Giving the world’s prospective plug-in electric vehicle owners the confidence that they’ll be able to recharge on the go is an important, yet challenging chicken-and-egg problem facing the EV industry. For drivers, the lack of public charging stations limits that confidence -- and for businesses that would invest in public charging, the lack of drivers makes it hard to justify the upfront cost.
On Wednesday, EV charging network startup ChargePoint launched a $100 million lease financing fund with partner Key Equipment Finance that's meant to jump-start the spread of public charging infrastructure. Under the program, business owners can pay as little as $3 to $6 per day to lease a charging station, operated by ChargePoint, that normally costs about $6,000 to install, or about $12,000 for a dual-charger unit.
Then, they can recoup those costs by asking drivers to pay a fee for using them -- possibly. Alternatively, the charging station leaseholders could just tally up the benefits of giving their employees a place to recharge their cars while at work -- or, for retail and commercial business owners, the increased business and PR shine to come from well-heeled EV drivers who are likely to do some extra shopping while they wait for a fill-up.
It’s a new model for pushing public EV charging to broader markets, though not an unexpected move on ChargePoint’s part. Greentech Media reported last month that the Campbell, Calif.-based startup’s CTO and founder Richard Lowenthal had previewed the coming launch of the program, though he declined to offer more details at the time.
Wednesday’s release answers many questions about how the program will work, including the fact that it is strictly aimed at businesses installing public chargers, and particularly at chargers at the workplace, where people park their cars for hours at a stretch before heading home.
“The upfront nature of the cost structure to put in EV charging is a massive barrier,” ChargePoint CEO Pasquale Romano said in a Wednesday interview. “A lease is a perfect model” to help solve that, and ChargePoint’s partner, the equipment leasing subsidiary of KeyBank, “has done tons of equipment financing.”
Indeed, the relationship with Key Equipment Finance is a critical part of how a startup that’s raised about $80 million in venture and strategic investment can offer the market $100 million in leased equipment. While ChargePoint manages the charging stations in terms of networking and support, Key buys the charging stations from ChargePoint and pays the electrical contractors to install it at customer sites, Romano explained.
Key is also responsible for checking the credit-worthiness of and working out lease terms with individual customers, he said. But those aspects aren’t expected to be too onerous. Tim Duerr, senior vice president of business development for Key Equipment Finance, said in a Wednesday conference call with reporters that the company is looking at business owners that are doing as little as $100,000 in annual transactions as prospective clients.
And, because the installations are structured as capital leases, the business that buys in can claim the federal tax credit for the charging stations, which now stands at 30 percent for costs up to $37,000 per address installed, Romano said. That, along with whatever fee structure the leaseholders set up to charge the drivers for using the system, could yield a net positive cash flow for the system in short order, he added.
This, by the way, distinguishes ChargePoint’s model from the third-party solar financing models pioneered by SolarCity and Sunrun, which leave the federal tax credits for solar systems in the hands of those companies, not their customers. (One possible snag for ChargePoint’s tax credit bonus is that this credit is set to expire at year’s end -- though Romano expressed optimism that Congress will get to work renewing it.)
ChargePoint is also working on another lease program aimed at city governments, which obviously doesn’t include the tax credit, but does involve other details that make it work for government owners, he said. Beyond that, it’s looking at combined public-private financing that could open the program up to customers that fall below traditional thresholds of credit-worthiness, he said.
Reed Hundt, the former FCC chairman and Clinton and Obama administration technology advisor who now leads the Coalition for Green Capital, joined Wednesday’s conference call to note that the state financing organizations known as “green banks” could help push ChargePoint’s leasing model where they’ve been set up in New York and Connecticut.
“The goal of every green bank is to provide a mix of state capital and private capital, which is what we have here,” he said. Romano added that ChargePoint is talking to other states that have participated in clean technology financing programs for additional support.
Certainly this kind of public-private partnership will be a better model to spur EV charging infrastructure than the direct government grant model that failed so spectacularly in the case of ECOtality. The publicly traded company spent $100 million in Department of Energy funding to deploy thousands of car chargers around the United States, only to declare bankruptcy last month. While its Blink charger network has since been bought out of bankruptcy for $3 million, it’s unclear how the new owner, Miami-based Car Charging Group, will make a profitable business of the 4,500 or so public chargers in that network.