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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