How to overcome EV public charging’s challenges

1Executive Summary

With over 18,000 plug-in cars on the road in the U.S. and counting, how well is the current charging infrastructure meeting public needs for a reliable, affordable and convenient way to plug in?

The short answer: We could do better.

Currently, several competing firms are all looking to stake out the largest share of the market. Amid the politics, attention to stock prices and a recent lawsuit, there is a noticeable lack of attention to the needs and experiences of the people who actually use the charging infrastructure. Instead, what we have is a patchwork of charging systems that are starting to send the wrong signals to the market. Interoperability, a lack of pricing transparency, network communication signals and a lack of available charging stations are all hurdles in the space. As a result, current plug-in drivers are not always sure they can charge away from home, and that poses a sizable risk to the growth of the industry.

Even though 91 percent of EV charging happens at home, having an accessible and reliable way to plug in away from home is paramount for drivers. From a functional perspective, drivers use public-charging stations mostly to top-off energy to extend their usable range, as Steve Schey of Ecotality said in an interview with GigaOM Pro. In cases where drivers do not necessarily need to charge, just knowing a station is nearby increases plug-in adoption and use. Research from Tokyo Electric Power Company (PDF) shows that when drivers are aware of public-charging stations nearby, they adopt “range confidence” and drive their plug-in vehicles for longer distances.

So given today’s state, how can we improve public charging?

This piece details the challenges of the EV public-charging system and presents solutions to propel the industry toward success. We discuss the current availability, accessibility and operability of public stations installed by two of the larger firms involved in this space, Ecotality and Coulomb Technologies. The piece also compares the advantages and disadvantages of the “cloud charging” approach with that of the “plug and play” approach of another firm gaining traction, ClipperCreek. Finally, we present an emergent policy proposal, aptly titled “An EV driver’s bill of rights,” which is aimed at solving some of the existing challenges.

For the EV industry to continue to thrive, charging-infrastructure firms need to work together to adopt baseline standards to better meet public needs. Many of these firms are currently receiving public money to help build the foundation of our nation’s future transportation infrastructure. By adopting shared standards for access, interoperability, transparency and pricing, charging infrastructure firms have the opportunity to drive demand, increase revenue and contribute to our shared vision of a cleantech transportation system in our country.

The challenges of cloud-based charging

The majority of new public-charging stations installed in the U.S. over the past year and a half are manufactured and operated by two firms, Ecotality and Coulomb. Ecotality operates the Blink stations and network; Coulomb operates the ChargePoint stations and network. Currently the Blink Network website map lists 1,152 charging stations at 498 sites. The ChargePoint network has 2,441 stations at 1,465 sites. These are Level 2 (240 V) chargers that can fully charge a Chevy Volt in about four hours and a Nissan Leaf in about eight hours.

These stations are cloud-based. Data is sent and received among drivers, station owners (hosts) and a central network to provide access to electricity for charging vehicles. The proposed benefits of a cloud-based charging system include better management of services through tracking station use and energy costs. This system is intended to make price setting, payment processing and driver support easier and more responsive.

“We are big believers in smart infrastructure. It feeds us data and gives us back information. We want people to tell us where to put chargers so we can create a smart charging infrastructure that teaches us where the need is,” said Andy Hooper from Ecotality in an interview.

On the surface, a cloud-based charging system is the intelligent way to go, since the system theoretically provides real-time data that optimizes use by station owners and drivers. However, no one knows the challenges of a cloud-based charging infrastructure better than the plug-in drivers themselves. To document and analyze these experiences, researchers with Plug In America (PIA) recently conducted a study titled “Are Taxpayer and Private Dollars Creating Effective Electric Vehicle Infrastructure?” Plug In America is a nonprofit organization created by and for plug-in drivers. I spoke with Tom Saxton, the primary author of this study, as well as with other representatives within the organization to get an overview of the main challenges of the current public-charging infrastructure.

Those challenges include:

1. Closed access. The only way to access each charging network is to enroll online and have a smart card delivered in the mail. Drivers cannot simply pull up to charge at a station without a card. “Imagine pulling up to a gas station and not be able to use the pump because you don’t have the special ‘club card.’ That is just ridiculous,” says Jay Friedland, the policy director of PIA.

2. No network interoperability. There is no interoperability among different charging-station networks. As a result, drivers must enroll in each network separately and carry multiple charging cards with them in order to charge at a networked public station. While Blink and ChargePoint are among the most numerous at this point, there are other emerging charging networks with no current plans for interoperability. Instead, drivers should be able to access any station at any time. If a smart card or other device is deemed necessary, drivers should have one device that can access any station, much as cell phones are able to roam across cellular networks.

3. Network communication issues. In his research, Saxton assesses the operability and availability of Blink and ChargePoint stations between Dec. 25, 2011, and Feb. 25, 2012. The research is based on two sources: real-time data publicly available through each company’s website and a field survey conducted by a team of driver-researchers that visited the actual charging sites. The results show that, on average, 9 percent of ChargePoint stations and 24 percent of Blink stations fail to charge vehicles because of network communication issues (i.e., the network is unavailable).

“Both companies approached me after I presented this information at EVS 26 and said they were embarrassed and wanted to do better,” Saxton said.

Saxton continues to collect data on the operability of the stations, and he said both Blink and ChargePoint have improved their numbers since this research first came out.

“The Blink network offline rate is down from 24 percent to around 12 percent. They have completed a rollout of new hardware and software to improve reliability,” Saxton stated. Saxton continues to receive reports from field researchers, however, of Blink stations “hung in error mode” even though they show up as “in use” on the network.

Seen at Santa Monica Place Shopping Center on June 9, 2012

As for ChargePoint station improvements, Saxton says the stations’ offline rate is “at about 8 percent right now” and that “they claim to be working at improving their network reliability.”

As Andy Hooper from Ecotality mentioned in an interview, “This is an experiment in data collection for all of us for who use EVs. The info that we learn can educate people on how EVs are used and adopted. The only way we are going to learn how to do it right is to gather that data and to share it. It is a smart way to understand what the infrastructure looks like and continue to build it out.”

Data collection is certainly useful, not to mention valuable to those who own the data. However, experience and studies such as Saxton’s indicate network communications are more fragile than the individual charging stations. Cloud charging systems need to be, first and foremost, charging systems. They need to enable the flow of electricity for charging vehicles, even if network communications are down.

“If [problems arise] due to network error only, the machine should just allow the charge,” says Friedland. Moreover, offline charging does not necessarily equate to free charging. Charging stations could be designed to work with intermittent connectivity, just as smartphones are able to store emails in an outbox and then send those emails the next time the phone connects to a cellular network. Once charging stations are back online, they can send data to the network for billing.

4. Unavailability of listed stations. According to Saxton’s research, when Blink and ChargePoint stations are operable, they are unavailable 18 percent of the time. Saxton’s team of researchers visited charging sites listed online and on smartphone apps as available. However, these stations had a nearly one in five chance of being unusable by drivers, due to a number of considerations, including no public access to the station, being difficult to find, and not enough stations being available for the present plug-in cars. In some cases, due to unclear signage, internal combustion engine (ICE) cars were parked in charging-station spaces instead. This phenomenon is known among drivers as being “ICEd.”

This data is presented below:

Source: Tom Saxton

Clearly, having visible and appropriate signage for the use and location of charging stations can alleviate this issue.

5. Mismatched charging needs. As mentioned, most new Blink and ChargePoint stations installed over the past year and a half are Level 2 charging stations. However, Level 1 (120 Volts) stations may be better suited in some areas instead, particularly airports.

At many airports, demand for chargers is far greater than supply. Limited Level 2 charging stations are often occupied by cars that remain in parking spaces for days, even though the vehicles are fully charged in four to eight hours. A larger number of lower-cost Level 1 charging stations would still provide traveling drivers with a full charge while they are away while also enabling more drivers to charge at the airport.

Friedland agrees. “Having a lot of Level 1 makes all the sense in the world,” he says. “It reduces the load on the grid and a 110-outlet is a lot easier and cheaper to install. There is less money to be made with Level 1 charging, but in many places that may be all that people need.”

6. Lack of price transparency and variability of pricing. Last, there is extreme variability in charging costs and a lack of price transparency when using the Blink and ChargePoint charging stations.

Lack of price transparency. Currently the individual stations do not disclose the price for charging at that station. There is either a sign put out by the station owner about price or, in most cases, no sign at all. These costs are disclosed only when logging on to one’s account online, where drivers buy credit in advance to access and pay for charging. The lack of price transparency per charge can be easily remedied by displaying the price on the user interface of the station, just as gas station pumps clearly display the price of fuel.

Variability of pricing across stations. Pricing is based on the time connected to the charging station instead of the actual electricity consumed, because laws in many states prohibit organizations other than electric utilities from selling electricity on a kilowatt-hour basis. For the 25 percent of ChargePoint stations that currently require payment from drivers, most prices range from $1.00 to $2.50 per hour. For example, the University of California, Irvine (UCI), charges $2.50 per hour to connect to a charging station. This means a four-hour charge at UCI for a Chevy Volt equates to $10 for 40 miles. When charging that same Volt at home in Southern California, the electricity for 40 miles costs $1.50, on average. Pricing charging at $2.50 per hour is not only vastly more than the actual cost of electricity but also makes charging an electric car much more expensive than fueling a gas car.

So what is causing these extreme charging rates? Cloud charging services that charge the hosts and variability in usage.

ChargePoint has several charges for hosts for its networked services. Those charges include a $230 annual subscription, $0.40 charge for every session (less if there are more stations present) and a 7 percent surcharge of the charging session total.

In some cases, as with many retailers, the host pays for the electricity and network services as a way to entice customers and promote its business. With public organizations or city governments, the host offers the electricity and networked services as a public service.

For hosts that want to recoup expenses and make a profit, it is difficult to set a price that makes sense, due to the variability in actual usage.

“At the local mall in Seattle, the stations started charging $1 per hour. Then they jumped to $1.50 per hour. Why did they do it? Because they had less usage and higher billing,” said Saxton. “The average charge time for a Leaf at the mall is two hours. A Leaf uses 35 cents an hour of electricity to charge. On top of that the mall is paying the network charges. How much usage do you have to get to break even? Most site owners have no idea. I have seen stations charge $7.50 a session or up to $4.00 an hour.”

“Some of these charging sites are like a gas station that sells gas for $20 per gallon with a concrete wall around it and no sign,” he continued.

Ecotality’s Blink Network has yet to start charging for services, though that will most likely happen soon. According to Hooper, “There is no business in free charging. It encourages people to charge on-peak. If it’s free, then people tend to stay there.” This is a tricky proposition, however, since more usage drives down costs per session for hosts (regardless of time-of-use charges). More usage also increases demand for stations for Blink, which adds business.

“Whatever we see on utilization and behavior, we have the option to adjust the price. We will be collecting data on that through December 2013. We have not yet set our pricing but we want to keep it comparable or lower than a gas car,” Hooper added.

ClipperCreek: plug and play

But cloud-based charging networks are not the only game in town. ClipperCreek, a charging-station manufacturer and installer, has over 7,500 electric vehicle supply equipment products currently in the field and operational. Its “plug and play” approach is a nonnetworked-based charging infrastructure.

“It is the simplest install. Your electrician runs a standard circuit to the station and that is it. The stations are EV-ready, are less costly, and require no external network. Plug and play,” said Will Barrett of ClipperCreek. It also offers a Level 1 charging station that may be particularly useful for underground parking structures in airports, where Level 2 wiring is often not possible or cost-prohibitive.

ClipperCreek stations do not require a smart card to access the station. If the station has power, it charges the vehicle. If the host would like to require payment for electricity, ClipperCreek can add access control to the station for an additional $99. Drivers can pay at a nearby parking station booth with their credit card or cash and receive a numerical code to access electricity from the station.

Under the ReConnect CA Program, ClipperCreek recently received grant funding to upgrade existing publicly available EV-charging infrastructure to the new SAE J1772 charging standard. Under the program, hosts receive free equipment in exchange for allowing free charging to drivers. If hosts wish to require payment from the public, the host pays for the price of equipment ($900).

Image courtesy of Clipper Creek/Will Barrett

Many of the hosts under the ReConnect CA Program are city governments that install stations at city parks, libraries, museums and other civic centers of interest. “Some hosts expressed concern initially about offering free charging, but paying for the $900 upfront [instead of qualifying for the grant] is not a justified expense for them. These stations are used mostly for drivers to ‘top-off,’ so they won’t be using much electricity,” says Barrett. Even if vehicles were charging at these stations for eight hours per day, at commercial rates, they would be using at most $6 per day in electricity. For municipal governments, the ClipperCreek stations are a worthwhile investment in meeting public needs for charging at civic locales.

The nonnetworked approach has its advantages for drivers and hosts. Most plug-in drivers and representatives from PIA that I spoke with highly regard ClipperCreek stations for their accessibility, simplicity and consistent reliability. Installation, equipment and operating costs are also significantly lower for hosts.

“People should have a choice and know how they are going to benefit from networked features. Networked systems are useful for tracking problems, maintenance, and use, but can also be disabling. Networked stations are also significantly more expensive — $6000 vs. $900 for a ClipperCreek,” commented Saxton. Saxton also added, however, that because of federal grants for ChargePoint and Blink stations, most hosts have not fully considered the variable long-term operational costs of a cloud-based network vs. a plug-and-play approach. It may be more practical for hosts to start with a ClipperCreek station (particularly those based in California and can benefit from ReConnect CA) and then upgrade to a Blink or ChargePoint station if networked benefits make more sense.

An EV driver’s bill of rights

For public charging to solve public needs, it is clear we need to establish baseline standards. This will send a clear signal to the mainstream market that people have a reliable, convenient and affordable way to charge away from home.

As a proposal for these guidelines, Friedland has put forth an EV driver’s bill of rights.

The EV driver’s bill of rights includes:

1. Open access. Drivers should have access to electricity from charging stations, irrespective of network operability.

2. Interoperability. Drivers should have access to all networked charging systems, either through a shared smart card (or other device) or through point-of-sale card-swipe technology available on the station itself.

3. Transparency. Drivers should have charging prices disclosed to them at the point-of-sale at stations. This information should also be reported in the mapping API so that consumers can choose even before they reach a charging station.

4. Consumer pricing protection. Drivers should have access to charge at rates that are reasonable and affordable. There needs to be a mechanism in place to prevent price gouging, particularly at remote charging locations.

As of now ClipperCreek’s “plug and play” approach adheres to these rights of drivers and meets driver needs in a reliable, accessible and affordable manner. It remains to be seen whether cloud-based charging firms can do the same.

EV public-charging standards: an opportunity for leadership

The benefits of cloud-based data collection and service management have yet to be fully realized for EV public charging. Instead, the up-front costs, lack of interoperability and occasional network unreliability may lead to less use of public-charging stations and slow mainstream adoption of EVs in the future. These issues need to be solved now for the collective success of the industry.

Charging-infrastructure firms have a stellar opportunity to demonstrate leadership and responsibility (as well as avoid regulation) to meet public infrastructure needs. By collectively adopting baseline standards for access, interoperability, transparency and pricing, charging companies can create a market environment of healthy “co-opetition” that will benefit all in the long run.

With these public-charging standards, EV-charging companies can be the affordable, cleantech gas stations of the future. The companies that are innovative enough to recognize that shared standards will drive greater demand for public charging will emerge as the market leaders.

All images courtesy of Shannon Arvizu unless otherwise stated.

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