The Ultimate Guide to Electric Car Charging Networks
When it comes to refueling a car, drivers of gas- and diesel-powered vehicles have it easy. They roll up to any one of about 180,000 gas stations in the U.S., pump in liquid fuel in a matter of minutes, and pay either in cash or with a credit card. Unfortunately, it’s a little more complicated with public charging for electric vehicles—although remember that almost all EV charging takes place at home, which usually requires about 30 seconds to plug in each night.
For EV drivers who want to regularly charge in public, it’s important to know about the handful of charging networks offering access to electric fuel on the go. Each network works a little differently. It’s a good idea for EV owners to have a basic understanding of how they compare with one another. That’s why we put together this basic guide on EV charging networks. It’s a work-in-progress, and your input and feedback is encouraged.
The three primary approaches are: (1) pay-as-you-go, (2) monthly subscriptions, and (3) free. Obviously, if given the opportunity, it makes sense to grab a free charge, even for a relatively short period of time. But the pay models, depending on the cost for a charge, need to be studied to determine which network makes the most sense for you; if it’s best to collect a wallet-full of membership cards; or if proper planning will allow you to avoid public charging unless you’re running very low on charge.
There are a few gotchas. Keep in mind that the amount of range you add per hour depends on the power capabilities of your car’s onboard charger. As Marc Geller, a director at Plug In America, an EV advocacy organization, told me: “If the car comes with a smaller charger, the cost is relatively higher than if you have a faster charger. It’s a weird fact.” Other oddities include credit card transactions and costs associated with leaving a car plugged in, even if the battery if fully charged and the electrons have stopped flowing.
Networks, such as eVgo, operated by NRG Energy, avoid some of these issues by using an all-encompassing all-you-can-charge subscription service. That brings clarity, but usually at a higher overall cost. As of February 2013, most public chargers are still available for free (although not every system makes it absolutely clear how much EV drivers are paying to charge).
- First, think about your regular routes and favorite destinations. Then use PlugShare or another station finding tool to see which charging networks are along the way. Be prepared to use any of them.
- ChargePoint is the biggest charging network, so it’s a must for nearly all EV drivers.
- If you live in Pacific Northwest, get a key fob from Aerovironment for its AV Subscription Network.
- In Texas, it's generally better to pay as you go with ChargePoint and Blink, rather than opting for multi-year expensive contracts with eVgo—unless you want to splurge for the convenience of an all-you-can-charge plan and, at this time, the ability to access DC fast charging.
- On the east coast, SemaConnect is the best backup to ChargePoint.
- Who doesn't like free? There are about 2,000 stations, mostly free, not associated with any of the networks listed below. Use PlugShare or other tools to find these stations.
One last caveat: The terminology of ''station” can be confusing and misleading. Some services call each individual charger a station, when the term station usually refers to a single public site with the capability to charge more than one car at a time.
List of Top EV Charging Networks
Background: Aerovironment, known as AV, is a pioneer in the development of electric vehicle charging technologies. The company sells a range of Level 2 and Quick Charge equipment, but also operates its own network of chargers.
Approximate Number of Sites: 40
Coverage: AV’s chargers, many of which are DC Quick Chargers, are primarily located in Oregon, and to a lesser extent, in Washington State—as part of the “West Coast Electric Highway.” AV also has a handful of charging locations in Hawaii.
Access: Unlimited monthly access is provided for $19.99 per month. Subscribing to the AV network starts with calling 888-833-2148 or filling out a form on AV’s website. The company will send a key fob that activates the chargers. If you are a current subscriber there is no activation fee. If you are a new subscriber, there will be a one-time activation fee of $15.
Cost per charge: As an alternative to the flat monthly access fee, there is the option of paying per session: $7.50/session for DC Fast Charger; and $4.00/session for a Level 2 charging station. (Per session payment is only available by calling the Customer Service Support Line at 888-833-2148).
Tech Support: 24/7 support at 888-332-2148.
BLINK NETWORK (Operated by CarCharging Group)
Background: The assets of Blink Network were purchased by CarCharging Group in October 2013. Ecotality had received a $114.8 million federal stimulus grant to oversee The EV Project. The goal of The EV Project is to deploy 8,300 private and public chargers. There have been several reported problems associated with Blink chargers, and the Blink Network, such as insufficient customer support, and incompatibility of the equipment with certain vehicles.
Approximate Number of Sites: 1,260
Coverage: Blink Network chargers are located in approximately 24 states, with the largest concentration in California, Arizona, Oregon, Texas, Tennessee and Washington.
Access: Start by registering a credit card with a Blink account. There are no required annual or monthly membership fees, or minimum credit card balance. Members who register will receive an “InCard” and can initiate a charge using the card. Guests can initiate a charge with Blink’s mobile application.
Cost Per Charge: Blink fees are priced on an hourly basis. In its Blink Plus plan requiring a $30 annual fee (waived through 2013), charging is $1 per hour. Blink Basic, not requiring a fee, is charged at $1.50 per hour. Blink Guests pay $2 an hour. All of these rates are for Level 2 240-volt charging. Prices have not been established for DC Quick Charging on the Blink Network.
Technical Support: 24/7 technical support at 888-998-2546.
Background: Chargepoint, previously Coulomb Technologies, describes itself as the largest online network of independently owned EV charging stations operating in 14 countries. The company provides a turnkey EV charging solutions for property owners—who can determine the terms for offering charging to EV drivers.
Approximate Number of Sites: 2,918
Coverage: While one-quarter of ChargePoint stations are in California, the network is the most widely distributed with at least one station in more than 40 U.S. states.
Access: There is no cost to sign up and receive a ChargePoint card. After submitting your credit card information as part of the sign-up, you will be charged an initial deposit of $25 only when you first visit a charging station that requires a fee. (Many stations on the network are free.) Your account provides access to all public stations on ChargePoint. Charging stations are activated with the ChargePoint card, or a contactless credit card. The stations can also be activated by calling a toll-free customer service number on the ChargePoint station. Account balances automatically replenish when the balance gets low.
Cost Per Charge: Prices are determined by the property owner. Many ChargePoint stations are currently free.
Technical Support: 24/7 customer support at 888-758-4389, with more robust technical support available 8 am to 5 pm eastern.
Background: eVgo is subsidiary of NRG, a Fortune 300 and S&P 500 company. It’s one of the country’s largest power generation and retail electricity businesses, with power plants producing about 47,000 megawatts of generation capacity. eVgo is part of NRG’s clean energy portfolio, which includes solar, thermal, and carbon capture technology.
Approximate Number of Stations: 40, each with Level 2 and DC quick charging options.
Coverage: Currently, eVgo operates stations only in Texas, in the Houston and Dallas-Fort Worth markets. The company is planning to expand to California and the greater Washington, DC area.
Access: NRG’s Texas network is only available to its monthly subscribers, but as its website states, the company “will always take care of an EV driver in need of a charge.”
Cost Per Charge: eVgo offers various plans based on the needs of an EV driver and the electric vehicle they have chosen. This is an overview of their three most popular all-you-can-charge plans. Starting at $19 a month, with a one-year service agreement, EV drivers have access to unlimited charging at the company’s so-called Freedom Station sites, which includes Level 2 and DC fast charging. The $49 a month Home plan, with a three-year service agreement, adds installation of your own home charging equipment—but not the cost of electricity that is separately metered. The Complete plan, also with a three-year service agreement, includes unlimited public charging, installation of the home equipment and also includes home electricity. The Complete plan is $89 a month.
Technical Support: Contact email@example.com.
Background: Maryland-based SemaConnect offers Level 2 commercial grade EV charging station equipment and management software called SemaCharge. Their focus is on making charging as easy as possible for EV drivers and station owners. The company says it’s the fastest growing network on the east coast. SemaConnect is the third largest supplier of commercial grade Level 2 charging stations based on number of stations deployed.
Approximate Number of Sites: 300
Coverage: SemaConnect stations are located in 15 states, with the greatest concentration in Maryland, Virginia, Washington, DC, Georgia, California and the Pacific Northwest.
Access: To sign up, log on to the SemaConnect website, and open a new account with a $20 balance charged to a major credit card. You will receive a “SemaCharge Pass” RFID card that can be used to initiate charging at any SemaConnect location. If the balance drops below $0.00, the associated credit card will add another $20 to your account. SemaConnect also offers mobile payments via its smartphone application, toll-free number, or via a QR code scan.
Cost per charge: The cost varies, as determined by the property owner.
Tech support: Available 9 am to 5 pm EST at 800-663-5633.
Background: In fall 2012, Tesla Motors, the makers of the Model S sedan, rolled out its first so-called “Superchargers,” in order to make road trips available for free to owners of its sporty luxury sedan.
Approximate Number of Sites: As of February 2014, there are nearly 80 available Superchargers.
Coverage: Supercharger stations are situated throughout the United States.
Access: Tesla Superchargers do not require a card to initiate. Model S owners simply drive up and plug in. The chargers are available to owners of Model S models with the 85 kWh battery pack, or cars with the 60 kWh pack that have been configured to use Superchargers.
Cost Per Charge: Free. No sign up and no cost for electricity.
Technical Support: Available toll-free at 877-79-TESLA
Read next: Eight Rules of EV Charging Etiquette
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