Op-Ed: If You Build Public Charging Stations, Will They Come?


Last night, after a round of drinks and delicious hamburgers, I wandered back into a New Haven parking garage where there were two empty parking spots and an EV charging station. Is this promoting EV’s, or hurting them?

Indeed, cropping up all around Connecticut are individual EV charging stations, from the “Free Juice Bar” in the New Haven parking garage to less-visible plug-and-play spots along major thoroughfares. While the type of charging stations and locales are different, I’ve yet to actually see an EV plugged in. This worries me, as it both feeds the anti-alternative fuel, and seems like a waste of taxpayer dollars at a time when every penny counts.

More and more lately, I find myself sitting on the fence when it comes to “public” charging stations. I understand that the government, in its all-knowing benevolence, wants Americans to get into EV’s and plug-in hybrids en masse by 2016. A laudable goal to be sure, but are we putting the carriage before the horse by building all these charging stations where there are no EV’s to charge? That seems to be the case, and it isn’t helping the cause of electric vehicles.

America hasn’t even settled on an alt-fuel vision of the future yet; is it natural gas, hydrogen, electric, or something else entirely? I don’t know, but here are two empty parking spots reserved for EV drivers who didn’t even bother to show up for the free electricity. The Free Juice Bar is part of a pilot program with the New Haven Parking Authority and United Illuminated (which installed two other free charging stations at Union Station and Air Rights garages). That means public money and public space are now invested into something that’s coming, but not here yet. Most people in New Haven walk to work anyway, and neither the Mayor of New Haven nor the New Haven Parking Authority’s Executive Director own an EV that can use these free juice bars, so why install them? The NHPA seems more execited about the new parking spots for 105 bicycles, another way most New Haven residents get around. When automobiles first took to America’s roads over 100 years ago, the government didn’t go around installing gas stations on every corner; private enterprise saw a need, and filled a need. That is happening to some extent some places, and I’ll be watching with an investor’s eye which of these private charging enterprises really takes off.

But now we have cities like New York, Chicago, and New Haven thrusting tens of millions of dollars into building an EV charging infrastructure for a segment of the population that has yet to develop. True, there are some homemade EV’s already on roads in places like California. Volt and Leaf deliveries are on the rise too, and the Ford Focus Electric is due for release later this year. Yet the one thing I will agree with the electric car naysayers is that there must be a fluid, market demand for these vehicles. But they are wrong about the infrastructure; it’s already there, in every home and business in the country. People can fill-up at their home garage, and if customers start coming into a business, asking for a place to plug in, saavy owners may install a charging station or two to attract that class of customer willing to spend a premium on things like electric cars and cupcakes (seriously, $5 cupcakes America?) But if there is a free charging station across the street, that kind of interaction is less likely to happen.

With gas prices at $4.00 a gallon for the second time in three years, it is looking more and more like the age of cheap energy is over in America. The market will decide if electric cars are the right way to go, but with the government installing free charging stations they’re removing some of the demand by providing a service in place of private enterprise. At the same time, they are handing out potentially-lucrative contracts worth millions to companies with limited track records. Let the market decide the charger of choice. Let the people driving the Leaf and the Volt get up off their asses and demand this sort of infrastructure. If they need it. Ever consider that maybe we don’t need charging stations on every corner?

At the same time, planting these charging stations undermines equally-worthy alternatives that will work outside of urban areas and still provide some relief for the wallet. Why not offer gas station owns a hefty tax credit to offer propane or natural gas filling stations alongside gasoline? Many fleet owners already use CNG or LPG in their vehicles in account of it being cheaper (even before you factor in government fuel credits), but their fueling stations remain closed to public use. Give these guys an incentive to open the pumps to the public and promote these alternative fuels as well. The EPA is streamlined the procedures for converting a vehicle to alternative fuels, so combine this with the sudden emergence of more CNG and propane fueling stations, and boom, instant-infrastructure promoted by the private sector.

I think electric cars are going to play a very important role in the coming years as America moves away oil, and the case for EV’s is a lot stronger in places like New Haven and Chicago than in rural areas, where there is a lot more anti-EV sentiment. But there’s something disheartening about an empty EV charging station, offering free energy with nary a taker in sight, even as flex fuel Suburbans and biodiesel buses buzz around the lofty liberal ideals of Yale’s elite clientele.

I try to stay upbeat and positive about the future of alt-fuel vehicles, and again, I am a huge proponent of EV’s (among other solutions.) But that doesn’t mean I have to like everything the government is doing to bring EV’s to the roads, and lately I have been filled with more questions than answers, an uncomfortable position for an EV advocate.

So I ask my fellow alt-fuel advocates; is it really wise to invest in an infrastructure that nobody demanded? Will those empty EV spots fill sooner, rather than later? Is the government stepping in where private enterprise should be taking over? Will these charging stations become just another testament of government folly, or are they bribing would-be EV buyers with free energy?

Chris DeMorro is a writer and gearhead who loves all things automotive, from hybrids to HEMIs. You can read about his slow descent into madness at Sublime Burnout or follow his non-nonsensical ramblings on Twitter @harshcougar.

About the Author

A writer and gearhead who loves all things automotive, from hybrids to HEMIs, can be found wrenching or writing- or else, he's running, because he's one of those crazy people who gets enjoyment from running insane distances.
  • This is almost a chicken and egg scenario. If you don’t have the infrastructure, how will you ever convince people to buy electric cars?

    Of course, this is easy for me to say. I live in the UK so it’s not my tax dollars that are being used for this!

  • We need more EV’s, I’ll grant you. And most EV’s will almost always charge at home at night, so charging stations are good PR and give visibility. Because, your premise in this post is a “chicken or the egg” type of question. *Both* have to happen — and we cannot let perfection be the enemy of the good!


  • I own a Nissan Leaf but cannot find charging stations in San Diego except at Nissan dealerships. I am waiting as you should wait, for the dance to start. The future in my lifetime is not H2, it is electric. Our taxes have been squandered far worse for years on petroleum subsidies and wars than on providing the infrastructure for EVs. Which is first, the road or the automobile? Do you complain that a new highway does not get built with cars on it?

    • Most people are waiting for the infrastructure to be in place before purchasing an EV. These charging stations are essential and must happen BEFORE the EV will be successful. Once the infrastructure is in place, then the EV will have a chance.

  • Like John, I have a Nissan Leaf — and nowhere to charge other than my Level II Blink charger at home or trickle charging at friends.

    The school where I commute has no charging stations. I just wrote to ECOtality to find out what it would take to get one or two charging stations installed there.

    I don’t expect to do a cross-country road trip in the Leaf. But at the same time, I am beginning to feel a little penned in by not having anywhere else to reliably charge. I would even be more than happy to PAY. But I don’t even have that choice.

    But, to be clear, for 99% of my daily commuting needs I am in GREAT shape. It’s the one percent factor in the future that I am mulling over…

    • For that 1% factor, have you tried to contact any local RV dealers/parks?


    • Buckywunder.
      I just saw your post and would be glad to contact your school with EV charging stations from three companys that I am selling charging stations for. They are ready from the factory to use credit or debit cards if payment is required for renting the space while charging.
      Kindest Regards,

  • EVs : The Future of Car !

    It’s Official: DBM Energy’s Electric Car Battery Is Real !

    New independent test confirms 454.82 km driving range on one charge!
    It weighs just 770 pounds,
    For comparison, the Tesla Roadster’s pack, which claims 245 miles of range, weighs 990 pounds.
    The car’s creators even claimed a 6 minute recharge time.

    It passed extensive independent safety tests, demonstrated endurance of 5000 charging cycles, this battery will last 27 years.
    Lithium cells of Kolibri Lithium battery have undergone a very rigorous tests according to the video from the website of German Ministry For The Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety.

    Mr. Hoffmann also cites estimates that the mass-production cost of a 98.8 kWh version of the pack would range from 800 to 1,000 euros, or from about $1,100 to $1,400, which is thousands below current costs.

    Plus, Nano-Optonics Energy Inc of Japan will produce electric vehicles with in-wheel motors.

    It will travel 300km on a single charge – about double what current electric cars can get and employ four motors, one for each wheel.
    And SIM-Drive said the price of final electric car should be “on the same level as gasoline-powered cars.”
    Who can resist this fascinating technology ?

  • The oil and battery industries spend tens of millions of dollars per year on disinformation campaigns and fake pundits/shills to discredit hydrogen because it beats their products on every metric.

    The waste product from hydrogen is potable water, the waste product from oil is cancer. (Oil is the root cause of cancer. ) It is worth anything to end Cancer so any arguement against hydrogen is offset by this fact alone. The waste product from batteries is Lithium poisoning and EMF caused cancer (The GM- EV1 was destroyed because of the EMF cancer risk).

    Hydrogen can now be efficiently made from water and the competing interests can’t control water so that want H2 stopped.

    The more batteries you add to an electric car, the less far it goes. Hydrogen carries more energy at less weight than any battery.

    Detroit has a deal with the oil companies to make money by using oil. Big oil does not want Detroit using H2. Big Oil controls the U.S. DOE and orders them to delay hydrogen.

    For every negative you could get a shill to make-up about hydrogen, there are thousands of technical papers that disprove it. For every negative that you hear about oil and batteries there are hundreds of thousands of technical papers that prove it.

    The gulf coast will now experience a doubling of cancer rates within 10 years, essentially killing off the deep south because of the BP Oil spill.

    Hydrogen runs the sun and that seems to work pretty well.

    The US DOE is owned and controlled by the Oil Industry.

  • I thought I would post a comment because my level 2 charging station is already in my garage, the delivery date for my leaf is this week. I live in Washington state and although there are charging stations already in place we still do not have any level three charging stations along the I-5 to help promote longer term travel. I have just started selling EV charging stations to local companies to entice EV,s I am selling for three charging companys to promote a greener future while waiting on our State government to catch up to the likes of yours. Really what does come first? the chicken or the egg?

    Kindest Regards,

    • @ Rhonda

      Electric cars are still many years away from attaining the same traveling range of even the most modest gas-powered cars. I think the case for EV’s is much stronger in cities than it is as a replacement commuter car right now, and I believe the government is stifling the private market for EV chargers by installing them all over the place. It is very chicken-or-egg right now, but installing EV charging stations that are barely used just feeds the anti-EV crowd more ammo about wasting government money. And if these stations aren’t being utilized save for by a very, very small chunk of the population, then it IS a waste of resources that could contribute to other solutions.

  • I agree with Chris about the cart before the horse. I own a Prius and I want a self charging vehicle that gets 200 miles per chg. I want to wait and see what the next best technology is. If its electric, great-lets rent batteries as one small country does, you pull up, in two minutes it removes your batteries and installs a second battery and you are on your way. A charging station? No way!

  • The most important function of public charging stations is as a security blanket for range anxiety, of course they are seldom used, why would you go somewhere and sit and wait for hours when you can be in the comfort of your own home while you charge? The MiniE program verified that public charging is seldom used even when it’s widely available, but is needed none the less so people will feel secure that it’s there if you need it.

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  • I think the government can get in a dangerous place if it subsidizes so many of these charging stations – people will come to expect public charging stations and free electricity (to charge with). I think it’s best to leave it up to individual companies. For example, Walgreens is installing car chargers at many of it’s locations as a value-added feature to help convince EV owners to shop their.