Imagine if every gas station chain had its own exclusive pump network, which required every driver to download an app, create an account, and connect their credit card before they could fill up their gas tank.
And then imagine that every driver who wanted to drive across Canada had to download about 50 apps because there are so many networks.
This is precisely the problem faced by many electric vehicle (EV) owners in North America, especially those without home charging.
Each charger belongs to a network. And whenever you want to charge your car on a network you’ve never been before, you need to create an account. Only then can you charge your EV.
According to Simon Oullette, general manager of ChargeHub, a charger locator network based in Pointe-Claire, Quebec, the problem started in the early days of the industry.
“The people who were deploying the charging stations were making the hardware and the software, and had a venture capitalist mentality,” he said. Each network wanted to “own” the customer, so they could monetize the product. This created an awkward app ecosystem, making it difficult for EV owners to switch between networks.
A charger app shows where chargers are for a specific network, allows drivers to activate a charger from that network, and pay. There are also charger locator apps, which show the location of charging stations for many different networks.
No matter where it is located or which charging network it belongs to, however, a charging station usually does not generate enough funds to be self-financing, and that should not change any time soon. “Public EV charging alone is a losing proposition for whoever operates the charging station,” Oullette said.
It is generally up to the site host – whether it is a retail business, one of those rest areas on major highways, a municipal or private car park – to set the price. , or the price paid to use electricity, at the charging station, not the utility or the province.
When the host purchases the charger, the cost includes not only the purchase of the electrical “pump”, but also its installation (for DC fast chargers, this may require electrical infrastructure upgrades, breakdown of the concrete, trenches for underground lines, etc.), plus the cost of maintaining the charging station and any networking or payment processing costs, plus the cost of electricity to operate terminal. That’s more than the revenue that will be generated from using the station over its lifetime, according to Oullette. This is why many public charging stations are located in merchant lots. While people wait for their car to charge, they often go shopping, which subsidizes the cost of chargers.
Oullette notes that rising charging costs at public charging stations will likely discourage use, since most EV drivers can charge at home, unless they’re traveling out of town. There are a few high-traffic sites with multiple charging stations that can generate profit, such as highway rest areas along the main road between two cities, but these are a minority.
As a result, most networks do not view the EV driver as their customer, according to Oullette. Their business is to sell the charging station to the host entity, be it a donut shop or a commercial real estate developer. That’s how they make money.
Oullette says most accommodation entities typically pay chargers out of their marketing or corporate social responsibility budget. They pay for hardware, installation, and construction upfront, while maintenance, networking, and electricity costs are usually paid monthly. Repairs can be paid for if necessary. Some shipper organizations are beginning to offer an equipment rental option to reduce the initial cost.
But times are changing as quickly as new models of electric vehicles are hitting the market. Former fossil fuel players such as Petro-Canada, automakers such as Volkswagen and regional electric utilities are joining the electric vehicle charging industry. Their focus is less on keeping the driver to themselves than on providing a good user experience as the chargers work together.
For example, Brenna Strohschein, a marketing consultant in the Vancouver area, doesn’t have home charging, but only needs three apps to get around her 2014 Nissan Leaf. She uses two charging apps: BC Hydro and ChargePoint, plus the PlugShare charging locator app.
Although her Leaf only travels about 100 kilometers per charge, that’s fine for her. Strohschein and her husband both work from home and spend a lot of time at local parks with their two young children. They covered about 12,000 kilometers last year.
“We plan our activities around places where we can find refills, like BC Hydro’s free Level 2 chargers at the park,” Strohschein said. “But because of the stage of life we’re in, we don’t find it boring.”
Mélanie Nadeau, assistant director in Montreal, does not have home charging either. She initially downloaded about 10 apps when she bought her 2021 Chevy Bolt last year. However, Nadeau only uses three of them: the Circuit Electric/Electric Circuit application (from Hydro-Quebec), PetroCanada and ChargePoint.
Currently, Nadeau has six level 2 charging stations within a five-minute walk of his condo in the borough of Saint-Laurent, all of which are from the Electric Circuit/Electric Circuit. She is delighted that the two chargers are installed right in front of her building. “It will be especially good in the winter,” said Nadeau.
Another way to improve the EV experience for drivers is to make networks more compatible with each other. Some EV charging networks share information through their back-end software, creating a form of roaming. For example, EV drivers can use the ChargeHub Passport app to activate and pay for chargers on the Flo network, as well as Greenlots, Electric Circuit/Electric Circuit, SemaConnect, Blink and others.
In turn, EV drivers can use the Flo network to access other networks like Greenlots, Electric Circuit/Electric Circuit, eCharge, BC Hydro EV and ChargePoint.
It’s something Plug’n Drive’s Cara Clairman compares to the early days of ATMs.
“When ATMs first came out, you couldn’t use your bank card at another bank,” Clairman said. “Over time, Interac has been developed so that you can use any bank machine for a fee.”
She thinks some of the recently announced federal spending on EV infrastructure should be directed to supporting “interoperability” between EV charging networks. “That would be very helpful because interoperability is an expensive process,” Clairman said.
And because it’s expensive, that means it’s not a priority for EV charging networks. The process is long and complex, and networks must devote time and resources to make it work. Software systems must be analyzed and integrated in order to make them transparent to the driver of the electric vehicle.
According to Oullette, integrating a network into ChargeHub’s Passport system can take months.
“The federal government certainly has a role to play,” he says. “It’s such a losing proposition for people to deploy Chargers without the help of government funding. If Natural Resources Canada had conditions attached to its funding in terms of interoperability, that would be a good thing.