What to do about EV Charging

I’m now a all-electric two timers:  bought (and sold) Tesla Roadster #48 a few years back, and now the proud owner of a Nissan Leaf.  Each with their own merits, though the Leaf has found more “product-market fit”.

The Leaf has a practical range of 80-85 miles, which means a Bay Area commuter like myself must occasionally rely on charging outside the home.  Luckily for me, 120V wall sockets are plentiful at the Matrix West Coast HQ, so I can top it up during the day at work for an anxiety-free ride home.

But what of public charging?  I’d have to guess that the Bay Area is tops in the country, but still locations are precious few.  Palo Alto City Hall has a couple of spots just a block from our office, and I’ve enjoyed a publicly subsidized top off at Oakland Airport, and today at SFO.  I’ve tried in SF parking garages — 5th and Mission, theoretically, and one in Union Square that’s even more theoretical (parked in with work trucks when I could finally locate it).

The key problem with public charging in my view is its unscalability:  the United Airlines parking area at SFO has two spaces, both of which were filled (one Tesla, one Leaf).  If our charging capacity can be full at this young stage of EVs, with only a handful on the roads, imagine the chaos at scale.  Those guys are likely parked there for hours, maybe days.  And if you can’t rely on a charge when you are on the road, then it’s useless for extending your range.

Sure, range-extended EVs like the coming Prius and existing Volt are safe at the cost of lugging around a ICE generator, but what of the pure electrics — how can our charging infrastructure scale a bit?

One popular proposal, which I think is good, is octopus-style charging units — one charger with numerous plugs.  The fact that a fast charging station costs thousands of dollars means that garages can hardly put them at every spot.  But if one charger could handle 6-8 cars, it gets better.  Power could be allocated in some fair fashion: everybody gets a fast charge for the first 30 minutes, then on some balanced or rotational basis.

I had another idea today that I haven’t seen advocated and is somewhat counterintuitive:  stop putting the charging stations right up front.

Sure, I know you’re trying to throw a bone to EV drivers: thanks for cutting your carbon, here’s a close spot.  Don’t think I’m not grateful, here’s me literally outside the door to Oakland Airport.  PA City Hall spots are front and center on the first level, just near the Mayor’s personal spot.

Front row at OAK!

I’d advocate, however, that we start allocating spaces furthest from the door to EV charging.  As it stands now, anyone with an EV will always have an incentive to pull up, plug in and charge.  Note when I was charging in the picture here, I arrived at Oakland Airport with a 90% charge and was heading straight home on my return.  The charge was completely optional, and yet, I took the spot and plugged in.  Who can refuse that sweet perfect spot?

The same was true at SFO today: the Tesla, with 200-mile range, probably didn’t need the charge to get back to Atherton.  Whereas I needed the charge, and luckily found a spot at the Virgin/AA terminal parking and walked across.  With Volts and plug-in Prius hitting next year, I’ll be seething as they occupy my needed charging spot despite their onboard generator (and possibly full batteries to begin with.)

However, if the row of chargers at Oakland were at the opposite end of the parking lot — a mere 5 minute walk from the terminal — you can be sure I’d only plug in if I needed it.

Sure, pricing can solve this to a degree, but it will be hard to balance fairness with incentives.  Also time limits (PA City Hall has a 3 hour limit), but they may be impractical in some locations where there isn’t already time enforcement.It’s going to be tough to scale public charging to a meaningful level — controlling needless occupancy is the low hanging fruit.

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Written by Josh Hannah
Josh Hannah joined Matrix Partners after a career as a serial entrepreneur (Betfair, eHow, wikiHow.) Read more about Josh.
  • http://twitter.com/a_grapa Arie Grapa

    you could also take into consideration the charging state of the car when you make rules about who can park and for how long. For instance, if, at the moment you first connect to the station, your battery is at over 90%, then you cannot park. Another example is that you cannot stay for more than 1 hour of your battery reaching 100%.

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