Fully Charged: How will charging infrastructure affect the market for electric vehicles?

"BlueIntroducing Drivers of Change, a new column from Verge and Rocky Mountain Institute focused on the intersection of cities, transportation, and innovative technologies.

Electric vehicle charging stations are the wallflowers of the car-fueling dance. Traditional gas stations take center stage; they’re in your face and more or less everywhere. Meanwhile, most EV charging stations do not attract a great deal of attention; they’re subtle. Whether mounted to a wall in a dimly lit parking garage or perched discreetly on a sidewalk outside a shopping mall, they very easily blend into their environment.

Of course, some manufacturers have sought to change that, but for the most part, charging stations resemble utility or electrical service equipment, and that’s exactly what they are—a technology that delivers electrons to electric vehicle batteries.

Nevertheless, the charging station industry has grown considerably in the past couple years. Alongside it, so has an array of supporters—cities, automakers, nonprofits, and champions of electric vehicle technology—who are banking on its importance for the success of the EV market. That is because, to many, a charging station is much more than simply charging technology; it’s also a billboard advertisement.

EV charging infrastructure is utilitarian, but it’s also a key lever that has the potential to dramatically impact the market for electric vehicles. In the coming weeks, I’ll address a host of related questions. Here’s a preview:

If you build it, will they charge?

Over the past three years, cities, states, and the federal government have poured millions of dollars into the deployment of electric vehicle charging infrastructure, some of which was installed in areas that had yet to see any of the actual cars. On the face of it, this if-you-build-it model makes sense. Most drivers know very little about the experience of owning, driving, and charging an EV, so by providing opportunities for the vehicles to charge in visible locations, you introduce the public to the technology. But in this chicken-vs.-egg scenario, which is the driving force? Do public charging stations prompt greater EV adoption, or does greater EV adoption require more public charging stations?

Location, location, location

Where do you install charging stations, and how many do you install? According to data collected through the EV Project—a Department of Energy-sponsored study of vehicle usage behavior—most charging takes place at home. However, that percentage appears to be decreasing. Ideally, you want to install stations in highly accessible locations. Most cities are currently working with local businesses and parking operators to find homes for charging stations. A number of Project Get Ready cities are taking things a step further and tracking existing EV sales and overlaying with previous hybrid sales, to determine the best locations. However, the most optimized system will likely emerge out of a market-driven model for charging infrastructure.

Who foots the bill?

Though some variables can cause increases in costs (such as electrical capacity upgrades), many installers in our Project Get Ready cities have completed projects for little over $3,000 per station. But who ultimately pays for that infrastructure and the electricity? And what happens when customers—accustomed to charging for free under current scenarios—are suddenly forced to pay (as has happened with certain social media sites, online editions of newspapers, and other examples)? Electricity is fairly cheap in many parts of the country, so if you’re a business or city that wants to recover your investment on installed infrastructure, simply marking up kilowatt-hours won’t get you there. Instead, some are experimenting with subscriptions, monthly payments, or pay-by-the-hour models. Energy company NRG offers a subscription service for members of its eVgo network. Austin Energy, the City of Austin’s municipal utility, has a program called Plug-In EVerywhere, which grants six months of access to downtown charging for $25, while non-members pay $2 per hour.

Who’s ready to share?

How do you ensure that public stations are actually used? EV Project data suggests that in its network of ~8,800 stations, any given station has a car connected to it just six percent of the time. The rest of the time stations sit vacant; not quite an ideal scenario. So how do we increase charging station utilization? One interesting way is through car-sharing programs, such as Car2Go and Paris’s Autolib program. The Autolib car-sharing service provides point-to-point mobility throughout the city. Every parking space designated for Autolib cars is accompanied with a charging station. The city invested in the infrastructure, the cost of which Autolib is reimbursing with its growing membership fees. Plus, Autolib’s infrastructure is also available to the general public through a simple reservation service.

Think outside the (charger) box

The charging station market need not follow in the footsteps of gasoline stations. Consider the actual form of the charging station. Aside from some wall-mounted models, they tend to resemble a conventional fueling pump. But if you look inside, it’s largely hollow save for a few wires running to the plug and the interface. EV charging stations—like the floppy disk icon for saving computer files, or the envelope icon that indicates email—borrow antiquated forms and imagery from earlier technologies. There’s a ton of opportunity for charger design innovation. To wit, some companies, such as Evatran, are producing wireless charging pads that do away with the traditional charging station and long cord entirely.

The next few years will prove to be an interesting time in the charging station industry, and for EVs in general. But before this industry reaches a sustainable point, it must address and answer the above questions with clear value propositions.

This post also appeared on Verge.

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