Editorial: Why Plug-in Advocates, Owners Need To Halt The Charging Station Land Grab And Work on Appropriate Infrastructure

Ten to fifteen years ago, forward-thinking businesses around the world were scrabbling to offer free wireless connectivity to customers in an attempt to set themselves apart from the competition and entice early adopters through the door. Today, wireless connectivity is perceived as something of a prerequisite of a modern, civilised society, with everywhere form train stations to shopping malls, fast food restaurants and yes, even commuter busses proudly offering free wifi to anyone who wants it.

Charging networks will only be successful if they offer appropriate, reliable charging in places where people want to charge.

Charging networks will only be successful if they offer appropriate, reliable charging in places where people want to charge.

These days, many of those early businesses and municipalities who jumped on the wifi bandwagon are finding themselves jumping on the plugin bandwagon too, installing public charging stations for plug-in car owners to use. For customers and residents who use them — especially if they’re free — they’re a welcome service.

Yet the rush on public charging stations — often spearheaded by naive officials and well-meaning businesses who know nothing about plug-in cars or the people who drive them — threatens to cause the kind of misinformed bad press that could end badly for everyone, plug-in car owners included.

In many cases, the wrong types of charging stations are being installed in locations unsuitable for plug-in charging. In others, massive amounts of public funding is being spent on grandiose gestures which will never pay their way. And in too many situations, the end result is the same: vandalised or broken charging stations that customers can’t use; or worst still, charging stations that no-one uses.

It’s the kind of nightmare scenario being played out across the world, giving rise to headlines that question the need for public charging at all, or berate public officials for spending taxpayer money on a technology few are perceived to use. The job of changing and challenging that perception lies with each and every plug-in car owner, salesperson and advocate. And it also lies firmly with the companies installing the charging stations too.

iMiEV rapid charging on an ecotricity electric highway charger

Luckily, there are now some examples of carefully-planned charging networks, out there. But many more are still inappropriate for the majority of users.

What’s more, users and providers have to work together, admitting when things aren’t right, and working together to change things for the better.

As Brad Berman details at Plugincars.com, the overriding drive a few years ago when plug-in cars started to hit the market was to get charging stations in the ground, no matter where that ground happened to be. But as more and more people buy plug-in cars — more than 120,000 in the U.S. last year alone — the location of charging stations is now far more important than having charging in the first place.

Three years ago, early plug-in car adopters — of which this writer is a card-carrying member with more than seven years of plug-in ownership under her belt — understood some of the compromises which then came with owning a plug-in car. Diversions from a planned route to plug in and charge were a necessary evil of being on the bleeding edge of plug-in technology and any outlet, extension cord or charging station was a welcome thing, no matter where it was.

As plug-in cars move ever more towards mainstream users however, those kind of diversions and compromises need to be replaced with reliable, visible, appropriate charging provision. Instead of low and medium-power charging stations being squirrelled away in difficult-to-find spaces in busy, expensive parking lots or down tiny backstreets, charging provision needs to be treated as prominently and appropriately as a gas station.

This is a Type 2 (Level 2) charging station in a rest stop with a 2-hour free parking limit. It's an example of inappropriate infrastructure.

This is a Type 2 (Level 2) charging station in a rest stop with a 2-hour free parking limit. It’s an example of inappropriate infrastructure.

For the most part, that means spending less on complicated grid-connected Level 2 (Type 2) charging stations in car parks no-one will visit, and more time improving inter-city routes, commuter routes, and busy routes in large cities.

As both the Ecotricity Electric Highway and Oregon’s portion of the West Coast Electric Highway have proven, this means placing appropriately-powered charging stations along major arterial routes. And as Tesla Motors has proven, a decent, robust, affordable charging network capable of rapidly replenishing a car’s battery pack can sway even hardened petrolheads to dump the pump for good.

Yet all three networks are not without their critics. Redundancy and reliability issues still plague even the more impressive of charging networks, yet for the most part, they are all slowly inventing the charging station dance which other providers will surely have to follow: reliable, affordable, appropriate, convenient.

Despite the success stories however, more and more cities, municipalities and businesses are falling into the trap of inappropriate charging. Slower-speed charging stations are found in time-restricted parking slots with a maximum wait time of a few hours. Rapid charging stations are being installed in parking lots for sports centres or cinemas, where visitors are likely to spend hours rather than minutes. Businesses which could get by with a simple domestic-style charging station are spending tens of thousands on the installation of complicated, networked charging stations.

A collection of basic power outlets may be better for some locations than an expensive rapid charge station.

A collection of basic power outlets may be better for some locations than an expensive rapid charge station.

When incorrectly sited charging stations fail or aren’t used as predicted, owners become frustrated, businesses assume they’ve wasted their money, and a misinformed public assumes that plug-in cars are destined for the scrap heap.

A case in point: last week, this writer encountered a regular car driver parking an internal combustion engined car in an electric car parking space, a term known as ICEing. When confronted about it, the driver responded to say that in using that car park every day for several years, they’d grown tired of seeing the empty space. And so, they had decided to park in it.

When other drivers see a regular car parked in a charging space, they too assume it’s okay. And thus, the cycle of ICEing continues.

It’s not all about rapid charging either: in certain situations — at train stations or long-stay parking garages, for example — basic 110-volt or 240-volt outlets are more than enough for most plug-in owners planning to leave their cars for eight hours or more. In those locations, helping management understand the disparity between perceived and actual need is the responsibility of all involved in the planning, consultation and installation process.

Sometimes, the most appropriate solution is forty dumb wall outlets. Sometimes the appropriate solution is a pair of rapid charging stations. And sometimes, the appropriate solution is no charging at all.

At the end of the day, each location needs to be honestly and carefully examined to determine what — if any — charging is appropriate, because an unused, unloved charging station not only wastes money but damages public opinion. Let’s not forget too that the majority of plug-in owners — about 95 percent if recent estimates are to be believed — drive their cars on a single overnight charge at home. Public charging is something used by the minority of plug-in owners for the minority of trips.

Everyone from plug-in owners to manufacturers and charging operators need to be more honest about charging needs and expectations.

Everyone from plug-in owners to manufacturers and charging operators need to be more honest about charging needs and expectations.

Which brings us back to rapid charging networks on major highways — one of the few case scenarios where charging infrastructure is needed and success stories like the WCEH and Electric Highway are making headway. But while those networks are working hard to improve their coverage, redundancy and reliability, too many charging providers are all too happy to install a charging station wherever someone else thinks one is needed.

Luckily, automakers and plug-in advocates are wising up. Aside from Tesla Motors — which owns and operates its own highly-successful, highly-reliable Supercharger network offering free unlimited charging for all its customers — we’ve seen a steady increase in the number of automakers becoming actively involved in implementing and designing charging networks. Last year, Nissan focused itself on deploying more usable DC quick charging stations across the U.S., mirroring its work in the UK. This week at CES in Las Vegas, BMW has announced a similar rollout, providing reliable, inter-connected charging stations for its BMW i3 and i8 customers. With the backing of major automakers on the case, it’s easier to argue against the land grab of our cities by small, inappropriately-designed charging networks.

As for those charging stations already installed? Non-profit groups like Adopt-a-Charger are beginning to gain ground among plug-in owners, helping individuals or corporate entities take ownership or responsibility for plug-in charging stations in their area. In this way, fewer charging stations are left unloved and unattended, making them less susceptible to vandalism and reducing downtime, even if they’re poorly sited.

Automakers know that unless they help charging networks grow in a sensible and well-designed way, plug-in car adoption rates can’t grow. Advocates know that charging stations are only useful in locations where they’re actively needed and are going to be actively used. Yet still we’re seeing headlines claiming that cities have spent thousands — even millions — of taxpayer money installing charging networks which are never used.

If you’re a plug-in owner who wants to see plug-in cars really gain traction, support those who are putting charging where it matters — and make sure that your local governments do too.

Do you agree? Who do you blame for poor infrastructure? And how would you solve those issues? And do you approve of a first for us: an editor’s opinion piece? Leave your thoughts in the Comments below.


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  • MEroller

    Opinion pieces are always a good thing: they give the normally “neutral” journailist a more human, individual touch and let readers know a little more of the person behind the journalist 🙂

  • tech01xpert

    Well, NIssan/Mitsubishi has screwed us in the U.S. with diverting public funds into building useless < 90kW DC slow chargers. At a cost of roughly $25-75,000 per plug, these boondoggles would be ok if it were only Nissan/Mitsubishi putting money towards this expensive mistake. But no. Significant public funds have been put into deploying dead on arrival CHAdeMO and CCS EVSEs. When Nissan, BMW, and others finally ship their own long range BEVs, they will need to charge at 90kW or faster. Hopefully must faster. That means replacing every expensive component of the existing 25-62kW CHAdeMO/CCS EVSEs.nnnNot only that, their insistence on deploying very slow J1772 has further hampered the EV charging network. Even in 2025, we will need a robust L2 charging network, primary in long term parking areas like hotels, malls and amusement parks. We need many plugs to fill battery packs at up to 100-120kWh in about 8 hours. That can be accomplished with 80A J1772. However, the vast majority of J1772 installations have been at an anemic 24A or 30A. And who wants to plug in at a grocery store, or convenience store? Only those with extremely small battery packs – which won't be case long term.nnnIn summary, public money should be put towards high amperage L2 charging for the necessary destination charging for a BEV future that incorporates a realistic look at the needs in 2025 through 2035.

  • vdiv

    In the mid 1800’s train tracks started traversing the world’s frontiers. While the trains could carry their fuel (wood and then coal) they couldn’t carry all of the water they needed for the steam engines. This necessitated the building of train stops next to water sources where the trains could refill while the engineer would get a chance to walk around, tap on the wheels, and lube the joints. Soon these stops became trading posts, the trains would drop off supplies for the trappers, and pick up their find. Before you know it the stops became permanent residences for the folks servicing the trains and the traders and grew to become towns and eventually whole cities.nnIn my view the lonely unappreciated charging station put in the modern version of nowhere has a chance to become something larger than itself. All we need is more travelers and some willing trappers 🙂

  • Nikki,nnYou’ll love the fact that when I was looking for charging in London I found that the Royal Free Hospital has slow EV charging – with a 20 minute time limit! See bottom of this page:nnhttps://www.royalfree.nhs.uk/contact-us/parking-at-our-hospitals/nnTrevornBlogs: http://MyRenaultZoe.com, http://FuelIncluded.com/news/blog

  • Neil Stratford

    I don’t think that the situation (at least in the UK) is as bad as many drivers believe it to be. Everyone has a different need, so while one driver may shout and yell that something is a waste of money, it may be very useful to someone else who has a different use model. We are still at an early enough stage that we just don’t know.nnAs an example, having owned both a Leaf and now an i3 I have very little interest or need in rapid charging on trunk roads like motorways. I’m just not willing to stop every 60 or so miles, even if it is free. For me personally rapid charging makes much more sense as an ’emergency’ measure, on those days when I screw up and need a top-up to complete my day, so rapids in town centres make much more sense.nnAs EVs continue up the adoption curve we’ll encounter different types of drivers. It’s just too early to say what is and what isn’t a waste of money.

  • Richard Glover

    Hard to imagine a large supermarket without a petrol station attached these days and that is what we need, supermarket rapid charging. nnCome on Tesco, Morrissons, etc. get in the know and get in on the act.

  • BEP

    “Tesla Motors […] offering free unlimited charging for all its customers”nnThat is not true.

  • Kenneth_Brown

    The base Model S does not come with free access to the super charger network. nnnTesla maintaining it’s own proprietary charging network is reminiscent of the Beta vs. VHS competition. In city centers and shopping locations where high speed chargers are most appropriate, the question arises as to whether the facility lets Tesla install their chargers or a system that can be used by people that have spent less than $100K for their cars. As an engineer, I’m opposed to closed systems that are only available to the few elite.

  • Kenneth_Brown

    Nikki, I think your assessment of which type of charger is appropriate where is spot on. There will always be poor decisions made by governments on infrastructure. The only hope is for EV owners and advocates to offer their input when decisions are being made as to where charge points will be installed and the technology level. If there is a feedback email address posted at charge points for users to send a comment or question, that could help the process. nnnIf charging locations are situated in front of businesses and where there is lots of people passing by, there should be less incidents of vandalism. If they’re put at the back of a lot, it’s easy for somebody to pull up and hack off the cable without being noticed. Personal security is an issue too if one needs to charge up at night. Even with a light overhead, being on the other side of a car park from the local businesses and away from traffic is just asking for trouble.

  • Paul Durham

    An excellent article. I’ve been making similar points (based on not using local level 2 charging stations very much) and wanting level 3 charging stations beside freeways out of town) on the BMW i3 Facebook page. Here’s a combination of a couple of my posts from that site, lightly edited: “It appears to me that, with the latest announcement from BMW, VW and Chargepoint about their plans to install DCFC stations on the east and west coasts, BMW and VW are recognizing the validity and appeal of the Tesla model of installing fast chargers appropriately spaced along highway corridors, and I believe that is a very significant and positive development. As I see it, we have seen two basic strategies regarding charging networks: the Tesla model described above (fast chargers along highway corridors), and the strategy of installing networks of level 2 charging stations throughout towns and cities, mostly at shopping centers, movie theaters, etc. But I question whether the money spent on these level 2 charging stations might have been better spent on DCFC’s along highway corridors. (Granted, the parties installing the level 2 stations are not generally the same as the parties installing the DCFC’s, and of course, level 2 stations are less expensive.) I’d suggest that the success of the Tesla model (I consider the existence of the Supercharger network to be a real reason to buy a Tesla, although I haven’t yet.) at least partly proves my point. After all, how often do you really NEED to charge up for 45 minutes at a level 2 rate while you’re inside the grocery store? Sometimes, maybe, and sure it’s nice, especially if it’s free, but do you really need those 15 or so miles? And economically, if there’s a charge for the public station, you’re almost always getting a better deal if you charge at home anyway. As your article points out, the vast majority of EV charging takes place at home. For those of us who do have home charging, my point is simply that a level 2 charging station at a grocery store 4 miles from home isn’t very useful. Useful for some of course, and it does have the benefit of showing non-EV drivers that a charging network exists. But as you point out, if it’s very seldom used, its presence may be doing more harm than good. In my situation (and I think this is applicable to anyone who has any type of home charging available), if given the choice, I’d much rather have a level 3 charging station 50 or so miles away beside a freeway. That would truly expand the usefulness of an all-electric car, and allow us drivers with range-extended cars (in my case, a BMW i3 REx) to drive more electric miles (or not feel we needed a range extender at all when buying our next EV). I’m not “anti-level 2”–I appreciate that some businesses are showing their support for electric vehicles by installing level 2 stations. But as your article wisely points out, stop, think and get some good advice about whether the charging station will really be used before spending your money. I often patronize those stations to show my support for their support. I’ll even tell them at the sales counter, when it’s true, that I’m at their particular store or theater because there’s a charging station nearby. For charging at work, there’s a good argument that an employer is stretching its money further by installing a larger number of 120-volt outlets than a smaller number of level 2 chargers. (No need to shuffle cars to and from the charging stations during an 8-hour workday, most people pick up enough miles from 120 volts during a full shift, etc.) Perhaps the best model for charging at work is a few level 2 charging stations for employees who need their cars during the workday, and a larger number of 120-volt outlets for everyone else. Bottom line: if the recent BMW-VW-Chargepoint announcement means that the non-Tesla EV world is recognizing the validity and appeal of the Tesla model, this is a very good thing!