In a fragmented EV charging market, vehicle owners struggle to fuel up

PGE's "Electric Avenue," a row of chargers outside the World Trade Center

The situation may improve as utilities venture into the charging market. 

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Oregonians are finally learning how to pump their own gas. But charging an electric vehicle remains a challenge, and EV advocates say consolidating charging startups would make the process easier for drivers.

“One of the fundamental problems is you have a lot of different companies competing,” says Jeff Allen, director of Forth, a nonprofit that promotes electric, shared and smart transportation. 

Imagine a dozen companies piecing together a city’s electrical grid or bus stops. That’s what Portland’s EV charging network looks like. Around a dozen startups — Blink, ChargePoint, Greenlots, to name a few — manage 418 not-always-reliable Portland-area chargers.

Charging costs as little as $1, but each company runs payment through its own smartphone app, card or subscription.

Fortunately for Allen and other EV drivers, changes are underway. Plans for the first regional charging networks operated by Portland General Electric and PacifiCorp could be approved by the end of February or April at the latest, Allen says.

PGE has proposed a $2.6 million project with six charging pods, and PacifiCorp plans to spend $1.85 million on seven.  

IMG 0848A charger at PGE’s “Electric Avenue” downtown

Utility management is a no-brainer, Allen says. They already oversee a broad network of access points to low-cost electricity, and dispensing electricity to EVs is similar to providing it to homes. 

By contrast: The current EV charging landscape resembles the early days of cell phones and ATMs. A host of startups rushed to provide a new tech service but didn’t realize what they were getting into.

EV charging startups learned the hard way that the service they provide doesn’t turn a profit. Thanks to an abundance of cheap electricity in the Pacific Northwest, it only costs around $1 to fully charge a Nissan Leaf battery. Except for dire circumstances, most people charge at home. As a result, companies dropped like flies. Their machines, each programmed with proprietary software, languished.

Despite the roadblocks, too many companies are sticking it out. 

“You don’t want a monopoly,” says freelance writer and Chevrolet Bolt owner April Streeter. “But here we have too much choice.” (Disclosure: Streeter contributes articles to Oregon Business).

Earlier this month, Streeter visited four electric charging stations. She didn’t have the right app to pay for a station buried in the basement of a Market of Choice parking garage, and she couldn’t get a  cell phone signal to call the company, ChargePoint, for help.

She tried a Lloyd Center station, but the chargers were broken. Unable to find good directions to the next station, owned by Blink Charging, she wound her way to the roof of a parking garage, only to be greeted by chargers covered in black duct tape and out of order signs.

Finally, her Bolt nearing the 70 miles to empty that triggers “range anxiety,” Streeter drove to Portland General Electric’s “Electric Avenue,” a row of chargers outside the company’s World Trade Center headquarters. As Streeter sat in her car downloading yet another app, a woman offered her card to activate the charger.

These kinds of war stories are common in the free-for-all charging environment, where the best place to go for help is another EV driver.

“People need to design this with the average person who only plays Angry birds on their phones in mind.” —Christopher Holmquist, rideshare driver

The savviest assemble Swiss army knives of charging: collections of payment apps and cards for any situation. Christopher Holmquist, who drives over 200 miles daily for Lyft and Uber, dedicates a folder on his iPhone to five charging apps. His friend carries a dedicated EV charging wallet with ten different cards.

“Forcing everyone to have a membership is not simple. It’s alienating,” Holmquist says. “People need to design this with the average person who only plays Angry birds on their phones in mind.”

Streeter and Holmquist say the Blink system in particular is full of glitches. 

The company’s interactive map of some 135 Portland-area chargers omits salient details: e.g., what floor of a ten-floor parking garage harbors the hargers. When drivers find the machines, they often encounter problems — broken touch screens, defunct chargers, and false cell phone notifications.

“They have chargers in many places,” Streeter says, “and they’re nearly all unfunctional.”

Blink spokeswoman Suzanne Tamargo says the company has plenty of stations that work  “and we do a lot of work and service in the Portland area.” 

But she acknowledges the need for improvements. Upgrades to the 5,000 stations nationwide will take time, but the company is on it, Tamargo says. 

She says Blink is adding more detailed location data to its app and that drivers can help by sending location information to the company.

“Even us, when we’re trying to find our own stations, we need that,” Tamargo says.

IMG 0844A Blink charger inside the SmartPark Garage on 10th and Yamhill

Blink teetered on the edge of bankruptcy a few years ago, Allen says. The company’s contracts with the owners of parking garages and other sites expired after two or three years, and have not been renewed. That leaves both parties squabbling over who needs to make repairs.

“Their dilemma is if they don’t have a contract with the site host they might feel like its not their responsibility to maintain that equipment,” Allen says. “They don’t know how their going to split the revenue.”

Sometimes property owners won’t even give Blink engineers permission to enter a property to repair chargers, Tamargo said.

“Basically what we’ve learned is providing charging in public is not profitable,” Allen says, “and probably won’t be until you get a critical mass of EVs on the road.”

“Basically what we’ve learned is providing charging in public is not profitable,” Allen says, “and probably won’t be until you get a critical mass of EVs on the road.”

As the industry matures, solutions are emerging.  A trend toward open source software, Allen says, will allow property owners and drivers to more easily switch companies. The utility plans will provide more efficient networks.

Until then, Allen says, drivers can practice on the array of charger models in Forth’s showroom.

And remember: You can always phone a friend. “Even though it’s a little wild West,” Allen says, “there’s usually a way if the hardware works, that you can call for help.”

This story has been edited to reflect the following correction: Tamargo did not mention Blink’s lapsed contracts with property owners

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