Renault Is the New Leader in Free Electric Car Charging

By · September 25, 2013

Nissan was first to offer free charging. It wasn't properly advertised, but a LEAF customer could stop at a dealership and get a free charge if there was a charging station available. Tesla Motors then launched its famous Supercharger network with the "free for life" principle. But Renault is now taking the lead with free charging in France.

The brand introduces a network of 875 free chargers in 372 stations all over the country. (See the ZE for Zero Emission dots on large map below.) They're nowhere near as powerful as the 120-kilowatt DC Tesla Supercharger. They are only AC 22-kW chargers, but their large number and wide distribution outweigh their low power. The stations are inside Renault dealerships, and they're not totally free as their use is limited to one hour per day at each store. Still, it's possible to drive cross-country, making a stop every 80 miles (every 100 miles for someone driving very quietly) before going back to the road. America only knows DC for fast charging, but Renault pioneered faster AC charging.

Electric Zoe charging for free at a Renault dealership

Electric Zoe charging for free at a Renault dealership

This new network is the largest in France, and the only one to be truly nationwide. It's very dense, allowing 95 percent of the French people to be less than 20 miles from of a charger. They're not 24/7 accessible, though. The chargers will only be operational during the dealerships' regular business hours (at least from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.). But nonetheless, this is better than Tesla's future Supercharger network on this side of the pond, which promises a Supercharger within 200 miles for most Europeans by late 2014.

The only thing wrong is in Renault's choice (backed by the government) of chargers with a Type 3 connector, against the choice of the European Commission towards the Type 2 plug. Foreigners will not be able to use the Renault network, since everywhere else in Europe, all EVs are sold with a Type 2 connector. It's incredibly stupid, and it will have to evolve. (The government officially recommends buying charging stations with an easy to change connector.)

This charging network seems to be tailor-made for the Renault Zoe. The Zoe accepts up to 43-kW AC charging, and Renault has probably installed 22-kW chargers to limit costs, and avoid local grid issues. But there's simply no other car that accepts 22-kW AC charging sold with a Type 3 connector.

Renault Zoe at a local show in France

Renault Zoe at a local show in France

Beginning of the End of Paid Charging

Looking down the road, we may be witnessing here the end of the EV charging business. Public charging has always been an unproven business—just look at Ecotality's bankruptcy last week.

There's also a supermarket chain called Leclerc that offers free charging in many of its locations in France. With Renault's offer, it could become next to impossible for anyone to make a business trying to sell electricity.

Map of Renault free charging stations

Map of Renault free charging stations

That's bad news from my perspective. The idea of free electricity sure sounds nice at first sight, but we have to think about its sustainability. Can it scale? The average Renault dealer probably doesn't mind giving away two or four euros worth of electricity to one or two guys every day. That's cool while there are only a few thousands EVs on the road. But it will be different when there are millions, even though it will take many years to get that level. So business models have plenty of time to adapt. In the meantime, this charging network will give the Zoe a much needed boost. Its sales are much lower than anticipated, once Renault made its sales to the early adopters.

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