Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Coulomb, MasterCard, and the future of public charging

Coulomb Technologies unveiled San Francisco's first ChargePoint America charge stations yesterday in a Priority Parking lot along the Embarcadero. The charge stations and installations were paid for with federal stimulus and California Energy Commission grants won by Coulomb.

Mayor Newsom and many city employees were there, along with large signs and representatives of MasterCard. MC will enable one-off charging in Coulomb charge stations with their new touchless "paypass" credit card. So if you find yourself by Pier 27 in a J1772 compliant or 120 volt-capable electric vehicle and are a Coulomb member or have one of MC's fancy new cards, two spaces with charge stations are available for the parking fee plus an as yet undetermined fee for the electricity. Richard Lowenthal, Coulomb CEO, threw out the figure of $2 for the charge, but noted the host can set the fee.

The big takeaway: If you want a free charge station and are located in a program area (Austin, Los Angeles, New York, Orlando, Sacramento, San Jose/San Francisco Bay Area, Bellevue/Redmond, Washington DC, Southern Michigan), raise your hand now. ChargePoint America is looking for hosts for charge stations.

If you are a consumer, and you get a Volt, Smart, or Ford electric car, you probably qualify for a free home charge station. (Nissan LEAF buyers are excluded. Ecotality's EV Project got an exclusive.)

If you are a business in a program area, you can get the same deal - free charge stations paid for by stimulus money. And if you're located in California, the California Energy Commission portion of the grant to Coulomb will pay for installation.

As Richard Lowenthal said to me at the event: "Great deal!" Certainly. But for whom?

I want to see adequate public charging infrastructure installed in sensible locations. I think it makes sense for public resources to drive the early rollout. Time will tell what business model/s might work to provide an adequate supply and dispersal of public charge stations. But given the relatively low cost of electricity, and the large public environmental benefit, it seems premature to presume monetization or let the desire for monetization drive the placement of charge stations.

Where should publicly funded infrastructure be located, and who should decide? Is it good public policy to encourage businesses to acquire free charge stations at public expense without any commitment other than putting them in service? Should 100% of the cost be born by taxpayers if 100% of the benefit goes to private business? Should a model of host-supplied electricity (like host supplied parking or wi-fi) be given an equal chance to succeed?

In the past, in exchange for California's financial support for public charge station installation, the business hosting the charge station covered the cost of the electricity, the smallest part of the equation. EV drivers thus have simple access to electricity, allowing them to use their zero-emission vehicle to the max. The business hosting the charge stations get some "green" cred, along with hopes of attracting customers with EVs. That seems to me a fair deal between taxpayers and business, and a better way to promote the use of electric vehicles.

To be fair, Coulomb itself is officially agnostic regarding whether a station's host will charge for the electrons, but the deal with MasterCard suggests the direction they're heading.

And Coulomb is not alone. Ecototality, the other big beneficiary of public largesse (again in the tens of millions of dollars,) has made clear that its EV Project public charge stations will require payment by next May.

Some companies are pursuing a different model, selling charge stations that aren't part of a proprietary network and that don't presume to be monetized. As far as I know, Clipper Creek, Leviton, AeroVironment and GE, for example, will be selling equipment but will not attempt to collect ongoing revenue from the delivery of electrons. Free Juice Bar explicitly sells charge stations to offer free power.

The question isn't whether drivers of plug-in cars deserve free power. Obviously not.

The only important question is what will help drive rapid adoption of plug-in vehicles. Will a monetized public charging infrastructure from the get-go promote plug-ins? Or, in fact, could we soon find monetized charge stations remain underutilized given a cost at least twice that of home charging. Resulting in empty, restricted parking spaces sparking general resentment rather than the recognition and perhaps envy we hope to engender.

The new ChargePoint America installation seems designed to illustrate my point. Why, given what we know about charge station placement, are the two Priority Parking charge stations in the most prominent, desirable spots, right at the entrance. Virtually everyone who enters this parking lot for the foreseeable future will likely pass two empty spots, reserved for apparently non-existent electric vehicles.

Public charge stations are best located where hosts have motivations greater than some small financial benefit. Businesses are looking to attract customers and show their green side, and government is seeking the emissions reduction benefit of plug-ins.

Public dollars should be used in a manner that best promotes plug-in electric vehicles and maximizes the environmental benefit in the near term. Creating an new industry that converts cheap electricity into a monetized charge session is not necessarily the best way forward.


Richard Lowenthal said...

The reason Coulomb offers a billing system and credit card processing on ChargePoint is to give more choices to station owners.

We want to see plenty of charging services out there so that people will feel the confidence they need to buy electric vehicles. Because of the stations at Priority Parking I now feel confident I can drive my MINI-E to the San Francisco wharf.

If a station owner at the wharf or in my apartment building needs a billing system in order to justify buying charging systems, then we have offer them that choice.

Charging at the wharf yesterday was worth a lot to me because it meant I could use my EV and still get home for dinner. If I need to pay for that, it's worth it and the only alternative to me was to pay for gasoline.

Parking at Priority Parking is pretty inexpensive but frequently when I park in San Francisco I pay $30. I sure wouldn't mind paying $35 if it means I can take my beloved MINI-E.

Gamepoch said...

I don't think there is a question that choice in the EVSE product space is good. Bringing payment methodologies to the market is also very beneficial. I have two locations where it is a requirement. But one point Marc is making is that if the US taxpayer is borrowing money from China to procure and install this equipment for free at the host locations, shouldn't they have any buy-in? Is asking the host to provide electricity (maybe $100 - $300 a year the first several years) for a few years reasonable? This doesn't help the Coulomb network service fee but to not ask the host to pay electricity when they're receiving thousands of dollars is a mistake. As a grant administrator for the 100 station SC rollout, it was not a federal or state grant requirement to provide electricity but I made it one. If I got a city $60,000 - $75,000 of equipment and installation, managed the project, then they at least have to provide some pennies on the dollar. They all have happily complied as they agree it is the right thing to do and helpful in accelerating the adoption of plugin vehicles.

John C. Briggs said...

I have a practical question about public charging stations. Mr
Lowenthal talks about being able to take his Mini-E to the wharf
because there are now charging (EVSE) stations.

But wait a minute, is that really true. When He leaves his house , he can check the network to see if the EVSE is available but by the time he gets there someone may be parked in each of the two spots with EVSE equipment.
Are we just substituting EVSE-anxiety (tm) for range-anxiety (tm)?
Seems like I heard that EVSE spots can be reserved ahead of time over the network. This is the same technique that RedBox uses so your DVD is there when you drive to the RedBox location. But this might lead to some annoyed customers who see an empty EVSE spot but cannot use it because it is "reserved".
Add into the mix that an ICE car may also park in the spot and
you will be stuck without a place to charge your car and be unable to
get home.
Long story short, charging stations cannot let you extend the range of your EV unless you can be guaranteed the charger is going to be available.
On the other hand, let's stay that you restrict your driving to the 80 mile round trip that your EV is capable of. In that case, you don't need public charging at all. So is the public charging just a useless exercise? Perhaps, being able to public charge might relieve range-anxiety on most trips even if it was not guaranteed. It is some form of "cold-comfort" where you can charge your EV even though you don't really need to.

Kevin Sharpe said...

The charge points being deployed under these publicly financed schemes are low power, closed access systems, that are incredibly expensive to install and operate. They represent very poor value for money for the tax payer.

I believe we should focus our efforts on ensuring that charge points are everywhere not in a limited number of locations. To make this affordable we should deploy a network of ultra low cost, simple, open access, level 2 charge points (240V 80A). The governments role in this should be to define a standard system and ensure competition exists to drive down the cost.

A UK charity (Zero Carbon World) is donating Level 2 charge points to locations such as restaurants and hotels. In return for the charge point the recipient offers public access and free electricity to the EV driver. The total installed cost is under £500 (~$800) which is financed by donations from individuals and companies.

We do not need to repeat the gas station model… for most of us charging at home is to be preferred. However, we need to know that when we venture beyond our range or something unexpected happens that we have a high power charge point to plug into. The only way we can finance this is to deploy an ultra low cost network and to do that today… we do not need the expensive, complicated, centrally managed systems, that we are all currently financing through government initiatives.

Michael Thwaite said...

John B makes a sound point; I don't think there is much point in public charging unless it takes one of these two forms:

a. Very High speed charge-and-go to support long distance travelers. These would be located in rest stops and would charge the car in no more than 15 mins.

b. 30A low speed chargers in excess, i.e. at least a dozen in the Mall parking lot. These would support people visiting the mall and getting a bump in charge.

In NYC there is ONE charger... a single unit rated at 30A that requires the parking attendant to move other cars to reach it. I have to question the value of such a solution to the average EV driver.

It's all or nothing IMO.

Kevin Sharpe said...

I completely agree Michael, we need charge points everywhere and in 'excess' to guarantee availability of charging on demand. Personally, I think these systems should be ultra simple, with no central management, or anything else that drives up the complexity and cost.

The charge points that we deploy support both 32A and 13A simultaneous charging (@ 240V). We expect to upgrade these systems to 45A or 80A once the european standard charging connector has been agreed. In volume I would expect similar systems in the US to cost a couple of hundred dollars each to install.

Marc Geller said...

In response to Richard: I wouldn't mind paying when I NEED a charge. But for the next few years (at least) we need public charging to do double duty - to relieve range anxiety and to do positive public relations for plug-in cars. Empty charge spots are negative public relations. At even $2 a pop, why should the first LEAF and Volt drivers publicly plug in? It is not asking too much that in exchange for charge stations and in some places installation at public expense, the host should cover the electricity while the roll out takes off.
To Jim: Thank you for ensuring free access to publicly-funded infrastructure in South Carolina.
To Mr Sharp: These networks aren't really closed. Although some will have a subscriber model, they will always be accessible, with a credit card for instance. A truly closed system, inaccessible by any means to a non-member, should not be allowed and certainly should not receive public support. I don't agree about level II at 80 amps. Widely, rationally scattered level II at 32 amps is a logical standard. I'd rather be able to charge three cars. 32amp stations won't stress the local grid, and will supply 10-20% per hour for most vehicles. DC fast charging will be there for those needing more faster. And presumably for a justifiably higher fee. I do agree that we should be opting for the lowest cost options today, as we don't yet know what we'll come to need and shouldn't pay for one company's view of how it should turn out.
And finally, I want to see widespread public charging infrastructure. But distributing it according to criteria other than utility to drivers could prove to be quite wasteful.

Kevin Sharpe said...

Marc, in the UK the publicly funded networks require different access mechanisms (key, card, fob, pin, etc) and often have annual membership fee's on top of the fee made at the charge point… I recently visited charge points in three different towns which despite using the same equipment required membership of three different local schemes (all managed by the same charge point manufacturer). My guess is that a similar thing is happening in the US and I don't consider this to be 'open' or in the best interests of EV users or tax payers.

I agree that 32A is a 'sweet spot' and can be deployed at extremely low cost. The charge points we deploy support 32A and 13A simultaneous charging today. However, we usually cable for 100A to support upgrades to a system that can share the supply between multiple charge connections allowing everything from 13A to 80A on demand. 100A is the minimum feed available from the grid in the UK.

Most of the EV drivers that I know simply want access to the electricity that surrounds us… we do not want or need complex and expensive systems.