Electric Car Charging: A Lot of it is Free -- For Now

Last Updated May 11, 2010 10:51 AM EDT

At the Tanque Verde Valley rental complex in Tucson, Arizona, the inducements include granite kitchens, breakfast bars, walk-in closets, Jacuzzi tubs -- and free electric car charging.

""We want to reward our residents' willingness to use alternative energy sources," said Brent Sandweiss of parent company Tucson Rental Properties.

Most of the early EV charging is cost-free, and it's not just because companies haven't figured out how to charge for it yet (though that's also true). Some public charging is likely to remain free, because it doesn't cost all that much in the first place, and the stores offering it will gain valuable shopping time as the cars are plugged in. For 50 cents of electricity, a store like Ikea could get me to spend $500," said Richard Canny, CEO of electric car maker Think, which has sold 1,500 cars in Europe and is headed for the U.S. at the end of the year.

"I think we'll see a lot of free charging," said Brendan Prebo, a Think spokesman. "It's a service retailers can offer to encourage people to come in and spend time in the retail environment. With rental units, it could be the tipping point that would convince people to choose one place over another."

Standard rates for EV charging may develop, but a consensus seems to be emerging that early adopters of EVs will need encouragement, and free charging (often in choice spots right in front of businesses) is very encouraging. Praveen Mandal, a spokesman for Coulomb Technologies (which made the Tucson plug-in units), predicted that the charge for charging "will be all over the map. Station owners can charge something, or nothing. Electricity does have a cost, of course, as does maintaining the equipment, but you can weigh that against the customer benefit. Coffee places offer free Wi-Fi to attract customers, and that works for them. We may see free charging for some groups of people, and fees for others."

Mandal estimated the cost of a four-hour charge at approximately $2.50. That's not much when there are still only a few customers, but it will add up as EVs catch on. Many EV advocates expect big-box stores to be among the first to offer free parking lot charging, because a charging customer is a spending customer. But an informal survey I conducted gave the impression that most chains EV charging on the radar yet.

Another company offering free charging is British electrical equipment retailer Comet, which offers a plug-in connection at its store in Croydon. The video shows how it's done:

London Mayor Boris Johnson said back in July when that station opened that Comet should get "a congratulatory pat on the back for offering free charging points." He said that the electric car revolution will only work "if we make it easy for people."

Japanese convenience store chain Lawson is also offering free charging at 25 of its stores.

The charging station at the rental complex is one of three installed recently in Tucson by Coulomb. The other two are at Bookmans Entertainment Exchange stores. They were opened in March as Mayor Robert Walkup declared Tucson to be an "Electric Vehicle Friendly Community." The rate for Bookmans charging in Tucson and in Phoenix? It's free.

Sheila Kressler-Crowley, marketing manager for Bookmans, said free charging "goes along with our community outreach. It seemed a natural fit with us." The company doesn't rule out charging for charging in the future, though. "We haven't seen that dramatic usage to where we're breaking the bank on it," Kressler-Crowley said. "It will be free for at least the next year or two. I don't see us charging for it anytime soon."

Among the vehicles charged by Bookmans so far are GEM neighborhood vehicles (distributed by Chrysler) and a Tesla Roadster.

Tucson and Phoenix are likely to be early adopter cities for EVs, because eTec, subsidiary of another charging company, ECOtality (based in Scottsdale) received a $99 million Department of Energy grant to partner with Nissan and install charging infrastructure in key markets. Both Arizona cities are part of that plan, and both are slated to get the Nissan Leaf battery car in December, before most of the country.

If there are fleets of Leafs on Arizona roads, it could change the free equation. "With 10,000 cars, the charging cost is not trivial," said Mandal. Coulomb CEO Richard Lowenthal predicted that Tucson will have "hundreds" of EVs on the road by the end of 2010.