To charge or not to charge?

Cracker Barrel have installed two charging stations at Gallatin, TN

Currently use of public charging stations is free, however that situation may change come January of 2012 with some business owners such as Cracker Barrel  proposing to levy fees for using the electric vehicle service equipment (EVSE).

The internet culture has conditioned us to expect many things to be free, free email service, free shipping, no sales tax, the list goes on. Is it reasonable to expect business owners to provide vehicle charging for free as well? How often have you seen a gas station offer gas for free? I haven’t, so why would there even be an expectation for free electric charging? Well for one, it’s free right now, so expectations have already been established.

I contacted Cracker Barrel to appeal to them to reconsider, read the appeal here. The email response I got didn’t wasn’t reassuring, however the manager at the Cracker Barrel in Hendersonville did give me a call to follow-up. She was pleased I liked the chargers at the store and was sympathetic to my disappointment with the proposal to levy a fee. She thanked me for contacting Cracker Barrel headquarters and hoped they would listen to their customers, the decision regarding the EV chargers is out of her hands. The personal touch was well received.

Here’s my analysis of why I believe business owners should keep the charging stations free, at least for the foreseeable future.

Marketing. It’s just plain good marketing and customer relations.

The cost to get someone into your store and buy a product can be expensive. Often we see coupons for a free appetizer, buy one get one free etc. All of these incentives cost the business money to convince you to shop with them versus the competition. How much does a one hour charge cost the business owner? A one hour, 3 kWh charge will cost about 25 cents. If you’re the only store on the high street with a EV charging station, 25 cents is a really cheap incentive to offer. Much cheaper than a free appetizer, or offering a product as a loss leader.

Given a one hour charge is so cheap, would electric car owners really be attracted? Regardless of the monetary to the customer, free is always attractive. Even though I may only get a 25 cent value, the psychological draw i.e ‘getting something for nothing’ is strong. The psychological value far exceeds the monetary value. This situation would appear to be in favor of the business owner.

Reverse the situation and charge $1 for the charging session, and one will either go elsewhere or simply park without charging. It’s difficult to see the advantage to the business owner once a fee is associated with a charging session. In my opinion equipment will lay idle most of the time, with only folks who are in urgent need of a charge wanting to pay a fee. So if I am not in urgent need of charge, why would I be attracted even if it is for free?

Opportunity charging is something one does as an EV owner. EV’s have limited range, requiring some planning ahead of time to ensure you can get everywhere you plan to go during the day. But what if you get a phone call in the middle of the day and have to make an unplanned journey? If you let the vehicle charge run down, you may find yourself unable to make an unplanned journey. For this reason EV owners will ‘top-off’ if convenient during the day, even if their plans don’t warrant it. It provides a comfort zone for the unexpected. This explains why a one hour charge while shopping or eating is valuable to the EV owner. However if the charge costs a dollar, one won’t want to spend the money, especially since its much cheaper to charge at home. One may reason that the unexpected call may not happen anyway, why pay a premium ‘just in case’?

Ecotality/Blink Networks may also have a hand in the desire to introduce fees. Ecotality won a government grant to install over 14,400 chargers nationwide. Once that money runs out, they are no doubt looking for another source of income. Ecotality plan to revenue share with the business owner with regard to charging fees. Personally I believe the market for charging equipment will grow, they should be able to make a living selling and installing charging equipment. If we do the math and they charge $1 per hour and have two chargers per location, best case they can recover $2 per hour, it doesn’t seem like they will get very rich if they pin business growth on EV charging revenues. I believe it is too early in the evolution of the EV to introduce fees and potentially discourage adoption.

DC Fast Chargers – Select Cracker Barrel have started to install fast chargers that can charge a vehicle from empty to 80% charge in 20-30 minutes. Would I pay for that? Absolutely. Fast charging is only available at commercial locations with enough power to do so.  I’d be happy to pay for the rapid charging it’s a value added I can’t get it anywhere else.

If you agree with my position, contact Cracker Barrel HQ or any other business owner considering introducing a fee and appraise them of your opinion. Feel free to leave a comment here as well.

This entry was posted in Blink, Cost Benefit, Electric Car, Level 2 EV Charger, Nissan LEAF, Opinion and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to To charge or not to charge?

  1. I feel that logically, charging should not be free. Cause like you said; gas is not free. It’s a bit outrageous to expect free power for your car. However, the EV movement has not taken off as much as some have expected. Therefore “free charging” is a great incentive ; it could be that one thing that will propel someone to buy an EV if they are on the brink but not sure. Once it starts getting really popular then I think it would be fine to charge a fee.

  2. Lance Pickup says:

    I don’t have a problem per se with businesses trying to recoup their expenses related to charging, but there are two points to consider: First, I agree that the marketing value of providing the service should be deducted from their “cost” first, and second I see businesses abusing their right to charge and trying to use it as a revenue source (like text messages that cost 10 cents each or the $1 I paid to inflate my tires the other day–the fees charged should be in line with the cost!)

    So how about this for a fair compromise: restaurants and stores that are trying to attract customers should give the first hour (or whatever reasonable amount of time a customer would normally spend at the establishment) free, but any time after that would be charged a fair rate. When the EV customer plugs in, they would be given the option to have the charger stop at the conclusion of the free period, or they could insert their credit card and fees would commence at the conclusion of the free period.

    Public parking lots could operate on a similar basis, although other models are possible there as well, such as bundling the cost of charging in with the parking fee, since sometimes the cost of parking far outpaces the cost of electricity to charge. I would be concerned about people abusing this though and charging a full 8 hours, which is really not the point. So again, perhaps the free hour of two of charging and then go to a fee might be the right approach.

    • jpwhitehome says:

      I like your suggestion of providing an initial charge period for free, then charge a fee thereafter. This balances providing an incentive to do business versus providing unwarranted welfare to all and sundry.

      Extending your idea, grocery stores in our area offer 10c off a gallon of gas if you spend $100 with them in a month. A similar program could be devised for EV’s whereby you ‘earn’ free charges on your loyalty card. Due to the time it takes to fully charge most EV’s they would have to work with EVSE network vendors to allow those free charges to be redeemed anywhere on their network.

  3. IndyFlick says:

    I believe an over looked fact here is that it will cost Cracker Barrel a transaction fee to charge customers to use those EVSEs. The best solution, IMHO, would be a secured change container with a slot it the top. Offer charging on the honor system with a 25 or 50 cents per hour of charging. Cracker Barrel could take it one step further and arrange to donate the money to a charity or perhaps a nonprofit that promotes EVs.

  4. neal says:

    I believe there is a law concerning electric companies that says that another company can not resell ecectricty due to the fact that they do not own the electricty there for they can not resell something they do now own. I could be wrong on this but this is what i read somewhere about people wanting to charge let people plug in.

  5. Steve says:

    Incredible Blog! I just bought a Leaf and I am a Chicago resident. I have so many questions and I’m sure I will find many answers in your blog. But, if I leave my leaf to charge all night and it reached SOC at 12 am. Do I get charged by my electric company till I take it off the charger at 5:00 am in the morning? Also what section would you recommend for me to start looking at in your blog to find valuable information for a newbie like myself?

    • jpwhitehome says:

      Thanks for the compliments!! You should not be charged for having your car connected at home, only for the electricity you consume.

      Public charging stations often charge for simply being connected to discourage hogging of stations. This will not apply at home.

      My blog is a chronological record of my LEAF ownership and isn’t organized in a specific fashion, so feel free to jump in anywhere. You can browse posting by month and read anything that interests you..

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