It seems like just yesterday folks were sitting on panels in over-air-conditioned hotel ballrooms musing over the impact electric vehicles would have on utilities and society at large.
Today, early adopters -- and the rush of companies trying to provide infrastructure to support the nascent market -- are offering some real experiences, and challenges, to reflect on. From getting the chargers into the right hands (and locations) to pricing structure, it’s a bit like the Wild West of the car market -- with plenty of fodder for future conference panels.
Currently, most EV manufacturers have agreements with charging station companies (AeroVironment, Ecotality, Coulomb Technologies, eVgo) to provide at-home chargers to car owners once they get off the waiting lists. But sooner rather than later (and maybe even as soon as this summer), people will be able to pick up at least one charger where they buy their other appliances -- at Best Buy.
Ecotality’s Blink charging station is already popping up in some Best Buy parking lots, and so it is likely that these Level 2 (220 volt) charging stations will show up on the store shelves within the year. Expect other chargers to follow soon, and car buyers will eventually be able to shop for a charger they way they shop for a cell phone -- based on price, perks and popularity. It’s not that big of a leap for the big box store, which is already selling electric bikes and scooters. Costco has already jumped on the trend by putting charging stations in several locations, while some hotels offer free charging.
But don’t expect Best Buy and its Geek Squad to own the entire installation process just yet. Jonathan Read, CEO of Ecotality, said that they’ve been working hard with stakeholders so that there is e-permitting available in areas where the cars are being sold. When compared to waiting all day for the cable guy, Read scoffed. “It’s worse than that,” he said at ABB Automation & Power World. “It’s like waiting for the cable guy three times over.”
It is easy to believe, however, that after companies like Ecotality have done the heavy lifting to smooth the permit process, the Geek Squad could come in and reap the benefits. Read acknowledged that Ecotality and others were making it easier for future competitors to offer charging, but he wasn’t worried. He welcomed the idea that EV drivers could someday shop for a charger the same way they do for other electronics.
While charging companies are working to smooth the permitting process, they are also looking to find the right balance of on-the-go charging stations. The majority of charging -- estimates range from 70 percent to 90 percent -- will happen at home. But Read argued that charging networks are necessary to “untether people from their garages.”
For Ecotality, that means offering drivers access to the charging stations, which could cost about $30 for access to the network. That just gets you access, similar to a Costco card just getting you in the door. Subscription services are also likely to have sharing agreements, the same way cell phones used to have roaming charges when you traveled outside your network. It’s a moving target, however, as Read said that basic subscription could be as low as $5 back in December. From there, charges will vary by type of charging and time of day.
The eVgo program, a partnership between Aerovironment and NRG Energy, recently released different options, from on-the-go access to an 'all you can eat' model for $49 to $89. A closer look at the fine print reveals that it’s not truly all-you-can-eat electricity, however. Mike McCabe, Manager of Electric Vehicle Services for NRG Energy, which owns eVgo, said that the monthly rate only includes off-peak charging at home. If you need to charge at home at 5 p.m. before you head out to dinner, you’ll have to pick up the tab.
The pricing plans will continue to be fluid as charging companies experiment with what drivers want, as well as determining the price points that will encourage off-peak charging. As for the placement of chargers, the idea of ‘destination charging’ is already being rejected. You are likely to charge at places you are already going, like Walgreens, but you’re not going to go eat a restaurant just because there is a charger there.
“You can’t expect consumers to change their behavior,” argued Murray Jones, Vice President of EV Solutions for ABB, which has invested in Ecotality. And yet those who are already driving EVs say that it does change your behavior -- from becoming more aware of how many miles you drive to paying more attention to how you use electricity at home. It’s no surprise that EV chargers will likely hit Best Buy shelves at the same time the chain makes room for home energy management systems.