Electric vehicles are slowly catching on. Now, if only car charging stations could keep up. About 200,000 EVs, including plug-in hybrids, travel the world’s roads these days—almost half of them in the U.S. The best-selling model on the market, the Nissan Leaf, has a range of about 75 miles.
Will Beckett, a technology consultant in Aptos, Calif., who uses his Leaf mainly to run errands and visit clients, refuels in his garage with electricity generated from rooftop solar panels. “I plug in at home 95 percent of the time,” he says, noting that his cost per charge is about $1.50. Beckett, like a lot of EV drivers, is occasionally afflicted by “range anxiety,” fear that he’ll run out of juice before getting home. That’s why he had a charger installed at his mother’s home in Palo Alto.
For drivers longing to travel extended distances, the presence of a nascent public EV charging network is proving reassuring—and frustrating. Thanks in part to startups such as ChargePoint, Ecotality (ECTY), and Car Charging Group (CCGI), charging stations are beginning to appear in store parking lots and at standalone kiosks. The posts are about the size of a regular gasoline pump and are outfitted with one or two plugs. Close to 40 percent of the nearly 15,000 that have cropped up across the U.S. are open to the public; the rest are installed at private homes or businesses that control access.
The biggest frustration for drivers is that the industry lacks a universal payments platform. Drivers pulling into commercial stations must use cards embedded with radio-frequency identification chips to activate a post and pay. But each network has a different card. “We don’t need people walking around with five RFID cards,” says Michael Farkas, chief executive officer of Car Charging, which has locations in 20 states, plus D.C.
A universal system—or something approaching it—may eventually emerge as the fragmented industry consolidates. Ecotality and ChargePoint, both based in California, announced in March that they’re combining their networks into one, which they say will have an estimated 90 percent share of the U.S. market. Ecotality has a bit of a head start—it’s received $115 million in grants from the U.S. government since 2009 to deploy more than 13,000 stations. (It’s 80 percent toward that goal.) The San Francisco company recently signed a deal to put chargers in front of 225 Kroger (KR) grocery stores. Customers pay between $1 to $2 per hour to power up.
Carmakers Nissan Motor (7201:JP) and Tesla Motors (TSLA) are also investing in infrastructure to serve current customers and win new ones. In February, Nissan, the world’s top seller of electric cars, announced a partnership with EVgo, a Texas subsidiary of utility NRG (NRG), to install 500 rapid-charge stations in the U.S., at which customers can get a charge in as little as 30 minutes compared with the 4 hours to 8 hours it typically takes to juice up. The stations will use EVgo’s RFID cards. Elon Musk’s Tesla is building its own nationwide network of “Superchargers” that drivers of its cars will be able to use free of charge. They will be off-limits to other EV owners. So far eight of the stations have been built.
Andrew Hudgins, a project leader for Clean Cities, a U.S. Department of Energy program that provides data and cost-benefit analysis on the installation of charging posts, says the proliferation of choices is not necessarily benefiting consumers. “We understand why everyone at the start was trying to build out their own portion of the market and say, ‘We can do this better than anyone else, so you should go with our network,’ ” says Hudgins. “But it’s not a good experience for anybody, and it’s going to curtail growth.”