You'd think a company awarded $115 million by the Department of Energy to build electric-car charging stations would make them accessible to every single driver, wouldn't you?
Apparently, you'd be wrong.
At least, that is, in the case of Ecotality's Blink network.
Any plug-in driver arriving at a Blink station who hasn't previously signed up as a Blink member is out of luck.
Useless 800 number
As we've confirmed with several drivers, calling the 800 number on a sticker now added to the side of Blink stations is useless.
Ecotality's operators cannot take a credit-card number and activate the charging station remotely--unlike those of Blink's competitor, Coulomb Technologies' ChargePoint network.
Nor can operators enroll new customers in the Blink network, since the company must first mail out the RFID card required to charge at a Blink station.
Blink EV charging point at IKEA store
On February 28, Chevy Volt driver Jeff U'Ren and his son pulled up to a Blink station at the Ikea store in Carson, California.
"We were going to an event in Long Beach from Santa Monica, and we had planned go a little early, stop at the Ikea, charge, have a snack and browse the store," U'Ren said.
"I didn't know the chargers there were from Blink; it didn't occur to me that I'd have a problem."
"When we got there, it was apparent I'd need a RFID card to start a charging session," he continued. "So I called the 800 number on the Blink charger, as I'd done before with Coulomb, to get them to turn it on."
No remote control
"To my surprise," U'Ren said, "the operator had no way to turn the station on remotely, and couldn't even sign me up and send me a card, as Coulomb did."
ECOtality Blink charging station, showing sticker on the side with 800 number
"The guy on the phone was no help, and sounded as if he couldn't care less about my problem," U'Ren concluded. "He did offer some explanation as to how I could get an RFID card, but it didn't sound easy."
At that point, U'Ren gave up, found a nearby hospital with a Level 2 charging station--offering free electricity, as it turned out--and relaxed at a nearby coffee shop while recharging his Volt.
It appears that Blink operators aren't entirely powerless, though.
"I called the 800 number because it wouldn't accept my wife's unregistered RFID card," related Tom Saxton. "The rep was able to assign her card to my account."
GreenCarReports reached out to Ecotality yesterday to confirm these accounts; the company has not replied.
Saxton is the author of a recent study by Plug-In America that compared the reliability of Blink stations to that of Coulomb's CharePoint locations.
It found that an average of 25 percent of Blink stations were offline at any given time, versus 10 percent for ChargePoint stations, and that more than half stayed offline for a day to a week--versus downtimes of an hour or less for two-thirds of ChargePoint locations.
Ecotality has received more than $40 million of a $115 million Department of Energy grant to install 14,000 electric-car charging stations in five states, of which it has so far installed roughly half.
The company has had challenges on a number of fronts lately.
ECOtality Blink charging stations for electric & plug-in cars
Slammed in Romney ad
In Syracuse, New York, a nonprofit organization tore out the 68 Blink stations it had installed and sued Ecotality for $6 million, claiming that after a year, the charging stations still don't track and bill users correctly as required under the installation contract.
It's also under investigation by the Securities & Exchange Commission for possible insider trading, and received subpoenas in October 2010 and December 2011.
Last month, Mitt Romney named Ecotality (along with bankrupt solar-panel maker Solyndra) in a campaign ad, "Not Even Half," that slammed what it said was the Obama Administration's pattern of picking winners and losers in renewable energy and investing in companies that failed.
Ecotality and another company named, First Solar, fought back by issuing statements that pointed out inaccuracies.
Politico termed the Romney ad a “mixed bag on facts”; it was also criticized by The Street and FactCheck.