• Aug 14th 2009 at 9:57AM
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Without looking at the law in every jurisdiction, we can say with some certainty that It is illegal to sell electricity in the U.S. unless you're a utility company. Originally intended to keep shady landlords from overcharging tenants for power, this law creates a bit of a problem for companies, like Coulomb Technologies, that want to get into the electric vehicle charging station business. At the Plug-In 2009 conference in Long Beach this week, we spoke with Coulomb's Mike DiNucci, who told us how his company has figured out a way to offer customers electricity without breaking the law. It was tricky, but they found a solution is to sell charging sessions at the outlet, not the power itself.

When you use one of Coulomb's ChargePoints, you'll pay a set rate, say $2. You pay this if you're getting a 30-minute top-off while getting groceries or if you charge up for four hours during dinner and a movie. Since you're paying the same amount for vastly different amounts of energy, no one can accuse Coulomb of selling the energy. Instead, they're selling access to the energy. Clever, no? Read on past the jump to find out how DiNucci says this method will make money for Coulomb, and for private and public entities – like Sierra Nevada Brewing – that install ChargePoints.

The up-front investment to install a single ChargePoint is between $4,000 and $5,000. Money from the installations is one of Coulomb's two income streams. The other comes not from those $2 charging sessions – the people who provide the space for the stations get to keep that money to pay for the juice and make their installation cost back – but from the $100/year (roughly) subscription fee that Coulomb charges regular users. This fee will allow you access to the network, but won't pay for the electricity. That cost will still be charged each time you visit the ChargePoint, just like you pay each time you go to the gas station now.

If you're not a subscriber but have an EV you want to plug into a ChargePoint, you can call the toll-free number printed on each ChargePoint to either sign up as a subscriber on the spot or pay an access fee via credit card. The good news is that Coulomb will give everyone two free charging sessions, a little "try before you buy" access. When it comes time to pay the bills, let's be clear that not all sessions will be $2. Coulomb offers a variety of plans, including simple pre-paid cards, that should meet most EV drivers' needs, no matter how often they charging away from home.

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    • 1 Second Ago
      • 8 Months Ago
      This strategy might prove a mistake, IMHO. It wouldn't surprise me if eventually a competitor (say, Clipper Creek) were to sell or lease their charging stations to Costco, Wal-Mart, McDonalds, shopping malls, movie theaters, etc., who will then offer the charging for free --just to lure EV customers to their businesses. In fact, I believe that this is the case with the Clipper Creek Tesla stations now up-and-running in Davis, Dixon, Fairfield, Rocklin, San Luis Obispo, San Ramon, Vacaville, Vallejo, Woodland: they're free!

        • 8 Months Ago
        PaloAltoSF: You may be right, but I have my doubts --for several reasons.

        First, those businesses would probably not opt for the top-of-the-line 220V models, but mere "trickle" chargers at 110V.

        Second, let's say that they do opt for 220V, pumping 6 kW per hour into those vehicles. My electric bill for several years now shows an average of 8 cents per kW. For argument's sake, let's double that to 16 cents per kW. That would amount to... less than $1 per hour to tempt an EV customer into the store. That's NOT a huge loss, given the profit potential during that hour of shopping.

        Third, if, say, Costco were to offer the charging for free, yet Sam's Club did not... guess which store EV drivers would patronize?

        I guess time will tell, as the transition to EVs gains momentum.
        • 8 Months Ago
        Wal-Mart, Costoco, and other companies may offer free charging at first, but when 30-40 vehicles are recharging at the parking lot using 220V power, offering free charging is no longer practical.

        Many cities and companies that have already installed Smartlets have opted to offer free service.

      • 6 Years Ago
      I'd think they could make more sales if it weren't a flat $2. Maybe a $0.50 per hour session or something reasonable if you just stop in for a lunch break. I guess $2 assumes most people will get a full charge.
        • 8 Months Ago
        Except they can't charge by the hour, like the article said, because that smacks of selling electricity.

        A pre-paid card sounds like a good idea, I hope they will have options to buy access month to month as well.

        buying a year subscription may turn people off if they may only use it a few times a year. Kind of like when you take your kids to the zoo or science center and they talk you in to buying a family pass for the year because it's only a little more, and you think to yourself "Yeah, we need to do more stuff as a family, this will save us money!" But then you don't go again for 3 more years and realize what a waste that was.

      • 8 Months Ago
      Maybe I just don't get it, but this sounds like a horrible idea. Would you go to a gas station that charges you for a full tank of gas, regardless of how much you actually pump?
        • 8 Months Ago
        Doing a reacharound that makes no sense is one way to help push new laws. This is a government thing so waiting for the laws to change is not a viable business practice.
        • 8 Months Ago
        I'm leaning your way. If you need certain qualifications to sell electricity, get those qualifications. If the qualifications are ridiculous, get them changed. Don't do a reach-around that doesn't make all that much sense.
      • 6 Years Ago
      Say i pay to park in a spot with my non plug-in car. Can that cord reach to a spot behind/infront of me to charge someone elses car?
        • 8 Months Ago
        I'm sure once the cord disconnects from your vehicle the power stops coming. So whoever parks behind you will have to put in another $2
      • 8 Months Ago
      It isn't illegal to sell electricity, it is just illegal to sell electricity without getting approval from the Public Utilities Commission, as they regulate the rates and must approve the equipment and installations. But even if it was somehow "illegal", a much better way around that law is to make arrangements with the local utilities, have them selling the electricity using Coulombs equipment (after said equipment is certified, of course), then paying Coulomb for use of the equipment, either as a flat fee or as a percentage of the Kwh sold.

      That flat $2 per charge is a problem, as some would be getting a near full charge, and others just a minor "topoff". Getting 45 Kwh for $2 (like a Tesla driver might) would come to just 4.4 cents per Kw, a very good rate. But an 8 Kwh charge for $2 (typical Volt driver) would be a rather steep 24 cents per Kwh. Even worse would be a "topoff" of just 2 Kwh, that would be an exhorbitant $1.00 per Kwh! The $100 annual subscription fee is rather steep, especially considering how much is being charged for charging, it might be acceptable to a wealthy Tesla driver who puts in a lot of miles, but unacceptable for most ordinary drivers, including those driving the GM Volt.

      But the biggest failure for Coulomb is that $4K per outlet price tag, which is totally unrealistic for electrical equipment. At that price it doesn't make economic sense, especially in the early years with limited numbers of EV drivers as potential customers. It also makes it nearly impossible to put large numbers of their charge outlets in parking lots, which will be a big problem when EVs become more numerous.

      There are other companies like PBP that plan on installing public charging outlets. I'm betting that Coulomb will be driven out of business by competitors with better pricing and a much better metering scheme.
      • 6 Years Ago
      Yes, the idea is to push you to purchase the $100/year option. But, if you're in a bind and need to get juice $2 is really not that much. Way better than $50 for my Dodge Durango!
      • 6 Years Ago
      Brilliant me-thinks!
      • 8 Months Ago
      Couldn't they just charge a fee like a parking meter based on 15 min increments as a charger usage fee? That way if you are there for 3 hours, you pay for 3 hours (even if your battery is charged in 2 hours) but if you are only there 15 minutes you only pay for 15 minutes.
        • 8 Months Ago
        Flywheels would make ideal additions to charging stations, they could be buried in the ground and charge slowly from a lower voltage grid connection and still be able to provide the fast charging provision to the customer.
        • 8 Months Ago
        added benefit to your plan is that it would discourage people from just parking there and not charging (help free it up for people who need a charge)
        • 8 Months Ago
        I don't think there would be someone sitting there waiting to give you a ticket for parking there for too long.

        In thinking about this critically, the only real solution is for these stations to allow for very fast charging. That would require a huge electrical push from the grid. Surely a 220V plug won't be viable.
      • 8 Months Ago
      The moment i read this I thought of just use it like a parking meter, and charge to park slightly more then a regular parking meter. the people driving a gas car will avoid it for a cheeper meter, but sense they could still park there, your not charging for the electricity.
      • 6 Years Ago
      How else were they thinking of doing it??? That really would be the only way.
      Were they thinking they could put up a coal, nuclear, or natural gas power plant at each charge point... DUH!!!!
      Legally, I think they could use renewables but would still be a HUGE investment and just as HUGE amount of space to even POSSIBLY be able to create that much energy for each charger/point.
      Really, who was thinking there was another way to do it? Not exactly clever, much more of really the obvious way.
        • 8 Months Ago
        Uh, the other way would be to draw the electric from the grid (as they will still do) but charge the customer based on kWh used, not putting a power plant in each station...
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