Electric car advocates debate public charging

Consumers love fast chargers, but utilities don’t

Published: October 02, 2013 03:00 PM

If electric car sales are ever going to take off, there will to need to be more places to recharge. But there’s a lot of debate at this week’s Plug-In 2013 Conference in San Diego about how that ought to happen.

One of the advantages of electric cars over other alternative fuels is that the electrical grid is widespread. And studies have shown that 90 percent of electric-car charging today takes place in owner’s garages at night. But for the electric car market to expand there may require more access to public chargers. A big piece of that is to calm range anxiety, as many prospective buyer’s fear unexpected errands, traffic, or weather may drain their battery below a comfortable level. (Learn more about electric cars, including our latest road tests.)

Electric car advocates, manufacturers, and electric utilities here are debating how and where that charging should take place: During the day? How fast? And how should it be paid for?

•    Some advocates believe public chargers should remain essentially free, paid for by stores and other retailers as an incentive for electric car drivers to spend time shopping at their establishments. Surveys have shown that consumers would like to see more such chargers at malls, grocery stores, and restaurants.
•    Several companies have sprung up to develop networks of chargers, which charge electric-car drivers a subscription fee for access to their chargers. These work somewhat like cell-phone plans, aggregating payments. The problem with this, of course, is that it’s easy to encounter a charger you can’t pay for, and stories abound about EV drivers hosting a dozen cards on their key-rings to activate various chargers. Some intermediaries have also appeared to aggregate payments among various charging networks, but they are just starting and none is widespread.
•   Some charger manufacturers and others argue that the long-term market for electric car chargers is at home, and that individual electric-car drivers should have access to any charger with a simple swipe of a credit card. Network advocates counter that credit-card processing fees on modest one-time transactions would prevent this from being cost effective.
•    Utilities are concerned about too many electric cars charging during peak evening hours, for example, between when drivers get home at 7 p.m. and demand drops off around midnight. This might further tax the system during a particularly hot spell when home air conditioners are going full-tilt.

In living with several different electric cars, we’ve found the ability to charge quickly makes a big difference in day-to-day usability. But power companies such as San Diego Gas and Electric, which has one of the highest concentrations of electric cars in its region, are taking issue with fast chargers, which create a noticeable load on their systems right when demand is highest.

"In most cases, you can get the charge you need at 3 kW," says Ed Kjaer, director of electric vehicle readiness at Southern California Edison, referring to overnight charging at home, or while your car is parked all day at work.

Other utility executives echo his stance. At the event, several reported developing rates high enough at peak times to discourage fast charging, while lowering nighttime rates for electric-car drivers. Integrating telematics and higher-tech charging, along with Smart Meters, may help some by allowing utilities to communicate with the car to optimize when charging occurs. But this seems like a concern for consumers who expect to get a full charge as soon as possible.

Most new car buyers today (for electric and gas cars) own single-family homes. But to reach a wider audience, public charging may have to roll out more broadly—especially to draw in apartment dwellers.

Eric Evarts

Find Ratings

Hybrids/EVs Ratings

View and compare all Hybrids/EVs ratings.

E-mail Newsletters

FREE e-mail Newsletters! Choose from cars, safety, health, and more!
Already signed-up?
Manage your newsletters here too.

Cars News


Cars Build & Buy Car Buying Service
Save thousands off MSRP with upfront dealer pricing information and a transparent car buying experience.

See your savings


Mobile Get Ratings on the go and compare
while you shop

Learn more