Lowe's, Walgreens Tackle Electric Car Charging Dilemma in the U.S.

The U.S. retailers are bringing garage-friendly car chargers and recharging stations to the public—crucial solutions to help beat consumer 'range anxiety.'

Credit: CMG0220, flickr

Two major U.S. retailers are taking big steps to put more drivers in newly available electric vehicles.

Lowe's is stocking the shelves of its home improvement stores with garage-friendly car chargers, while Walgreens is installing public charging stations at its drugstores nationwide. These private sector initiatives could help to spur the mainstream adoption of E.V.s in a market led by fleets.

Nissan Leafs and Chevrolet Volts are rolling out across the country, but many drivers are still wary about the scarcity of roadside recharging points and half-day-long charge times at home. By offering speedier charging and more public spots to plug into, the businesses aim to ease the transition from gas cars to grid-connected autos. 

Lowe's is tackling the home charging dilemma by bringing General Electric's wall-mounted WattStation chargers to 60 of its California stores this month, as well as to online customers nationwide. The Mooresville, N.C.-based home improvement giant will install the stations for a fee and offer financing options for the $1,000 to $1,500 units. Consumers can also file for a 30 percent federal tax credit on their charger purchases and installation costs, which expires Dec. 31. 

"You have to make these products ubiquitous and ... easy to purchase" before the electric vehicle market can really take off, Michael Mahan, the general manager of E.V. infrastructure for GE Energy Industrial Solutions, told InsideClimate News. "The simplicity of being able to purchase a WattStation from a trusted retailer ... really becomes a great proposition for electric vehicle drivers."

The level 2 WattStation—which GE will also install at public recharging spots worldwide—can power up an all-electric car like the Leaf, or a plug-in hybrid like the Volt, in four to eight hours. The lower voltage level 1 chargers that come with the cars can take more than 10 hours to charge.

The quicker chargers require special installation because of the demand they put on electricity supplies. Homeowners have to fill out permits and have an inspection done to ensure their houses can handle the high-voltage drain, a process that can take two to three weeks as cities and utilities learn as they go. Experienced Lowe's installers could help move the process along faster.

Mahan said the WattStations have been so well received in Lowe's California stores that GE will look to put its charging units in additional Lowe's stores this year and next. Lowe's declined to comment for the story.

Faster charging at home, however, can't drive the E.V. market alone, Mahan noted.

"GE believes that in order for electric vehicles to take off, you need both a home charging environment as well as a robust public charging infrastructure," he said.

That's because the average American driver is accustomed to the "freedom of mobility," said Mariana Gerzanych, co-founder and CEO of San Diego-based 350Green, a national developer of E.V. charging networks.

When the all-electric Leaf hit the roads last year, "the industry and the analysts were thinking, if you have a charging station at home, maybe you will never need a public station," she said. "It is turning out to be quite the opposite. Even if drivers have a home charging station, they still need ... the ability to stop by a friend's house, even if they weren't planning on it."

About 3,100 public charging stations are located at U.S. supermarkets, drugstores and public lots—nearly one-third of which are in California—only a fraction of the 170,000 gas stations that exist nationwide.

Sam Ori, policy director for the Electrification Coalition in Washington, D.C., said that for drivers of all-electric cars, range anxiety—the fear the battery will die out en route and leave them stranded—isn't necessarily warranted. The average American drives 40 miles a day, and most electric vehicles can get 100 miles on a full charge.

Yet drivers don't purchase cars based on their average trips, he said—they want the freedom to go for an extended drive wherever, and whenever, they want.

Corporate and government fleets are mostly able to dodge such range concerns, one of several advantages that could allow fleet operators to speed up America's embrace of gas-free vehicles, industry officials say.

Off-duty trucks can be charged at depots or delivery points as other vehicles are making the runs. And, since trucks and vans drive the same routes day after day, companies know exactly where the vehicles will most likely need a charge.

Early E.V. adoption by fleets could benefit consumers by driving early production volumes of chargers—thus cutting costs—and giving installation experience to utilities and local transit authorities.

But the public is crucial to lifting the gas-free car market from niche to mainstream.

Gerzanych described the need for public charging stations as a chicken-and-egg dilemma: Cash-strapped cities are reluctant to invest in E.V. infrastructure since few people are driving  the cars, while drivers might not buy electric vehicles until the stations are readily available.

"Something has to be in place to help drivers and to let them know that they will not get stuck, that they can pull up somewhere and charge their electric car," Gerzanych said.

That's why private companies with fewer budget constraints can play such a critical role in bringing E.V. infrastructure to the public, she continued.

"For the retail industry, it's important to understand that [E.V. adoption] is not something that will happen in 10 years or five years. Electric cars are here," she said. "[Retailers] have to start thinking about how the provide that convenience" of charging to customers.

Walgreens Launches Biggest Charging Initiative

Gerzanych's 350Green is teaming up with Walgreens, the largest U.S. drugstore chain, to install charging stations in the parking lots of 800 stores, more than 10 percent of all Walgreens locations. So far, 350Green has signed a contract to supply infrastructure at 425 of the stores and hopes to land a deal for the rest.

The partners are planning to install 100 level 2 stations and direct-curent (DC) fast chargers across Los Angeles, which can charge an electric car in about 30 minutes. Sixty stations will be installed at Walgreens' New York City stores. Other participating cities will be named in coming months.

The DC fast chargers will be installed mainly at stand-alone Walgreens where customers normally make quick pit stops. Slower level 2 chargers, which can give a partial charge in 90 minutes, will be installed at Walgreens in retail centers, where drivers often spend hours running errands.

Gerzanych said that Walgreens is the first and only retailer so far to launch a public charging initiative of such proportions. The eventual goal, she said, is that "any time you see a Walgreens, drivers will know that there is a charging station there."

In May, her company worked with Simon Property Group, an Indiana commercial real estate company, to install E.V. charging stations at three major shopping centers in the San Francisco Bay Area, with plans for more malls in other states. In total, 350Green is building out more than 1,000 charging stations in New York, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Indiana, and California.

As more retailers follow the lead of Lowe's and Walgreens in providing charging options to drivers, municipal officials and electric utilities are trying to streamline permitting processes. In August, the U.S. Department of Energy launched an online template that allows local governments to create custom residential permits for charging stations. It also released a half-hour video that gives electrical contractors and inspectors safety and technical guidelines for installing home chargers.

Ori of the Electrification Coalition said ultimately cities should roll out E.V. infrastructure to reflect the nature of their drivers.

In Chicago, for instance, many suburbanites drive into the city and park in corporate or public garages all day, making them ideal places for level 1 or level 2 chargers. In Houston, the average commute is 20 miles, which makes the city better suited for home charging. Apartment-dwelling New Yorkers, on the other hand, need large numbers of public charging spots to "fill up" their cars.

"Cities could take completely different approaches to doing this," Ori said. "We think that flexibility is a huge advantage. It makes it so that lots of different business models can be tried out, and the learning process will be significant."

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