In the old days, service stations gave away plates and piggy banks to attract customers. With electric cars, we’re seeing the reverse.

Retailers, hotel chains and even some casinos have begun to experiment with giving free power to EV drivers. A full charge might cost a business $2 to $3 (versus $60 for a full tank of gas) but engender ten times that much in terms of goodwill.

“Charged for a couple of hours while getting new glasses at Stein Optometric.” wrote one driver in Southern California at EVChargerMaps. “When I was leaving, I met the mayor of Manhattan Beach parked nearby in one of their city's fleet Mini EVs. He loves the car and wants to help build out their charging infrastructure.”

Charging sounds simple but it will radically change the relationship between car and driver. First, it's cheap, so the days of hunting for cheap gas are over. But filling up a gas tank takes fifteen minutes at the most. Charging a car like the Nissan Leaf will take 20 hours with a 110-volt charger and 8 hours on a 220-volt one.  Drivers, thus, are going to have to devise re-energizing strategies, something they haven’t thought of much since the days of the Stanley Steamer.

Most consumers will likely charge their car at home, filling up on power straight from their utility. Gas stations and convenience stores may see business opportunities shrink: who wants to spend eight hours at a Quik Mart to charge up the car? An electric car sucks down as much power as a house -- the grid has the capacity but charging will have to be synchronized block by block.

And what about charging companies? How will they make money? Ecotality, Better Place  and Coulomb Technologies, which are in the midst of installing 4,600 chargers in nine U.S. cities, want to offer subscription services to customers. Pay $20 to $60 a month and get electricity, battery management services and more. Others, like Timo Luukkainen, President and CEO of Finland’s Ensto Group, said paying for power in an ad-hoc manner will be the norm. In Scandinavia, he added, the infrastructure already exists.

Is your city ready? Which approach do you think might work best?

Read more on this topic in a joint effort by General Electric Ecomagination and Greentech Media, and join the conversation here.

Interested in electric cars and smart grids? Attend The Networked EV on Nov. 9, 2010 in San Francisco, CA to learn about the intersection of the two industries.