Plug In or Power Down?

Retailers jockeying for position in evolving electric-vehicle charging race

OAK BROOK, Ill. -- The electric-vehicle (EV) charging landscape is beginning to take shape. Across the nation, the equipment is proliferating even though it is unclear whether plug-in cars will prove popular, said a Wall Street Journal report. And while convenience retailers such as Arco, BP, Kum & Go, Kwik Trip, Murphy USA, Quick Stop, Sheetz and Spinx are testing or ramping up EV charging networks--and drugstore chain Walgreens, which has its sights set on the EV charging crown--warehouse club Costco has reversed course on charging.

Fewer than 15,000 all-electric cars are on U.S. roads, said the Journal, citing Plug In America, a group promoting the technology. The Obama administration hopes one million such cars will be "zipping around" in 2015, reducing oil dependence, although others expect it will take longer to reach that level.

"We wanted to be the first mover," Menno Enters, Walgreen's director of energy and sustainability, told the newspaper as the chain's reason for the initiative. He said people are likely to shop while they recharge.

Michael Farkas, CEO of Car Charging Group, Miami, Fla., which has partnered with Walgreens, said the company aims to lock in prime locations before others: "The business that we're in today is a land grab," he told the paper.

Walgreens, which often engages in a little channel blurring by touting convenience, never seriously tried its hand at being a gasoline retailer; however, it is staking a serious claim as an EV destination. In July, it announced plans to offer EV charging stations at approximately 800 locations across the country by the end of the year, and is now beginning a rollout in Orlando, Fla.

Major markets to host the Walgreens charging sites include Boston, Denver, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C. Select locations in Florida, New Jersey, Oregon, Tennessee and Washington will also receive EV charging stations. Walgreens has installations under way across Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

It is working with Car Charging Group to offer charging sites at eight locations throughout the area by the end of October, featuring two level 2 chargers compatible with every EV produced in North America.

"These charging stations in neighborhoods and along major commuter routes will offer quick accessibility for EV drivers who may be worried about where to charge up next," said Walgreens market vice president Marlin Hutchens. "We're pleased to bring this clean and green energy alternative to Orlando. These charging stations will continue to set us apart as a retailer as more people choose greener lifestyles."

Farkas added, "Walgreens initiative to install EV charging stations across Orlando and the U.S. is a major step forward for EV drivers and the EV charging station industry as a whole."

In Orlando, Car Charging Group will install, manage and maintain the charging stations on Walgreens properties. It will provide flexible payment options; the ability to make reservations; and tracking of customer usage patterns, energy use, costs and revenues, all via the ChargePoint Network's cloud-based software service plans for managing EV charging operations. Car Charging Group's EV services installation will also provide Walgreens customers with access to ChargePoint Network's 24/7 driver support and mobile phone applications, which include station location and real-time availability, turn-by-turn navigation and charging status.

Deerfield, Ill.-based Walgreens operates 7,779 drugstores in all 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

Among the growing number of convenience and related-channel retailers offering EV charging services:

  • Kum & Go LC, West Des Moines, Iowa, was one of the first c-store retailers to install EV charging stations. It has two units in Iowa.
  • In 2010, The Spinx Co., Greenville, S.C., said it was installing five Thruso Power EV charging stations in South Carolina.
  • In 2010, Cracker Barrel Old Country Store family restaurant launched a new pilot project, installing Blink electric vehicle (EV) chargers, provided by ECOtality Inc., at select sites across Tennessee.
  • In March, La Crosse, Wis.-based Kwik Trip Inc. was reportedly installing as many of 70 free EV charging stations at locations in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa.
  • Beginning in March, BP and Arco stations in Arizona, California, Oregon, Washington
  • and Tennessee were installing DC Fast Charger charging stations from ECOtality as a pilot.
  • In July, a 7-Eleven store in San Bernardino, Calif., added a Re-charge-N-Go EV charging station.
  • In late September, El Dorado, Ark.-based Murphy USA unveiled its first EV charging station at a Murphy Express location in Chattanooga, Tenn. While this is only a pilot test, Murphy USA said that it plans to incorporate the Eaton Corp. units in other stations in the future.
  • In early October, Sheetz Inc., Altoona, Pa., announced the rollout of an EV charging station network at five sites in Pennsylvania through 350 Green.
  • In early October, Grand Rapids, Mich.-based grocer and convenience store retailer Spartan Stores Inc. opened its 26th fuel station, located in Wyoming, Mich. The Quick Stop c-store features the grocer's first EV charging stations, reported the Grand Rapids Press. The service will be free to customers while they shop. It will require a car to be plugged in for one to two hours for a partial charging and for six to eight hours for a full charge.

Meanwhile, Costco, an early leader in EV charging, recently reversing course, and in August began pulling its chargers out of the ground, reported the New York Times. By 2006, Costco had installed 90 chargers at 64 stores, mostly in California but also some in Arizona, New York and Georgia; now the retailer said that customers do not use them.

Dennis Hoover, the general manager for Costco in northern California, told the newspaper, "At our Folsom store, the manager said he hadn't seen anybody using the EV charging in a full year. At our store in Vacaville, where we had six chargers, one person plugged in once a week."

He added that EV charging was "very inefficient and not productive" for the retailer. "The bottom line is that there are a lot of other ways to be green," he said. "We have five million members in the region, and just a handful of people are using these devices."

Click here for more details and for previous CSP Daily News coverage of EV charging.