How Much Will it Cost to Charge Your Electric Car in Public?

By · December 09, 2010

Coulomb Technologies CT 500 Networked Charge Station

Regardless of whether or not you buy into the idea that public charging stations are critical for the widespread acceptance of electric cars to combat "range anxiety," there is currently a huge push in this country and around the world to get public stations installed in a hurry to prepare for the first wave of plug-ins.

Programs like the EV Project, as well as some state- and locally-funded initiatives, are using a combination of taxpayer and private resources to put charge stations in key locations—the EV Project alone seeks to put in more than 15,000 of them by the end of next year. In addition, several privately-held organizations seeking to become major players in the charging network world have announced plans to create their own networks, including Coulomb Technologies, ECOtality (also the managers of the EV Project) and NRG Energy.

But as much talk as there is about installing public charging stations, the question of what kind of pay-per-usage model will work for them is largely unanswered. According to an article over at BNET by the widely know next generation automotive blogger, Jim Motavalli, most public charging, at least initially, will cost an incredibly high $3.50 per hour of charging.

Explaining that this is a result of two factors—one, that current laws typically preclude anybody but utilities from selling electricity by the kilowatt hour; and, two, that any charge station operator who wants to make some money off the deal has to plan for the worst case usage scenario—Motavalli finds out from the Florida-based "Car Charging Group" that they plan on billing charge station users about 50 cents per kilowatt hour at their privately-owned stations—roughly four times the national residential average of 12 cents per kilowatt hour. Because the Car Charging Group can't charge by the kilowatt hour in most states, they have to resort to charging in one-hour increments.

This strategy ends up being unfair because not all cars charge at the same rate due to differences in on-board equipment—as points of reference, on a Level 2 charge station the Chevy Volt can add 2.2 kilowatts per hour, the Nissan LEAF can add 3.3 kilowatts, the Coda Sedan can add 6.6 kilowatts and the Tesla Roadster a whopping 7.2 kilowatts. The Car Charging Group has adjusted their hourly rates to the worst case scenario—the Roadster—resulting in a cost of $3.50 (7 kW X $.50) per hour to all users regardless of vehicle type. For a LEAF—likely the most common of vehicles to use these chargers in the first years—that means you'd be paying $3.50 for roughly 13 miles of range... if you charge for a full hour... which just seems like highway robbery. It is interesting to note that the Car Charging Group seems to be cooperating with Coulomb and all the stations they install will operate on Coulomb's ChargePoint network.

Although this represents one company's vision of how a charging station network will operate, I certainly don't think it means you should expect to pay $3.50 per hour of charge on most stations. In fact, I'd hazard to guess that the companies that choose this ludicrous method will quickly find they have no customers.

Other organizations such as NRG Energy in Houston are operating on a flat fee model where users get to fill up with unlimited amounts of juice at all networked charge stations—even at home—for a set monthly price. This model can work for people who drive over a certain amount but may not work for those that don't drive that much and who will probably opt for simply charging at home.

In addition there will likely be a large number of charge stations that are offered for free as part of a customer using some other service the charge station operator is providing (hotels, coffee shops, mini marts, wineries, parking garages, etc.). Because the price of electricity is, literally, pennies, and most of these places can't resell the electricity anyways, the charge station will simply become another marketing tool—a means to brand the business in a certain way and attract customers at the same time. Not only will charge stations allow business to attract actual EV drivers—a relatively small group for a long time to come—the largest benefit these businesses will likely see is increased traffic from people who support electric cars due to marketing and press coverage.

So there is certainly an impetus for businesses to install the station and give away the electricity as a side benefit for being a patron—at least during the first few years. Where I live in Central Washington State there is a movement to brand the region as an "EV tourist" destination—where many of the local tourist spots and destinations including ski resorts, hotels, wineries, and mini marts are planning on attracting tourists from Seattle with just that strategy. And in Connecticut, where Motavalli points out the Car Charging Group is planning on installing some of their own stations that charge the ridiculous prices, other parking garages are planning on installing charge stations which will then be provided free of charge for those that pay to park.

Clearly the wild west world of charging networks and public charging has a lot of maturing to do relatively quickly, but to say that most people should expect to pay $3.50 an hour for public charging I think misses the bigger picture that many ideas are being thrown at the wall right now and only some will stick. Somehow I just don't see paying $3.50 for 12 miles of range delivered in an hour as the winning combination.

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