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

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

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.

Electric-car charging, from NRG Energy

Electric-car charging, from NRG Energy

While some states--notably California--forbid utilities from being in the charging-station business, to foster private-sector competition, most utilities operate under a mandate to foster public safety and social benefits.

That's why street lights are generally considered a public benefit, and are often provided by utilities to municipalities at cost or below.

There are clearly social benefits to encouraging electric-car use, among them reduced air pollution and lower per-mile travel costs.

The public-safety benefit, presumably in reducing the number of electric cars sitting dead at the side of the road for lack of charge, may be a bit more tenuous.

According to GM's Britta Gross, fully 90 percent of electric-car charging today in done either in the home or at the workplace--and new initiatives to encourage charging at work is now underway.

Chevrolet Spark EV at CCS fast charging station in San Diego.

Chevrolet Spark EV at CCS fast charging station in San Diego.

Early data from the Oregon portion of the Oregon-Washington Electric Highway show that more than two-thirds of all plug-in electric car charging sessions are now occurring on the DC fast chargers, not the associated Level 2 stations.

While the Electric Highway has seen higher-than-projected usage, the Japanese "TEPCO Paradox" suggests that perhaps charging stations encourage longer-range driving in electric cars--but don't get used all that much.

But what happens if there's no model that produces a profit in the long term for DC fast-charging operators?

More than one conferee noted that Ecotality built its fast-charging network using Federal funds that are now largely gone, while the infrastructure now being installed in California by NRG's evGo network comes from the settlement of a long-running lawsuit.

In other words ... not the free market.

What would you pay for an electric-car charging session? More than $5? Would you do it often?

And how do you think quick-charging stations will be funded in the future?

Leave us your thoughts in the Comments below.


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