Would ‘regulation’ help electric car charging infrastructure reliability?

All electric car drivers face a bugaboo – charging station reliability, availability and compatibility. It’s always a hit-and-miss affair whether a given public charging station will be functioning, or not. Some of us rely on public charging stations to get around (personally, I cannot charge at home) and others are so fed up with unreliable public electric car charging that they never do it. Those who eschew public charging stations are, of course, limiting themselves in where they can go, which itself is a bad result. What’s desired is enough freedom to drive around that we aren’t limited, because the gasoline car drivers are looking at us trying to figure out if we’re nutso or wise.

Charging EV's on long tripsEach hurdle to buying anything runs the risk of some buyers shying away from the purchase. In other words, some prospective electric car buyers want to know they have the freedom to drive where-ever they want, whenever desired, without limit. Inadequate or unreliable charging infrastructure is an adoption hurdle, making some prospective buyers instead make fun of us for being fools.

These pictures are part of a piece I wrote some time ago on charging station usage scenarios. Theoretically, given enough reliable electric car charging stations, we can drive anywhere we want so long as we’re willing to wait for the charging time at each stop along the way.

Say we’re on a trip over the hills and through the woods to grandma’s house, and a charging station is dead along the way, and there’s no alternate station … that’s where we look like fools to gasoline car drivers, whose ubiquitous network of gasoline recharging stations give them the illusion of infinite driving range.  (the key word being “illusion”)

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Hence, public charging station reliability and availability are paramount electric car adoption issues.

Unfortunately the powers-that-be are focusing elsewhere, on workplace and multi-unit-dwelling charging infrastructure. While both of those are important, are they the biggest issue? I live in an apartment building that doesn’t allow me to charge at home, and while a charging station here would be useful, I’d rather have adequate affordable public charging. (the cost to use a public charging station is sometimes prohibitive)

But what do we do about this situation? Public charging station is inadequate, unreliable, and as we’ve just discussed, hindering electric car adoption.

Nikki Gordon-Bloomfield just wrote a piece on her blog about how this problem is endemic around the world. I haven’t done the exercise myself too much – but I’m sure that browsing PlugShare reports at stations around the world would demonstrate spotty service.

ecotality-36-web1For example, I am taking a quick look at Adelaide Australia’s charging stations, and see one that’s been down for months due to “carpark construction” and another that’s routinely blocked by gasoline vehicles. A little ways away in Victoria, I found other issues with other charging stations. That’s just a quick look, and I’m sure enough digging might turn up some stories of woe. The two DCFC’s at Walgreens locations near me (San Jose, CA) are particularly woeful. And there’s a video I shot a couple months ago about a broken Blink DCFC.

What Nikki has suggested — regulating the charging networks — is worth pondering. She makes the case that we need a high degree of reliability in the charging stations, and therefore just as regulated electricity utilities produce high reliability, so too would regulated charging networks. She also talks about fair pricing at the charging station (so we aren’t gouged), and “roaming” style access across the charging station networks.

These are laudible goals – and would do a lot to solve electric car adoption hurdles discussed above.

Is regulation the correct path, though? Gasoline stations became a ubiquitous open marketplace without tight regulation of the sort imposed upon utility companies. I think charging infrastructure is more similar to gasoline stations than they are to electrical utility companies. I would prefer “regulation” (if instituted) to be loose, tightening only if the charging network operators don’t clean up their acts.

Fair pricing: The network operators have to earn revenue somehow to pay for their costs, make a profit, and pay their own salaries. The question is what’s the best business model? For example, a networked charging station could easily display advertising on a screen. For example, per-minute and/or per-kiloWatt-hour pricing for electricity plus a fair markup. Of course the pricing etc needs to fit the scenario at a given location. Long-term airport parking needs to support hundreds of low power charging stations, and no per-minute fee, for example.

Regulating the pricing model might not produce a satisfying result. The Blink Network gives us a great example. They have an across-the-board pricing model and in some states local laws prevent per-kiloWatt-hour pricing and they instead charge by the minute. That’s fine, except for the Blink stations at airport long-term-parking where the fee after a multi-day trip can run into the hundreds of dollars.

In other words, regulations would have to allow the right pricing model for each scenario rather than imposing a standard pricing model across all scenarios. Governments aren’t always wise enough to get details like this correct.

Roaming: We currently face a blizzard of different charging network operators, each with their own membership system and card. Electric car owners have to, then, get membership in each charging network they’re likely to interact with. It’s a mess.

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We can use credit cards at any credit card terminal, blithely unaware of the roaming agreements in the background that make it possible. Stare at the back of your credit card or ATM card and you’ll see various logo’s — each of which are companies in the business of settling payments between merchants and banks. Why can’t that happen with the charging networks?

There’d been an effort between ChargePoint and Blink to set up CollaboratEV which would have set up a roaming system between charging networks. But Blink’s bankruptcy scuttled that plan. It would have handled payments settlements between charging networks so a member of one network could use facilities owned by another network and CollaboratEV would facilitate the transactions.

dc-quic-chargers-620b_02

CHAdeMO (left) and Combo Charging System (right) are two of the competing fast charging standards

The ATM and credit card system of course has government regulatory oversight. Maybe charging station networks need a regulated version of what CollaboratEV wanted to become?

Something Nikki didn’t mention is fast charging standards. Maybe the market fix this problem itself, but there is are three or four or five different fast charging protocols where we need there to be one. The quicker this is fixed the better for us all because the cost of conversion goes up as the number of cars and charging stations increases.

Bottom line – we have a problem – unreliable and inadequate charging station infrastructure. It’s hindering electric car adoption. Electric cars will solve several problems facing our society. How do we fix this problem?

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

About David Herron

David Herron is a writer and software engineer living in Silicon Valley. He primarily writes about electric vehicles, clean energy systems, climate change, peak oil and related issues. When not writing he indulges in software projects and is sometimes employed as a software engineer. David has written for sites like PlugInCars and TorqueNews, and worked for companies like Sun Microsystems and Yahoo.

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