let those fleets access our public network. For example, we work with Uber and Lyft as they electrify their offerings for ride-share drivers. We work with autonomous-vehicle companies that are actually growing quickly.
Allie Medack: So if you are renting an electric vehicle, how do you find charging?
Cathy Zoi: That’s where the partnerships come in. We have partnerships with both Uber and Lyft drivers. If you’re driving your own car for Uber, or if you’re renting a vehicle from one of Uber’s partners, you get a special rate on EVgo. They are high-volume users, so they get a big volume discount.
Allie Medack: What do you say to the person who asks why they should get an electric truck when they are just going to use fossil fuels to create the electricity to power the truck?
Cathy Zoi: Well, if you charge on EVgo, it’s 100 percent renewable energy. We are the only fast-charging company that has made that commitment. If you come to an EVgo station, you know that every kilowatt-hour that you are dispensing into your vehicle is matched by the purchase of renewable-energy certificates. We are helping to build the demand for renewables, as well as the demand for EVs.
Allie Medack: That’s a big step and a big commitment.
Cathy Zoi: It took a commitment to sustainability. For somebody who has spent as much time in the power sector as I have, there would be no excuse not to tap into [the renewable-energy-certificate market] and do the right thing.
Allie Medack: Finally, what advice would you give a start-up in the space?
Cathy Zoi: I have spent a lot of time at smaller companies, as well as at large organizations. I think the thing that is most important is financial discipline and keeping an eye on your unit economics. That is even more important than blue-sky thinking.
Allie Medack: Can you tell me a little bit about EVgo’s scaling journey?
Cathy Zoi: I joined in late 2017. We put in place this financial discipline where we would only invest in things that penciled. That was a brand-new thing. We had about 50 people when I joined. We are now at close to 300. And on talent, you need to ensure there is a good fit. We are able to attract because we have exacting standards. It is mission oriented. We’re committed to sustainability. We try to live that. And the superpower that came out of COVID-19 was remote work. That is working well for us, and we are committed to it. Alongside that, we are investing in transparency; for example, we have all-company meetings every Monday where everybody dials in.
Allie Medack: Any final closing thoughts on culture and how you build that?
Cathy Zoi: We have hired many, many people. And when every single new hire comes in, I do a one-on-one, just to say hello. I always ask why they chose EVgo, and 97 out of 100 times it’s because they love the mission. So people are joining companies they want to work for, in addition to earning a salary and having decent benefits. We respect that, we cultivate it, we reward it, and we talk about it and take ideas from across the company. Another thing we do is invest in our local communities to ensure that we’re building stations across disadvantaged communities.
Allie Medack: It is paving the way to do the right thing, right? Because those communities might not have EVs today, I imagine?
Cathy Zoi: There was a claim that the EV industry was only for rich people, but we did a look back and it wasn’t true. The EPA has something called an EJ, an environmental-justice score. We looked at where our infrastructure was and whether we’re better than the industry average. And we continue to get better and better.
Allie Medack: Thanks so much!