Public Charging Stations For Electric Cars: Who Leads The Way?

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Nissan Leaf electric car with eVgo quick charging station. [courtesy eVgo]

Nissan Leaf electric car with eVgo quick charging station. [courtesy eVgo]

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For the majority of the general public to consider purchasing a fully electric car, they first want accessible public charge points located at or near places they frequent in their daily life.

It's also clear that most people won't end up using them nearly as much as they think they will. However, having them in place and available is necessary to ease the concern that charging has to be there when it may be needed.

The proliferation of DC quick charge stations will also play a big role in electric-car adoption, as they will allow short-range battery-electric vehicles to reach destinations they couldn't conveniently do otherwise. The CHAdeMO vs SAE CCS mess is only going to cause confusion, and it needs to get sorted out as quickly as possible--but that's a matter of years, not months.

I'm hopeful that will happen over the next few years, but perhaps the short-term solution is installation of charging units that have connectors for both standards.

However, another issue has to be discussed: Who should be leading the charge to install public charging infrastructure?

Utility companies will surely profit from the slow transition to using electricity as a fuel for personal transportation, but most haven't really embraced the idea of installing and maintaining charging stations.

Automakers clearly realize they won't sell many electric cars if the public doesn't feel confident they will have places to plug in while on the road.

Governments mandate that manufacturers make zero-emission vehicles, so they share the responsibility to make sure people have a place to plug them in.

The private sector also has an opportunity to profit--directly or indirectly--from offering public charging. Shopping malls, movie theaters, sporting venues and basically any destination can benefit from installing public charging at their location.

Last year I installed public chargers in the parking lot of my restaurant, Nauna's. I've had dozens of electric cars come to charge, and their owners have all enjoyed a nice meal while they do so.

Electric cars at charging stations and Tesla SuperCharger stations in Gilroy, CA [photo: Jack Brown]

Electric cars at charging stations and Tesla SuperCharger stations in Gilroy, CA [photo: Jack Brown]

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Many have told me they'd never been to my place, and the only reason they stopped by was because I had electric-car charging stations.

And this is important for people to realize, because it's difficult to make a good business case for the chargers on their own.

They cost thousands of dollars to buy, and can cost thousands more to install. You then need to insure and maintain them. Maintenance can be costly as I have already had two cases of vandalism in the first year so far.

If you try to get your investment back by charging customers to plug in, they simply won't use the stations.

So I've gone in the other direction and offer free charging with the hope people will come and plug in and patronize my business--and so far it seems to be working. Electric-car charging stations are bringing new customers to my business that I wouldn't have had if I hadn't installed them.

Clearly that is an opportunity for the private sector to make public charging work, once they understand that the value of the chargers goes beyond any fee collected for charging.

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Comments (16)
  1. Tom, good article. I've always seen public charging as a value add service. That was my 3 year experience with the EV1 in the 90s. There was penny of public charging in So Cal for the EV1. All free. At stores, my grocery store, Costco and at many parking lots and roadside spots. It seems now that all have amnesia when it comes to what we have learned about public charging from 15 years ago. People will pay for parking and charge. They will park and charge while they get other services. But mostly, they will charge at home and work and not really need public charging. Beyond that they will buy a PHEV to avoid any inconvenience that they may perceive when relying on a poor or financially oppressive for-profit charging infrastructure.

  2. "So I've gone in the other direction and offer free charging with the hope people will come and plug in and patronize my business--and so far it seems to be working."
    Ditto that, Tom. I have picked up 10 new patients as a direct result of my installation of a dual point EVSE in September 2012. I too allow anyone to plug in for free. As a result of my station I got 2 separate mentions, with pictures, in the local newspaper including a half page (FRONT page of the business section) article. That free advertising alone paid for the cost of installation! I drive a Volt and now have picked up several other Volt drivers and a PIP family. SOme other EV owners have plugged in and indicated that they will switch to me for their eyecare.

  3. If you install them, they will come!

  4. Confusion not only exists with different plug types (CHAdeMO & SAE Combo), but will rate of charge per hour EV stations can provide. e.g. Some Level 2 (J1772) stations can only deliver 3.3 kW/h while newer EVs (Fit EV, 2013 Leaf, & Focus EV) are able to charge at 6.6 kW/h. (2x as fast, or in 1/2 the time!)

    @Tom makes good point via Nissan that DC Quick Charge *infrastructure* is substantial percentage of installation costs. 30kW/h-60kW/h stations require 3-phase 480V & an isolation transformer; while 20kW/h-30kW/h units use 240V 3-phase power (no transformer required). Despite appearing to be almost half the power; charging time is only fractionally longer with 20-30 kW/h units; 40 vs 30 min. This is because power drops as battery charges.

  5. Nearly all Level 2 EVSE installations are 6.2kW (@208V) or up to 7.2kW (@240V). Some residential chargers like the cheapo Voltec are only capable of 3.6kW @240V. The cars can all use any one of them, but may not be able to take advantage of their maximum charge rate. I had a Tesla plugged in, drawing 6.2kW, even though they CAN charge at 10 kW (or 20 with dual chargers)

  6. Brian, you are confusing terms. The power consumed is called kW .

    I think it's certainly fine to offer low powered (below 20kW) for free to the public, but I also recognize that for really expensive chargers over 20kW cannot be free. Also, for every nearby free over 20kW charger that exists, it inhibits any future nearby "for-profit" charger from being installed. Only subsidized ones.

    The J1772 plug used for single phase AC charging throughout the USA was originally conceived to use 30amps at 208-240 volts (about 7kW) maximum. However, Tesla was successful in persuading the non-government standards body (SAE) to increase that to 80 amps (19.2kW) to handle their then current Roadster (70 amps max) and soon to be Model S (40-80 amps max

  7. Tony,
    Actualy the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) J1772 connector for AC Level 2 is designed for loads up to 80 kW...see their specs.

  8. There is a restaurant 30 miles from our house. We like it and we would eat there more often if they had level II charging. Most places i go or want to go I would go more often if level II charging was available. Of course if there was a place that we had never been and they offered level II charging we would go there initially. Yes install it and they will come. I cannot wait to go to Missouri and visit Michael Murphy's eye care center and charge while I am there. A large number of the electric car owners are upscale and if I had a business they are the types of customers I would want to encourage....those with money. Take Care, TED

  9. Nice article, Tom. First of all, all new parking should have, say, 25% of space have the conduit laid. If this is done during construction, the added cost is very low. That way, EVSE's can be added later without the big impact of trenching, etc.

    Second, employers need to be incentivized to add EVSE's to their parking lots.

    Both of these require a degree of participation from local governments.

    I don't see government mandates beyond that which I've stated above. The rest should come from the private sector -- manufacturers and entrepreneurs.

  10. Tom;
    1)Regarding vandalism, you might install security cameras to monitor area .
    2)Another option for who should take the lead in expanding infrastructure is (hold on!) chain filling stations on a credit card basis. It has a few advantages recommending it: People know where they are. They are convenient. It would add a small additional revenue stream and wifi along with Starbucks. They have space in most places to put it in place. Level 2 or level 3 would be profitable in time and guarantee continuity for their existence. This is following the same path as the livery stable eventually put a gas pump out front and a repair bay in place of a couple of horse stalls.

  11. In Europe, Total filling stations already have a lot of quickchargers installed.

    AC quickchargers will work well for the new generation EV's that are coming out now. The first being the Renault Zoe ZE, which has a "chameleon" charger. Meaning that it can adapt to any charger to make optimal use from it (for instance, the new standard 11kW chargers will fill it up in about 2 hours). It also means the AC to DC converter is already in the car. The advantage being that a new type of quickcharger (AC only) can be produced now, which is about 3 times cheaper compared to a DC charger. Disadvantage: still rare and not usable for first gen EV like Leaf. Total's quickchargers fortunately are AC and DC. Very expensive though, 4 euro per 10 minutes.

  12. Congrats to Tom for the article. I agree with what has been said. I would add the following :
    Charging station distributions- Government could do its part by attaching to the Highway construction bill a certain percentage to divert toward construction of fast charging stations every 20-25 miles along the Interstates. In addition, convenience stores that sell gasoline fuels should install fast chargers at their stores. As more EV's are on the road the more incentive for such installations would be.

    Rate of charging: To charge per KWh + a certain percentage of total added to the bill. The bill could be payed by credit card. The charger could have a scanner to input the charge on the credit charge much like they do at gasoline stations.

  13. Back in the day it was Beta vs VHS - Beta was better, but VHS won.
    Now we have CHAdeMO vs SAE - the single receptacle is better, but will it win.
    Give me a 1000 mile range battery and let the charging issue FADE away!

  14. Marc;
    I agree with the 1,000 mile battery. In fact, there is one in the works by an Israeli company called Phinergy.

    Their solution is a range extender that supplements the onboard lithium ion battery pack and runs on distilled water and aluminum plates, using proprietary technology to resolve metal-air /co2 issues.

    They allege a contract with a "major EV manufacturer" to supply units in time for model year 2017.

    Could it be Tesla? Nissan ??

  15. @Leon: Here's our report on the Phinergy battery, including some video:

  16. Thanks John;
    One question bothers this old Vermont boy: What happens when that distilled water drops below 32F ??

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