It’s not often facilities management has cause to align itself with the automotive industry. With growing consumer acceptance of electric vehicles (EVs), the time is ripe for building owners to decide if they want to take the wheel and install an EV charging station.
For some, nothing short of a government mandate or significant tax incentives will prompt them to install a charger. Yet others are leading the way by becoming early adopters, staying reflexively ahead of demand but nonetheless prepared for the surge of EVs around the corner.
The question to ask yourself is do you want a stake in the electric vehicle market? This may be an easy sell for companies who want to directly support the EV industry or are concerned about the greater picture of energy and grid stability.
According to Siemens, a developer of energy solutions, EV adoption is a dramatic departure from our current transportation infrastructure. As they move the nation away from fossil fuel dependence, they also help to create a smart grid that can facilitate clean electricity consumption.
The average property owner, however, is more likely to capitalize on the benefits of an EV charger if they can fold a station into their green initiatives. A charger can serve as one of many sustainable strategies for commercial buildings, alongside daylighting, solar glazing, renewable energy, LEDs, or green roofs.
In addition to an environmentally conscious building, an EV station sends the message that you want to extend those green practices to your occupants’ commute. EV chargers line up nicely with other alternative transportation initiatives, such as mass transit passes, bike racks, ride sharing, and premium parking spots for hybrids, compacts, and carpools.
Given the variety of station prices, fee models for charging, and regional utility rates, calculating ROI for a charger won’t provide solid numbers to support its installation costs. Instead, look to soft returns to justify the expenditure.
There’s growing evidence that people are more likely to frequent a business that advertises its green efforts. You can capitalize on people’s loyalty to an eco-friendly company as well as their curiosity about the new technology and then redirect their attention with marketing about your organization.
“EV stations not only act as a billboard for your sustainability initiatives, but they invite people onto your property and provide an immediate talking point,” says Mike Calise, director of Electric Vehicle Business for Schneider Electric.
The chargers can also serve as a talent magnet for potential hires, an incentive for employees and students, or a selling point for a lease agreement. While many people charge at home because it’s convenient, the second most likely location is at work, explains Calise. As people look to align themselves with a green company, an EV station becomes a tool to attract and retain key clients and workers.
Before you purchase a station, it is critical to map out its placement in your parking lot or garage. Chargers require power, limiting the number of locations where you can cost effectively place them. For example, it may be cost-prohibitive to place the chargers in your front parking lot if your power source is in the back of your building.
“Make sure your building has enough power, which can be a potential complication for older properties,” Calise cautions. “You don’t want to put in a station that you can’t properly bring power out to or that will contribute to brownouts at your location. You may have to make a compromise between an ideal location and a cost-effective one.”
You should also consider how to make the charger visible through placement and signage. Stations are often installed in preferred parking spaces closest to the building, creating a premium parking stall. Use paint or signs to further call attention to the space, similar to the markers for accessible parking.
Be conscious that if you install charging spots, you need to follow ADA guidelines. According to the ADA Policy Guidelines for EV Charging Stations, “For up to 25 EV charging/parking spaces at a single location, at least one such parking space must be an extra-wide, ADA-compliant parking space.” While the standard blue signage isn’t necessary, the parking space should be marked for EV use.
Once you determine its location, you need to investigate the level of intelligence your charger should have. Station providers offer a host of bells and whistles that allow you to remotely monitor electricity use, sync up the charger with your building energy management system, or coordinate access and payment options. A number of these features (see chart below) require two-way communication.
Charging Stations 101
There are three types of charging stations. Levels 2 and 3 are better suited to commercial facilities based on how quickly they can charge a car. Which level is right for you largely depends on the habits of your building population.
|Level 1 |
|EVs come with portable 110V charging cables that can be used in conjunction with a standard outlet in a home garage. Level 1 charging is a slow charge, taking 12-16 hours to power up a battery. Beyond residential, Level 1 is suitable for multifamily properties and buildings with overnight or long-term parking, such as hotels and airports.|
|Level 2 |
|This station will charge a vehicle twice as fast at Level 1, typically in 2-4 hours depending on battery type and power left. With Level 2 charging, code requires the connector and cable to be hard wired to the power source. Offices, schools, businesses, and conference centers are an ideal fit for Level 2 chargers because guests are likely to be on their premise for several hours at a time.|
|Level 3 |
|Because the standard Level 3 connector was recently finalized, many vehicles on the market are not compatible with Level 3 charging yet. Level 3 offers the fastest charging power (20-30 minutes) but must also use DC power. Stop-and-go locations – coffee shops, bakeries, grocery stores, and retail – may choose Level 3 so customers are only idle for 20-30 minutes while waiting for their charge. This is an especially attractive option for any business located along major thoroughfares where EV owners are driving long distances and need to address range anxiety.|
“Building owners must consider how they would like to communicate with the unit, with a hard Ethernet cable or a cellular connection,” advises Brady Blain, VP of business development for PEP Stations, an EV charger manufacturer. “With an Ethernet connection, the proximity to a network must be considered, as distance can limit cable connectivity.”
One of the biggest debates with EV stations is whether clients should have to pay for them or if they are a free amenity. Because the EV market is so nascent, many owners will provide charging for free, but limit access to clients and guests instead of the public.
But even a completely free station can raise ethical questions organizations must navigate. Clients may view it as preferential treatment for a select handful of customers – after all, you’re likely not filling up traditional gas tanks. Healthcare properties, for instance, have to be scrupulous about not offering perks for doctors – it could be difficult to prove stations are only used by patients and not staff.
Your ability to charge can also be complicated by state regulations. If you charge a user for the electricity drawn, you could be in violation of operating as a utility. A handful of states are starting to make exceptions under these rules, but it’s not a widespread position as of yet.
A popular pricing structure is to mimic metered parking – clients pay an hourly rate for the right to park in a spot. While it’s up to you to determine what the rate is, you should ensure that it will at least reimburse you for the power drawn. You can calculate this by looking at the charging rate of your station (see below for options), the average fill level of EVs, and your utility rates.
Keep in mind that any fees you impose on EV stations will compete with home rates and those offered by competitors. You can also get creative with pricing by pairing it with a business discount, adding it to a bill a client is already paying (restaurant, hotel, tuition), or charging a flat fee for a full charge instead of an hourly rate.
Be wary, however, that some companies impose subscription chargers on the station owner and EV driver, warms Blain. The station provider will take a percentage of the station revenue, which can cut into profitability.
Station owners can also try dynamic pricing (tiered) to account for their individual peak utility rates. Say you have a Level 2 station and an EV charges from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. If your peak rates start at noon, you can charge the user a morning rate and then switch to an afternoon one.
If you want to avoid the stations from drawing during peak hours in the first place, you can use your building energy management system to time the stations out at a given hour. This strategy is ideal for workplace Level 2 stations, which would effectively charge employees’ vehicles during the morning prior to peak hours yet still be ready for use in the evening.
Virginia Gets Charged Up
The Southwest Virginia Higher Education Center (SVHEC), a partnership of 10 colleges and universities, is installing a Level 2 ground-mount charger in summer 2012.
SVHEC has parking spaces designated for alternative fuel vehicles. To draw attention to the new technology, they will place the charger adjacent to these and offer the service for free. The organization is also working with the Virginia DOT to install highway signs at their exit to further increase visibility.
“We already have multiple green initiatives throughout our facility. We like to demonstrate innovative technologies, especially ones that reduce energy consumption,” explains Rachel Fowlkes, executive director for SVHEC. “Located on Interstate 81, the EV charging station can be used by our facility users as well as travelers driving through the region. We anticipate that the charging station will attract new users to our facility and programs.”
Vancouver Takes the Lead
The Cadillac Fairview Corporation Limited, a Canadian commercial real estate firm, recently installed an EV station at a downtown Vancouver property – the first of its kind in the city. The $5,000 investment for the charger was rolled out through the company’s Green At Work program.
The charger is placed near the entrance of the building, next to allocated spaces for hybrid vehicles. Because the cost to fully charge a vehicle is about $3, the service is currently offered for free.
“We also chose not to go with a charging company that absorbs the installation cost but requires users to pay,” says Lesley Heieis, a general manager for Cadillac Fairview. “We felt this could be a negative given that EV chargers elsewhere in the city are free. If the rate changes, we would prefer to charge a slightly higher parking rate rather than billing each user for actual consumption as this would be administratively challenging.”
Iowa Paves the Way
Van Meter is an Iowa-based electrical and mechanical product provider with a robust sustainability program. Nestled within minutes of two major interstates, its Iowa City branch had two EV stations installed in February.
The chargers are used as a demonstration tool for customers interested in the technology and a promotional perk for employees and visiting clients. While not available to the public, the chargers are free to invited users.
Both stations are placed at the front of the building, one closer to the customer entrance and the other offset to the side for employees. Not only does the placement create visibility and premium parking spots, but it was also ideal for securing the electrical connections for wiring.
Because the facility is equipped with a large solar array, any load drawn from the chargers is partially offset by the renewable energy. The stations have generated a fair amount of interest and questions. Area clients are starting to travel to the site if EVs are available to them, such as the University of Iowa, and a local car dealer will swings by with customers to demonstrate how a public charger works.
“We want to lead by example, even though there’s not a large base of electric vehicles out there – this is a visible statement of our commitment to sustainability,” says Brad Duggan, renewable energy manager. “We also want to show the reality of charging stations and provide an incentive for our employees and customers, like offering coffee in the lobby.”
Despite the promises of the market, the future of EV chargers raises many questions. Building owners should look to advances on the residential side to see station features that are in the pipelines.
One possibility is wireless charging, which has seen promise with personal electronics like cell phones and laptops. Several wireless EV chargers are available for home use and could make their way onto commercial properties. Plug-free stations are ground-mounted and transfer power when a car is parked within range.
Technology also exists for vehicle-to-grid applications, where buildings can draw electricity from the car’s battery and then replace it at will. A home application is currently being tested for powering kitchen appliances and lights, but no equivalent is established for commercial buildings.
“In the future, it will be possible to use EV batteries for peak shaving by taking energy from the battery back into the building,” Calise says. “While the technology exists for this arrangement, there are unaddressed complications with battery warranties and questions whether consumers will feel comfortable with the additional wear and tear on their battery.”
In the meantime, EV charging stations provide a unique marketing tool and incentive opportunity. A charger won’t save you energy, reduce your utility bill, or likely be a source of revenue. But if you can market the EV station as part of your sustainability program and as a significant amenity, you have the power to tap into a new clientele base.
As more charging stations enter the market, the number of bells and whistles is also
increasing. Not including installation fees, a standard model can run between $1,000-5,000. Accessories will drive the price even higher.
There’s tremendous variety between what comes standard with a station and additional features that will raise your price tag. Once you determine which station level you need, take into account which options will complement your charger.
Jennie Morton ([email protected]) is associate editor of BUILDINGS.