Coulomb Plays Catch-Up in Installing EV Stations

By · October 17, 2011

Chargepoint CT500

Coulomb's ChargePoint CT500, which can be used outside and in, has minor shutoff issues. (Coulomb photo)

Two California-based EV charging companies were awarded federal contracts to install Level II chargers, and it doesn’t appear that either one is meeting the deadlines they originally set.

ECOtality (profiled here by PlugInCars.com) has installed 3,000 of the 14,000 chargers in the federal program. Coulomb Technologies, based in Campbell, which received a $15 million grant last year through the Recovery Act, isn’t giving an exact number. But the company said in announcing the program that all of its 5,000 federally supported chargers would be in the ground by now.

The ChargePoint America program is worth a total of $37 million, says Coulomb, and its chargers will be in nine regions of the U.S. Ford, Chevrolet and Smart USA are partners.

In 2010, Coulomb Technologies also received a $3.4 million grant from the California Energy Commission to install “hundreds” of EV chargers in three regions around the state: Los Angeles, Sacramento and the San Francisco/San Jose area.

The Early Timetable

The ChargePoint America program was announced in June of 2010, and according to a press release at the time, “More than 1,000 new public charging stations will be installed by December 2010, adding to the existing ChargePoint Network. The remaining stations will be installed by September 2011.”

We talked to Pat Romano, Coulomb’s president and CEO, and he claims that the program is “executing and on plan for deployment completion” in 2013, which he said was always the intended end date. That’s true, but the company’s website had said that charger installation was supposed to wrap up this month. “There are two phases of the program,” the site says. “The first, lasting 18 months until October 2011, will consist of allocation and installation of all charging stations. The second, lasting two years until October 2013, will consist of data collection.”

There’s an explanation. According to Anne Smith, a spokeswoman for Coulomb, the Department of Energy expanded the program into Boston and other regions after the 2010 announcement. “As you know,” she said, “permitting and site inspections take time to complete. The deployment within these regions are taking place now.”

How Many Exactly?

Romano declines to be specific about how many of the 5,000 ChargePoint America chargers have been installed so far. Instead, he cites a total of 4,000 Coulomb residential and commercial installations, inclusive of CPA. “We can’t break it out,” he said. Presumably that total includes Coulomb chargers installed by other companies, because the units are favored by third-party companies like the Car Charging Group and 350Green. Coulomb also has a robust international program, and Amsterdam, Holland is its largest partner outside the U.S. (Australia is also under development.)

It would be nice to have a more detailed progress report, since the 5,000 ChargePoint chargers are going in with taxpayer money.

Facing Snags

According to John Gartner, a senior analyst at Pike Research, “I’m not surprised that both ECOtality and Coulomb have fallen behind their initial schedules. Both companies are doing a good job of trying to catch up and get all their chargers in the ground by the end of next year. But it might take a bit longer than that. There are local issues, questions about who’s getting the stations, and a lot of hoops to get through in terms of locations and meeting legal requirements. It’s taking longer than they thought to make it happen.”

Coulomb sells one versatile 240-volt charger that can be used for residential applications, and several commercial ones. The CT500 home charger is a compact unit (weatherized for outdoor applications) with a coiled cord that rests on a holder. It’s a “smart” charger, set up to connect via cell or web to track usage, collect and set fees, and allow for remote access from phone or home computer. All CT500s are networked; there’s no bare-bones option. The price depends on configuration—there’s a smart card reader option, for instance—but Romano, after some deliberation, came up with a starting price around $1,200.

Coulomb doesn't sell a 480-volt fast charger yet, though one is tentatively listed on the company's website. According to Romano, the company has an unannounced partner with which it will co-develop a fast charger, and the deal will be made public soon.

Volt using Coulomb charger

Ground Faults

Some smart chargers installed by Coulomb rival ECOtality have had wireless connection problems. A few Coulomb users report occasional ground fault-related or “over-current” situations that stop their units from charging, but unplugging and replugging the charger, or switching it off and on at the circuit breaker generally solved the problems. CT500 owners appreciate that the system sends them texts and emails to alert them that the system is down.

According to Coulomb's Smith, the ground fault issue "has been resolved."

Coulomb has its own marketing strategy, which takes a left turn from many other companies that see a sales path that includes retail availability in big-box stores. “We’ve never targeted the big-box channel,” Romano said. “It’s probably not where consumers are going to acquire chargers—they’ll get them through automakers, utilities and dealers.”

In July, Coulomb announced its OnRamp program, which allows other companies to share proprietary software and build EVSEs that are compatible with and can talk to other units on the ChargePoint Network. Dutch-based Alfen is a partner.

If you live in an EV rollout area, you may have also seen one of Coulomb’s ChargePoint public chargers, which include the “smart” pedestal-type Level II CT2100 (with 7.2-kilowatt output at 30 amps, and many of the same connectivity options as the CT500) and the CT2500 with 7.4-kilowatt output.

Coulomb was an early player in EV deployment, and it’s poised to grow internationally. Its biggest hurdle now is getting its poles on the ground and in garages.

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