The Macomb Daily
EV charging is a mess. This 4-pound box could help fix it.
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 U.S. Department of Energy. Fastcharging sites are even harder to find.
Parking isn’t really the problem — the city is full of garages and streetside 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.”
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, Korea’s second-largest conglomerate.