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 these days, almost half of them in the U.S. The best-selling model, with about 62,000 on the road, is Nissan Motor Co. (7201)’s Leaf, which has a range of about 75 miles (120 kilometers).
Will Beckett, a technology consultant in Aptos, California, uses a Leaf to run errands and visit clients, and recharges in his garage with electricity generated from rooftop solar panels. “I plug in at home 95 percent of the time,” he said. A full charge costs him about $1.50.
Beckett, like many drivers, is occasionally afflicted by “range anxiety,” the fear that he’ll run out of juice before getting home. That’s why he had a charger installed at his mother’s home 50 miles to the north in Palo Alto.
For those longing to travel extended distances, the presence of a nascent public EV-charging network is providing reassurance -- and frustration. Thanks in part to startups such as ChargePoint Inc., Ecotality Inc. (ECTY) and Car Charging Group Inc. (CCGI), 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 outfitted with one or two plugs. Close to 40 percent of the almost 15,000 that have cropped up across the U.S. are open to the public, according to the U.S. Energy Department. The rest are at private homes or businesses that control access.
Elon Musk’s Tesla Motors Inc. (TSLA) said yesterday said it will triple its network this quarter to more than two dozen stations. It plans to expand further and by the end of the year, drivers of its Model S sedan will be able to drive from New York to Los Angeles. Tesla shares slipped 0.7 percent to $104.24 at 10:40 a.m. in New York. They have tripled in value this year.
The biggest frustration for drivers is that the industry lacks a universal payments system. Drivers pulling into commercial stations must use cards embedded with radio-frequency identification chips to activate the post and pay. But each network requires a different card.
“We don’t need people walking around with five RFID cards,” said Michael Farkas, chief executive officer of Car Charging, which has locations in 20 states and the District of Columbia.
A universal system, or something approaching it, may emerge as the fragmented industry consolidates. Ecotality and ChargePoint, both based in California, announced in March that they’re combining their networks and eventually will cover an estimated 90 percent of the U.S. market. The integration may be finished by early 2014, said Ecotality CEO Ravi Brar.
Other companies are jostling for profits and real estate. A Houston-based unit of NRG Energy Inc. (NRG), eVgo, has built almost 40 stations in Texas. Subscription to the service costs $39 to $89 a month, depending on a contract that may include installing a charger at home.
“We’re trying to create an EV ecosystem,” said Arun Banskota, eVgo’s president. “Our plan is to grow the network along with the scale of EVs.”
Ecotality had a head start. It has received $115 million in grants from the U.S. government since 2009 to deploy more than 13,000 stations and has completed 80 percent of that goal. The San Francisco-based company recently signed a deal to put chargers in front of 225 Kroger Co. (KR) grocery stores. Customers pay $1 to $2 an hour to power up.
Besides Tesla, Nissan is also investing in infrastructure to support current customers and win new ones. In February, Nissan announced a partnership with eVgo to install 500 rapid-charge stations in the U.S. The systems can mostly recharge a car’s battery in 30 minutes, something that takes four to eight hours with conventional, or Level 2, chargers.
Tesla’s network offers free, high-speed charging, only to drivers of his company’s cars. The systems can mostly charge a car in about 20 minutes and are partly powered with photovoltaic panels from SolarCity Corp. (SCTY), another of his companies. Chargers may each cost as much as $300,000, Musk said on a conference call yesterday. A basic, Level 2, post costs about $10,000.
Demand for public charging stations would be stronger if drivers knew where to find them and could power up with a single card, said Andrew Hudgins, project leader for Clean Cities, an Energy Department program that provides research and data on charging posts.
“There are just so many changes right now that it’s hard for me to say how many RFIDs are there,” said Hudgins, whose unit is based in Golden, Colorado. The combination of Ecotality and ChargePoint is a step in the right direction, he said.
“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,’” said Hudgins. But having more than a dozen networks “is not a good experience for anybody, and it’s going to curtail growth.”
Clean Cities programmers are developing a mobile-device app, scheduled to debut next year, that will offer real-time data on every charging station in the U.S.
“I’ve spoken to people at conferences who are saying, ‘I’m really getting tired of having six different apps on my phone, and trying to jump between each of those to see what’s available,” Hudgins said. “Joining together, so people can use those stations regardless of the manufacturer or network, is what’s really needed.”
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