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Is There Any Business Model For Public Electric-Car Charging? Plug-In 2013 Report

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2011 Nissan Leaf plugged into an EVgo quick-charging station, Texas

2011 Nissan Leaf plugged into an EVgo quick-charging station, Texas

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Suppose there's no way for businesses to make money on public electric-car charging stations--even with DC quick-charging?

Then what?

That was one sobering question that came up during the Plug-In 2013 conference, held in San Diego last Monday through Thursday.

Almost three years after the first mass-produced electric cars went on sale in December 2010, the focus of the conference was on nuts-and-bolts questions of deployment, user data, electric utility partnerships, and much more.

ECOtality DC fast charger - Portland, OR

ECOtality DC fast charger - Portland, OR

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And, attendees seemed to agree, this year's Plug-In conference had a more realistic tone--perhaps sobered by the recent bankruptcies of both the Ecotality charging-station network and the Better Place service in Israel.

But the most intriguing question in side discussions and comments among the attendees was whether a business model really exists for providing public charging infrastructure for electric cars at all.

To keep the Ecotality network of charging stations open--including its dozens of CHAdeMO DC quick-charging stations--Nissan provided $1.2 million in operating funds last month.

What will happen to Ecotality's assets remains to be determined in bankruptcy court, though more than one conferee quietly suggested that some of Ecotality's 240-Volt Level 2 stations were not sited in useful enough locations to justify keeping them turned on.

Even before electric cars launched into the market, we recall one utility CEO saying that his company had searched for a way to make money selling charging services.

Nissan Leaf at eVgo Freedom Station Daly City, California

Nissan Leaf at eVgo Freedom Station Daly City, California

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But the utility failed to find any scenario, he said, under which electric-car drivers would pay Level 2 charging fees high enough to cover the costs of building and maintaining charging stations that were robust enough to prevent vandalism (in particular the theft of valuable copper cable).

Now it seems some people close to electric-car infrastructure projects are beginning to ask: What happens if payments of, say, $5 per quick-charging session won't be enough to cover the capital costs of installing and maintaining those much pricier stations?

Tesla Motors, after all, has simply declared its Supercharger quick-charging network a free benefit of buying its Model S electric luxury sedan--a marketing expense, if you like.

One possibility suggested in an off-the-record conversation with the head of electric-car infrastructure business and deployment at a Western utility is that charging stations may fall back to being the responsibility of electric power providers.


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