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.

Christopher DeMorro

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.