Nearly five years ago, as a tidal wave of charging stations were rapidly planned for some West Coast regions, in support of a new wave of all-electric and plug-in vehicles, the question may have become, 'Where can the stations be installed?'—when it shouldn't have budged from, 'Where should they be installed?'
And therein lies one significant likely regret, among policymakers and advocates—and one likely reason why, today, so many publicly available charging stations sit mostly unused.
Federal data, as compiled and reported earlier this year, showed that public chargers installed as part of the EV Project were utilized only four percent of the time, versus 42 percent for home-charging unit.
The EV Project, which cost taxpayers about $100 million, was an infrastructure study launched in 2009, aiming to support a new generation of electric vehicles—in exchange for studying the charging habits of plug-in vehicle owners, as well as how charging infrastructure is utilized.
That project had originally been managed by ECOtality, which had 12,450 Level 2 charging stations and 110 DC fast charging stations at the time it went bankrupt and its charging network was bought by Miami-based Car Charging Group (CCG). That company reported a loss of nearly $11 million over the first six months of 2014, and since then it has moved to a per-kWh pricing method for its public chargers that’s aimed at generating more revenue—all as skeptics continue to wonder if there is a viable business model in operating public chargers.
Lack of fast chargers, location, home charging... They're all factors
Another significant reason for the project’s underutilization is the relative lack of fast chargers, which have proven to be the key ingredient for making EV ownership work for some households. For instance, most of the market’s battery-electric vehicles, such as the Nissan Leaf or Kia Soul EV, can be charged to 80 percent or more in less than a half hour with fast charging. Meanwhile, the Leaf takes five to eight hours—depending on which onboard charger hardware you have—to charge up on a 240V Level 2 charger.
In the rush to install public chargers as part of the EV Project, large employers and major business centers were hesitant to set aside EV-only parking spaces, or to dedicate employee parking to EV charging. So publicly owned spots like large parking garages and commuter lots won out.
AeroVironment DC fast charger, part of West Coast Electric Highway - Centralia, WA
Meanwhile, with federal subsidies applying to home installations of Level 2 chargers—making them effectively free or nearly so for some early adopters—the need for public charging focused away from all-day or commuter needs and toward means of ‘topping off,’ along major highways and near shopping centers.
Fast chargers along highways—as part of several EV highway projects—have done better. In Washington and Oregon, the so-called Electric Highway of DC quick-charging stations has been very well-utilized.
Hope for better placement in a couple of forms
With much of the public money now gone, and a greater need for Combo-plug (CCS) Level 3 public-charger installations (such as used by the BMW i3 and Volkswagen e-Golf) to complement CHAdeMO installations (used by the Nissan Leaf, Kia Soul EV, and others), hope lies in two forms, as we see it.
One of them is in private investment into CCS—such as what was recently announced by VW and BMW, a plan to install 100 privately funded but publicly accessible fast chargers. You can bet those fast chargers will be near where their customers live and often go.
The other bastion of hope is in thoughtful, data-supported analysis—to understand, and hopefully be able to better predict, what will make one public charging location successful while another might be underutilized.
And that analysis, as regions and companies ramp up for more CCS installations, can’t come soon enough. Bring it on; and make it public, please.