Public push can spur private investment in EV charging

Business Models for Financially Sustainable EV Charging Networks

In May 2014, the Washington State Legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee commissioned a study to develop new business models that will foster private sector commercialization of publicly available EV charging services and expand the role of private sector investment in EV …

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This map shows that large segments of many major roadways in Washington state do not have any publicly available DC fast charging. Our report demonstrates how the private sector can be the predominant source of funding for publicly available commercial charging stations within approximately five years.

For electric vehicles (EVs) to hit the mainstream and make a meaningful contribution to reducing greenhouse gas emissions, they’ll need a robust public charging infrastructure that lets drivers go where they take gasoline-powered cars now. Our recent work for Washington state identified some promising ways to get the private sector to fund more of that infrastructure in the near term, and fund all of it eventually.

The C2ES study was commissioned by the Washington State Legislature’s Joint Transportation Committee and guided by an advisory panel of state legislators,  EV experts, and other stakeholders. The findings, which could be implemented in the state through a bipartisan House bill, demonstrate that, with continued public support and accelerated EV market growth in the near term, the private sector could predominantly fund commercial charging stations in about five years.

A frequent question about funding infrastructure for EVs is, “Why not just follow the gas station model?” Under that model, an investor would pay to install and operate equipment and make a profit by selling the electricity to charge an EV.

Putting aside the fact that gas stations make most of their money at the convenience store or repair shop and not at the pump, this business model doesn’t work for EV charging for three reasons. First, the cost of owning and installing EV charging equipment is high. Second, the market for EVs is small in most places and the demand for charging is uncertain. And third, EV drivers are not willing to pay a high price for public charging when charging at home is cheap and easy.

These barriers are the same whether you’re in Washington state or Washington, D.C.

To overcome them, we first identified three sources of revenue to businesses – the sale of electricity, the sale of EVs, and the sale of other retail products while an EV driver is charging.  We quantified the additional revenue that could flow to the electric utility, the automaker, and the retailer from increased EV deployment. We then quantified how an investment to capture this revenue would benefit the financial performance of a charging infrastructure project. Financial performance improved significantly, but not quite enough to earn a payback for the station owner-operator in the time an investor typically seeks (about five years or less).

We then looked at the role of government in supporting the market in the near term to see if that helped. We considered a combination of policy incentives, such as extending Washington state’s sales tax exemption for all-electric cars for five years and subsidizing some of the cost of the charging equipment. We found that if this public sector assistance is offered, and if the EV market continues to develop, after about five years some EV charging business models will be profitable and sustainable with no further public sector intervention.

The near-term success of EVs is critical if we’re going to significantly reduce emissions from the transportation sector, which is responsible for 28 percent of greenhouse gas emissions. We know that private sector investment is crucial, but that the private sector must see a profit if it is to invest billions in EV technology and infrastructure.

Our study reflects what we’re already seeing on the ground, as utilities, automakers and retailers invest in charging infrastructure. Three major electric utilities want to help deploy charging stations in California. In January, automakers including BMW and Volkswagen announced they will work with ChargePoint to install more than 100 charging stations in key markets. And some retailers, including Walgreens, were early adopters of EV charging, partnering with NRG’s eVgo back in 2010.

Our work for the Washington State Legislature shows how policymakers can build a small bridge to a time in the near future when more private businesses will invest in EV infrastructure on their own.

Learn more about our project and download the business model tool we developed to complete this analysis.