Utilities Move Into EV Charging Game

(3BL Media/Justmeans) - Building out an electric vehicle infrastructure is a bit like building an arch. You need both sides, the vehicles and the charging stations, to be there at the same time, to support each other, to keep the whole thing from falling down. It’s been a little slow taking off. Perhaps partly because it’s not clear who is taking the lead. Is it going to be traditional providers, like GM and Ford on the vehicle side? Or will it been newcomers like Tesla? Likewise, on the charging side of things, will it be Chargepoint, or more familiar names like PG&E? To mix things up even further, BWW and VW now seem to be getting into the charging station business.

Generally speaking, the old guys have been a little late to the game. Now, it seems, they are beginning to catch up.  On the one hand, it makes sense for the car companies to do it, since it will certainly help boost sales of cars. On the other hand, power companies have been selling power for a long time and they probably know more about it than anyone else. In the end, it will help them too, since they will be selling more power.

Kansas City Power & Light (KCP&L) has announced plans to build 1,000 charging stations, making it largest electric vehicle charging station installation by an electric utility in the United States. Says Terry Basham, CEO of KCP&L,  “We are committed to the electric vehicle industry and want to give residents and visitors the ability to join the electric vehicle revolution. As a utility, we will place the stations where they’re needed most and support them as part of our electric grid, leveraging our expertise with electrical infrastructure.” The charging stations will be manufactured by ChargePoint, who is partnering with KCP&L in this effort. Access to these stations will be available through membership in the Chargepoint network, which now includes over 20,000 charging stations.

Meanwhile PG&E has filed a proposal with the California Public Utilities Commission to install 25,000 chargers, at a cost of $354 million. When combined with Southern California Edison and San Diego Gas & Electric, we’re talking about a total of 60,000 new chargers going up.

That’s more than half the number of gas stations in the entire US. How many EV chargers do we need? Given that EV’s can be charged at home, those doing local driving would not need a charging station at all. On the other hand, given that it takes longer to charge an EV than it does to fill up a gas tank, people are not going to want to have to wait in line just to get to a charger, considering that they will need to wait a while once they’ve plugged in.

The big push in California is in response to Governor’s call for 1.5 million zero-emission vehicles (ZEV) on the road by 2025. That number would include fuel cell vehicles along with EVs. Right now, there are about 100,000 EVs registered in California. The prospect of fuel cell cars, could be a driver behind the utilities sudden sense of urgency. With Toyota’s recent announcement, hydrogen could still be a player, a move that would likely favor oil companies rather than electric utilities. At the end of the day, consumers might just buy whatever car they think they are most likely to be able to fill up.

In an ideal world, these chargers will be powered by solar panels or windmills, for a truly zero emission experience. Those that are will likely attract those customers who care about such things.

The other question is, how are these charging station owners going to make money? Even Tesla’s 265 miles battery, which holds 85 kWh, at the national average electric rate of about 12.5 cents, will cost just over ten dollars to fill up. Of course, Tesla is not charging its owners anything for the charge. Will other companies follow suit? We should expect to see some innovative business models popping up around this. Perhaps you’ll get a free charge with a lunch purchase, or a car wash. Or maybe the utilities will simply charge it back to your utility bill. Either way, fueling your travel is not going to be the expense it used to be.

Image courtesy of Chargepoint