Electric Vehicle Charging Stations Are Going Mainstream

Governments and manufacturers have taken a Field of Dreams approach to charging infrastructure, with stations everywhere from IKEA to Cracker Barrel.

The first electric car charger I ever saw was in a parking garage in Princeton, New Jersey. It was hidden in a corner, amid a tangle of wires. No one was using it at the time, but with its high-income population, Princeton is likely to need more chargers soon—I don't doubt drivers will value that spot at least as highly as one directly in front of The Bent Spoon, Princeton’s artisan ice cream shop. (If they have it, try the peppermint.)

Electric vehicles may still be an oddity, even in rarefied worlds like Princeton, but governments and charger manufacturers are taking a Field of Dreams approach to charging infrastructure—assuming if they build it, they will come. Chargers are being installed in municipal parking garages, at highway rest stops, and in parking lots at IKEA, Kohl’s, even Cracker Barrel. As clean tech consulting firm Pike Research points out, two years from now drivers will have a choice of 80 different models of electric vehicles. The consulting firm estimates that by 2017 the EV charger industry will turn $4.3 billion in profits, while the United States alone will have 1.5 million locations to charge electric vehicles.

Public-sector enthusiasm, not private demand, is driving the growth of charging infrastructure—according to Pike Research, most of that $4.3 billion profit will likely come from markets in China, Japan, and Korea, where electric vehicles enjoy strong government support. In the United States, too, funding from the federal government has spurred the proliferation of chargers. Coulomb Technologies, the maker of the Princeton charger, received $15 million from the federal government’s 2009 stimulus program to expand its ChargePoint Network. A competitor, ECOtality, received more than $100 million in 2009 and 2010 from the Department of Energy for the EV Project, which will deploy 14,000 chargers in six states and the District of Columbia. The company calls it “the largest deployment of electric vehicles and charge infrastructure in history.”

The vast majority of the chargers being deployed now can be divided into two groups: fast enough and quite fast. Level 2 chargers take at least a couple of hours to fill up a car battery. Level 3 chargers can take as little as 10 or 15 minutes to do the same job but will continue to be the exception. (To find one, keep an eye out for what may resemble a larger iPod mini.) Most owners of electric vehicles do their charging in the privacy of their own homes. It’s even possible, as of this week, to acquire a home charger without venturing out: GE began offering its WattStation for purchase on Amazon. (Not included: the licensed electrician it will take to install the thing.)

The expansion of charging infrastructure is probably most useful right now as a salve to range anxiety, the fear of running out of juice before your EV gets you where you need to go. If it prompts more people to buy electric vehicles, though, expect to see more of those chargers in the very near future.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Flying Amos

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