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

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

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]

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.

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

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

Automobile makers don't have to worry about where and how their customers buy gasoline, so I can understand why they're not enthusiastic about getting involved in the "refueling" process for their electric cars.

But at this point, I believe they have to get invovlved if they want any degree of success in this segment.

Some manufacturers seem to realize this though and have taken a first hand role in infrastructure deployment. Nissan has Level 2 chargers installed in all their dealerships that sell the Leaf, and most are outside and readily available.

However, who they're available to has been a topic of debate. Privately owned dealers can make their own decisions on charger accessibility, and some choose not the let the general public use them.

In my personal experience, I have never been denied the use of a charger at a Nissan dealer. I always go in and ask permission before plugging in and so far they have all been very accommodating, even though I'm driving a BMW.

I've read stories of other people being denied, though, so you can't depend on Nissan dealership charging stations being 100 percent available--but Nissan is definitely making an effort. It has also announced it will be installing DC quick chargers at many dealers, with the is to make them available 24/7 at most of the locations.

This is a big boost for the CHAdeMO contingency. One of the arguments SAE CCS supporters made was that there were so few CHAdeMO chargers installed in the US it wouldn't matter if a new standard was implemented. It seems Nissan realized the only way CHAdeMO had a chance for long term success in the US would be to get as many of them in the ground as they could before any CCS units (or cars that will use it) are available so recently they have begun an aggressive installation program. This battle is far from over. 

[Editor's Note: Privately, Nissan executives have said that the expensive part of quick-charging stations is getting the power to the location--so if other standards than CHAdeMO come to dominate, it's a relatively simple matter to put a new "head unit" with a different connector and software onto the same electrical service.]

Tesla Road Trip from MD to CT, Feb 2013 - Tesla Model S cars at Delaware SuperCharger location

Tesla Road Trip from MD to CT, Feb 2013 - Tesla Model S cars at Delaware SuperCharger location

The only other manufacturer that has stepped up and invested in charging infrastructure is Tesla, with its Supercharger network. Kudos to Tesla for investing in the Supercharger network!

However, since Tesla engineered its own proprietary connector for the Model S and has such large battery packs, it really had to do something like this. It will be interesting to see how fast Tesla builds out the network and if it adds any unscheduled locations due to unexpected buying patterns.

Personally, I would prefer that Tesla also allow quick charging for non-Tesla plug-ins at their Supercharger locations--perhaps by using an adaptor, and charging people per use. The only issue might be a Tesla customer angry that the charger was unavailable to them because it was being used by a non-Tesla vehicle.

Still, I can certainly understand why doing that isn't in Tesla's interest--even though it would be good for the industry as a whole if it did.

That leaves the utilities and governments. These are the real wild cards, which could make electric-vehicle charging infrastructure as ubiquitous as gas stations if they really wanted to.

EV charging station at Costco

EV charging station at Costco

In the end, it will likely take a combination of all the stakeholders listed here working together to spread pervasive charging infrastructure--as well as the public supporting the industry's efforts by buying electric cars to generate demand for those charging stations.

There is a bit of a chicken-and-egg issue right now, with some people holding off until there are more charger locations--and chargers not being installed because there isn't yet a huge demand for them.

I'd like to hear your thoughts on this. Who should be leading the way to install public infrastructure, and why?

Leave me your thoughts in the Comments below.

Tom Moloughney is a New Jersey electric-car advocate, restaurant owner, former MINI E driver, and current BMW ActiveE driver. This is his sixth article for Green Car Reports.


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