Jump-starting electric vehicle sales with workplace charging stations

Jump-starting electric vehicle sales with workplace charging stations

Electric vehicle enthusiasts aim to boost the viability of the EV industry by encouraging employers to add charging stations.

EV effort targets work sites for charging stationsAs of July 20, there were 7,849 public and private non-residential charging stations in the United States, 1,579 of which were in California, according to the U.S. Department of Energy. Above, Yesewlik “Leo” Ayalew, finance chief of clean transportation consulting firm Calstart, plugs his electric car into a charging station at his office in Pasadena last week.(Irfan Khan, Los Angeles Times / July 25, 2013)
By Catherine GreenAugust 3, 2013, 5:00 a.m.

Electric cars will probably remain a tiny niche of the auto industry until drivers see a serious expansion of charging stations.

But you can’t just put one on every corner next to the gas station. The cars can take hours to fully charge, which would create a big parking problem, among other issues. Even if consumers bought electric cars in droves tomorrow, the infrastructure to keep them rolling would look much different.

Charging starts at home, with a charging station that can cost drivers $500 to $2,000. But the real key to extending the cars’ range, and easing consumer fears of running out of power and getting stranded on the road, may well be getting large workplaces to add chargers — allowing EV-driving employees to double their commuting distance or to run more errands.

“That would really help increase the viability of the EV market,” said John Boesel, chief executive of Calstart, a clean transportation consulting firm.

According to statistics provided by charging station supplier Ecotality, workplace chargers are used three times as often as typical public chargers, which might sit outside the Jonathan Club in downtown Los Angeles, for instance, or the Department of Water and Power office on Hope Street.

In a recent survey, Ecotality found its workplace chargers showed a dramatic increase in usage over the first half of 2013, up about 61%. That growth mirrored a rise in EV ownership. The Electric Drive Transportation Assn. reported more than 8,600 plug-in hybrids and battery electric cars were sold in the U.S. in June, compared with about 3,300 in June 2012. July estimates put plug-in sales at more than 5,800 vehicles, compared with 3,010 during the same month last year. Tesla Motors has not yet reported last month’s sales of its all-electric Model S sedan.

As of July 20, there were 7,849 public and private non-residential charging stations in the United States, 1,579 of which were in California, according to the U.S. Department of Energy.

Some automakers have taken it upon themselves to grow the public charging network. Nissan, which makes the electric Leaf, has been especially aggressive, aiming to triple the number of 30-minute quick-chargers in the U.S. to 600 by the middle of next year. That plan includes more than 100 quick-chargers at Nissan dealerships in about 50 key markets.

“There’s a certain obligation to make sure you’re leading the effort,” said Brendan Jones, Nissan’s director of electric vehicle infrastructure strategy, though he gave most of the credit to charging companies. “They’re really putting in the capital to build out infrastructure.”

Nissan also deploys a team of five people to educate companies in the U.S. about the advantages of workplace charging. “The fuel [source] is everywhere we go. It’s that easy with electricity,” Jones said. “But we have to be thoughtful and strategic about where we put stations.”

Tesla Motors, which makes the premium Model S sedan, offers 30-minute Supercharger stations for its customers to use exclusively. Tesla has 16 stations installed in California, Connecticut, Delaware, Illinois, Florida and Washington. The automaker plans to have 27 stations open by the end of this summer, said Tesla spokeswoman Shanna Hendriks.

The challenge for charging station manufacturers is to get employers, especially those with large numbers of workers, to see charging stations as a cost-effective workplace benefit.

An employer decides whether to make the electricity free to employees, or charge per hour or kilowatt-hour. Employees can become part of Ecotality’s Blink member program, for example, which enables them to pay $1 an hour instead of the $2 non-member rate. An undisclosed percentage of the revenue from charging sessions goes back into the employers’ pockets.

ChargePoint’s business model requires an employer to pay an annual subscription fee. ChargePoint tracks usage and deducts per-charge payments from the employer’s account. “They want a turn-key solution,” said ChargePoint Chief Executive Pat Romano. “This isn’t their primary business. It doesn’t become one more thing they have to deal with.”

But the main incentive for employees is the goodwill they build with their workers, who can also gain carpool lane access in California.

“You’re saving the employee a lot of money in fuel. It’s the easiest way to give your employee a raise,” Romano said. “You’ve improved their commute, and you’re going to get more productivity out of that employee.”

Employers who start with just one or two charging stations often end up adding more as they see employees using them, Boesel said. “And having them encourages more employees to buy or lease EVs,” he said. “It’s a virtuous cycle for the EV industry.”

Half of ChargePoint’s business comes from workplace charging, Romano said.

The Department of Energy in January launched a campaign to help large employers install chargers, calling it the EV Everywhere Workplace Charging Challenge. The program offers no money but does provide planning and technical support. The department has so far persuaded 48 companies — including Google, General Electric, 3M and Duke Energy — to install chargers on at least one of their work sites.

Last year, the California Energy Commission awarded more than $420,000 in grants to fund workplace charging at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power and UC San Diego, among other projects.

The DWP offers additional rebates to businesses, either $750 or $1,000 for every charger installed, depending on the model. According to a program official, the goal is to dole out 2,000 rebates on a first-come, first-serve basis. The program ends June 30, 2015, or whenever funds run out.

Don Anair, clean vehicles research director at the Union of Concerned Scientists, said developing infrastructure to support EVs should come from several sources. “Supporting that infrastructure through incentives — that makes sense,” he said, “and companies are seeing an opportunity at this stage as well.”

ChargePoint’s Romano said charging companies should be ready to shoulder the bulk of the responsibility in growing the EV market.

“This is a project for the private sector,” he said. “Enhanced by policy, but not solved by policy.”