Charging Networks Struggle To Survive Slowly Growing Electric Car Market

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Renault Fluence ZE charging at Better Place pubic charge spots in Israel [photo: Brian of London]

Renault Fluence ZE charging at Better Place pubic charge spots in Israel [photo: Brian of London]

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Do you build electric cars first, and worry about the chargers later? Or do you build a network up-front, and hope the buyers follow?

Public charging networks are necessary to give buyers confidence that they can charge their cars anywhere. But often, they're not used that much, owners typically charging at home. So where is the balance?

That's the overriding question over the future of electric car charging networks. And at the moment, says Pike Research, nobody seems quite certain which route will prove successful.

Too many options?

Some of the issues stem from which solution will really be the future of electric car charging.

Public 240-V Level 2 charging networks are one option, but these have drawbacks.

Firstly, they may have too much competition. Pike Research points out that 80-90 percent of electric car charging takes place at home--so the number of cars visiting chargers is low.

Then, these level 2 chargers take several hours to charge the average electric car--so they need to be placed where this may not be an issue, such as at places of work, where cars are parked most of the day.

The problem with this is that workplaces will typically offer charging for free--so companies can't make much of a business out of it unless they simply deal with supply and installation.

Fast charging

Level 3, DC fast charging is the best solution.

These stations are relatively rapid--many carmakers say a fast charge can top up 80 percent of the battery capacity in as little as 15-30 minutes.

Unfortunately, there are only three DC fast-charge compatible, mass-produced electric cars on sale in the U.S. right now--the Mitsubishi i, Nissan Leaf and Tesla Model S.

Electric-car charging network cards, photo by Patrick Connor, Portland

Electric-car charging network cards, photo by Patrick Connor, Portland

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Tesla has its own 'Supercharging' network which owners can use--but this is incompatible with CHAdeMO-equipped vehicles like the Mitsubishi and Leaf. Rubbing salt further into the wounds, combined sales of the Nissan and Mitsubishi are low--meaning it may not yet be financially viable to create a fast-charging network for the low number of vehicles which will use it.

Even for those that can, many are run by different companies, requiring several different accounts just to charge up depending on where you are.

Finally, there's the third option, the SAE Combo. It's being rolled out by all U.S. and European companies, though no cars nor charging stations have yet adopted it. It's set to eventually become the dominant charging option, but until it does, it'll just be another to confuse businesses and drivers alike.

Battery swap: not an option

The Better Place system pioneered in Israel and Denmark seems clever in theory, and even works in practice, but doesn't seem to have drawn many customers in to the concept.

If a driver needs more range while away from a charging station, they can drive to the nearest Better Place center to have the car's entire battery removed and replaced with a fully-charged item.

It's a quick process--we tried it ourselves earlier this year--but it requires manufacturers to agree to a set battery format, compatible with the system.

The Renault Fluence is the only vehicle using it at the moment, a car only sold in certain markets. And sales have been slow.

Ultimately, charging networks may have to grow organically as the electric car market itself expands.

Is the market currently too diffuse to make any money from charging networks--especially with so many charging options available?

Time will tell, but at the moment, the market may struggle to support a bigger network.


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Comments (9)
  1. I still believe that the Better Place switch station plan needs to be implemented, even if by other companies.
    It should be possible for them to act as electric storage for utilities which would help defray the initial costs until EVs become more prevalent.

  2. And the "set battery format" for Better Place is inaccurate.
    Shai Agassi stated early on that the stations are capable of handling different formats.
    Of course, having to stock more types will cost more.

  3. this is an often asked question but really the question is do EVs have a future? if the answer is yes, then we need to start building for that future. and yes, the rollout will be slow and why is that??

    well, what do we really expect when there is only a handful on board with this? EVs have minimal government support, NO PUD support, dealerships that hate selling them, Big Oil with a ton of money funded against them.

    its an uphill fight. some say that EVs have failed in the marketplace. I say that considering the odds, they have done fairly well. could be better, but they still have a lot of people against them, ones simply putting the inevitable off until the very last second.

  4. EREVs have a solid future. EVs? Hard to know.

    Here in Philadelphia, we have a pathetic public charging ecosystem so far. And this is one of the top-6 largest cities in the country. Some places have $3.50/hour charging and for my Volt, that means gas at $8.00/gallon in terms of miles per dollar.

    EREVs make perfect sense. Charge at home, drive your first miles on electricity and have reserve with the genset.

    Only way BEVs will have a future is to make them a consumer-demanded product. One with a new price-point equal or less than ICE vehicles. An electric motor, control unit and battery "should be" less than an ICE's complicated fuel-burning system. One day, if BEVs drop to $25K pre-incentive, then public charging will work.

  5. Let earn the gasstaion 1 cent per kw on DC fast charging, there will be plenty of electric fill ups.
    If necessary per law.

  6. This is a chicken and egg problem, right? Home charging is the way that 90% of EV's and plugin hybrids will charge, so charger companies need to compete in that market offering features like cherge metering so people can brag about their mileage, and keep track of their costs, too.

    Building and selling EV's is a lot harder than charging stations, so I think the EV's and plugin hybrids have to come first. We'll get there.


  7. I think an important near and mid-term solution is to offer Level 1 (120 volt) workplace charging. EVs that sit for 8-10 hours do not need Level 2 speed to re-charge a battery that likely will not be fully depleted when arriving to work.

    Dozens of 120 volt/Level 1 outlets can be installed for the price of just one Level 2 station.

  8. I agree, Charge @Home and @Hotels, and why not @Work or @Park&Ride. But we will need EV's with suitable all day ranges, short stay top-up charging has no future. I do think EREV's are the stepping stone to an EV future.

  9. In Los Angeles its hard to find an empty charger. Nearly every mall has at least 5 and they are usually full. At LAX there are around 26 and they are always full.

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