EV Charging Unlocks Business Opportunities for Electric Utilities

Leading utilities seek new business opportunities with home, workplace and public charging of light-duty vehicles, in collaboration with other stakeholders. 

For example, some utilities are now selling home chargers and installation services to homeowners and businesses. This is a natural extension of the outreach and assistance programs with EV dealers. For example, utilities may vet electrical contractors for home chargers, reducing customer anxiety and ensuring a safer installation. The installation of a home charger is also a good opportunity to present energy efficiency and demand management programs to customers, or to propose other appliances, such as smart thermostats and energy storage systems. Green Mountain Power is a good example of a utility leveraging the sale and the installation of residential EV chargers in a portfolio of other services and products.[1] A similar opportunity may exist with workplace charging, as well as with multi-dwelling units. 

A Combined Charging System (CCS) DC fast charging connector. Attribution: Hadhuey / CC BY-SA

Public charging of light-duty vehicles may even have more potential than residential chargers for utilities, and DC fast-charging stations (level 3) have more potential than destination chargers (level 2).[2] EV drivers are deeply dissatisfied with the existing public charging infrastructure, and drivers who do most of their charging at home or work are much happier than those who relied on fast public chargers.[3] The shortages of public charging stations fuels range anxiety; the confusion between destination and fast chargers adds to uncertainty. These factors create a barrier to EV adoption. For utilities, the opportunities come from supporting the development of fast DC charging stations to accelerate EV adoption, especially for drivers who do not have access to home or workplace charging. Public charging is a key enabler to benefiting ratepayers and communities. This is the rationale that NYPA used to deploy its own DC fast-charging stations.[4]

Although utilities benefit from adoption of EVs and public charging enables EV adoption, DC fast-charging stations are generally not profitable. Indeed, an analysis of the profitability of DC fast-charging stations in 8 US states showed them to have negative NPV of $31k to $41k.[5] With the possible exception of some prime locations, the costs of public DC fast-charging stations are less than the charging revenue they generate. However, adding DC fast charging sites stimulates adoption of EVs and home and workplace charging, inducing value for utilities and their customers. For example, a study for NYSERDA showed that the benefits of an expanded DC fast charging infrastructure exceed additional costs to the level of $235 per EV[6] – with an average of 200 to 300 EVs per DC fast charger, this more than compensates for the lack of profitability. Some utilities have justified the capital expenditures of a DC fast charging infrastructure on its “induced effects” on EV adoption and the ensuing benefits for all ratepayers.[7]

Furthermore, fast public charging is a totally new value-creation business area for utilities. Just like gas stations before them, selling energy is essentially a loss leader for ancillary services (like car washing) and retail convenience sales. Unlike gas stations, installing DC fast charging sites requires less infrastructure and is less constrained by zoning by-laws and public safety. With the lower cost and smaller footprint of DC fast chargers in comparison to fuel pumps and tanks, we may see more, smaller sites, with adjoining stores.

Fast charging does take a few minutes more than filling a gas tank; however, one does not have to remain beside the car, sweeting, freezing or being rained on while tightly holding a filthy gas pump handle[8]. With an electric car, a driver only needs to plug it in and then walk away. This leaves more time to go to a convenience store to get a snack, a coffee or some groceries. This increase the shopping potential of each visit. The adjoining convenience store will evolve to cater to drivers who need to spend 15 or 30 minutes there instead of rushing in and out. 

There will be fewer visit to a fast-charging station in comparison to a gas station, since a lot of charging will occur at home, at a workplace, or at a destination. However, for site owners, the longer stays may partly compensate for the reduced number of visits. Furthermore, the demand for services such as car washing and selling windshield washer remains. Also, concepts like taking an appointment to charge a vehicle, valet service or washing a car while it is being charged may emerge. 

The additional time spent at a charging site is an opportunity for deeper customer engagement, for both the site owner and the utility – the charging sites become, in effect, utility stores. Utilities and site owners will need to partner to maximize the benefits from the transition to EVs. Utilities within a state may also consider working together, to reinforce each other’s efforts.

[1] See https://greenmountainpower.com/product/home-level-2-ev-charger/, accessed 2020-03-31

[2] Level 2 chargers operate at 240 volts and typically take many hours to fully charge a light-duty vehicle. They are commonly found in residences, in workplaces and as destination chargers, often at hotels and restaurants.  Level 3 DC fast chargers operate at up to 450 volts and typically take tens of minutes to charge a light duty vehicle. Typically, drivers use DC fast chargers for long distance travel or in cities not when home and workplace charging cannot be used. 

[3] Based on a survey of Tesla Model 3 drivers. See https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2019-tesla-model-3-survey, accessed 20191121.

[4] See https://www.utilitydive.com/spons/podcast-wheres-the-energy-cloud-going/521431/#ep-six, “Electrified Transportation” podcast, As expressed by New York Power Authority’s (NYPA) Doug McMahon, accessed 20200214. 

[5] Energy and Environmental Economics, January 2018, quoted in R-4060-2018.

[6]  Benefit-Cost Analysis of Electric Vehicle Deployment in New York State, February 2019.

[7] See, for example, Public Fast Charging Service for Electric Vehicles, Hydro-Québec, R-4060-2018, HQD-1, document 1.

[8] Gas pump handles top study of filthy surfaces, according to Kimberley-Clark. See https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/testing-reveals-high-contamination-levels-of-everyday-objects-in-major-us-cities-gas-pump-and-mailbox-handles-are-among-the-dirtiest-132523688.html, accessed 2020-03-31. 

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