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A Solar-Powered EV Charging Vision

The details behind Sun Media Network’s Terrible Herbst partnership
Photograph: Sun Media Network

LAS VEGAS —Combine a smart screen with data-analytics software and an electric vehicle (EV) charger, all powered by solar energy, and what do you get? For Terrible Herbst, which is adding dozens of these units to its convenience stores in the Las Vegas area, the answer is a way to draw more customers into the store, and a launch pad for an EV charging network.

The 150 units being installed at Las Vegas-based Terrible Herbst are the first of more than 1,500 sites planned for the Sun Media Network, a new business division of ISM Connect, Frisco, Texas. ISM Connect is best known for its digital out of home (DOOH) network of smart screens—or “billboards with a brain,” according to ISM Connect CEO Kent Heyman. More than 300 of the digital screens are currently installed at 27 Minor League Baseball parks across the United States, as well as at NASCAR racetracks, college campuses and trade-show halls to engage with consumers and collect data on that engagement.

“We’re at the intersection between media and DOOH engagement software,” Jenna Erdmann, senior director for ISM Connect’s media network, told CSP Fuels. The smart screens use ISM Connect’s proprietary software, which has three functionalities: customer engagement; visual analytics with artificial intelligence and machine learning capabilities; and data analytics.

On the engagement side, brands can use the smart screens to present customized messaging to consumers.

“All screens have a camera or sensor so our algorithms can run, and provide a proof of performance of both content and who’s seeing it in real time,” Erdmann said. The screens can also use a situational awareness tool to identify a VIP in the crowd—say, a CEO—and deliver an enhanced messaging experience to them, or even spot people of interest and alert security.

Terrible Herbst’s EV Expansion

Sun Media Network takes the DOOH network technology and adds mobile solar generators (MSGs) from OffGrid Power Solutions. With this technology base, property owners can also use the units to provide their sites with lighting or, in the case of Terrible Herbst, EV charging.

The 20-by-16-foot units at Terrible Herbst consist of a 75-inch screen on a hydraulic mount that sits on top of eight solar panels, which are affixed on top of a mobile solar generator. Of the 150 units planned for the retailer, more than 40 have been installed, at a rate of 10 to 15 per week. The EV charging stations will be connected to the MSGs in fourth-quarter 2019. The units are being installed in the parking lot at Terrible Herbst sites; most locations have one unit, although larger corner sites may have two. All the Sun Media Network EV charging stations will be part of ChargePoint’s EV charging network, which allows its members to locate charging points via mobile app.

Consider the current presentation of Sun Media Network as “version 1.1,” said Jeff Hutchins, vice president of smart cities for ISM Connect. A redesigned unit, rolling out in the next phases later this year, will have a more seamless form. And although Terrible Herbst’s charging stations will be Level 2 chargers, delivering about 25 miles of range per hour, “we are working to increase charge rates and power outputs of those as well,” Hutchins said. Sun Media Network is also developing a kiosk version of the MSGs—think a booth with a smart screen and a solar-panel roof—that will debut in first-quarter 2020. (As a side note, while the solar panels power the off-the-grid units, a connected generator will kick in if needed.)

As part of the partnership, ISM Connect and its partners are providing the hardware.

“Terrible Herbst didn’t have to make any capital investments around the program,” Hutchins said. “We are partnering with them in a lot of ways: They provide the real estate and very important feedback to us in the c-store market to understand what the value proposition is.” Terrible Herbst also gets a percentage of time on the smart screens for their own content—for example, advertising its car-wash offer or in-store promotions.

ISM Connect first connected with Troy Herbst, vice president of Terrible Herbst Oil Co., through both of their involvement in the racing world. Work on the partnership began about a year ago, Hutchins said.

“The tremendous value piece to him was about three things: one, the messaging and consumer engagement,” he said. “Two, the data and analytics piece: understanding your consumer, what they’re drawn to, how they move. It’s generating business intelligence based on actual data instead of guesswork. And third, starting to build an infrastructure and putting things in place for an EV charging network.” According to ChargePoint, Las Vegas is the top U.S. metro area for EV growth in terms of the number of EVs on the road.

Future Forms

While this current installation has an EV charging component, ISM Connect could also apply the smart-screen technology in a fuel island application, Erdmann said. Whether attached to an EV charger or a gas pump, the smart screens have considerable potential for steering customers into the store, according to ISM Connect.

“You’re talking about a location where a screen outside is addressing people passing by the location … and potentially driving them from the gas pumps in to the store, or providing engagement outside the store so as the person is moving from the parking lot to inside, you’re starting to manage their behavior,” Hutchins said. The DOOH platform could also have an on-shelf application.

“Now you’re talking about creating management of consumer behavior as they come in,” he said. “For the consumer, they’re getting shown value, discounts and special offers.”

As Sun Media Network ramps up, it is targeting sunny states that have an emphasis on renewable energy—Arizona, Texas, Florida and California, to name a few. It is looking to partner with c-store chains or distributor co-ops of 100 stores or more to establish a market footprint, and then will build around them with smaller, one-off collaborations. It hopes to place 500 of its solar-powered units by the end of 2019 and eventually expand into a more than 1,500-unit network.

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