How to set up a public electric vehicle charging station

TS Designs charging station photo
© TS Designs

Years ago, I interviewed my friend Eric Henry of TS Designs about how his t-shirt printing business in Burlington, NC, fought its way back after NAFTA by going all in on sustainability. From reviving the North Carolina cotton industry with 100% local t-shirts ("dirt to shirt" in less than 700 miles!) to incorporating solar panels, bee hives, and a public biodiesel filling station—Eric and his crew have done more than most of us to push sustainability into the mainstream.

A few weeks ago he contacted me about the next leg of his journey: Eric has graduated out of his VW (bio)diesel car and is now doing his not inconsiderable running around in a 100% electric Chevy Bolt. Not only that, but in keeping with the ethos of the biodiesel filling station, Eric has also installed a charging station at the factory and is making it publicly available 100% free of charge.

I figured I should pay him a visit to learn more about what it takes to offer electric vehicle charging to the public. So I hopped in my Leaf and headed on over to ask a few questions. (I also got to take a spin in his shiny new Bolt, which was a really enjoyable experience: Long range, affordable electric cars really are beginning to arrive.)

So here's what I learned...

The simplest public charging is surprisingly... simple
The first thing I learned when talking to Eric is that it really doesn't have to be hard. In much the same way as you can plug your laptop in at your local coffee shop, if you're not charging to charge, then you can keep things pretty dumb. He bought a Chargepoint Level 2 charging station—the kind you'd have at home—for somewhere around $600, paid an electrician a few hundred to install it, and he was ready to offer people a place to charge up.

Use it as an opportunity to connect
That said, hanging around in the loading dock of a t-shirt factory to charge up for an hour or two is not exactly anyone's idea of a good time. So Eric and his team have been working to make their break room a pleasant space to hang out—offering restrooms, wifi, complementary coffee and a chance to browse their wide selection of overrun t-shirts at ridiculously low prices. In much the same way as the biodiesel filling station brought sustainability-minded travelers to his door, Eric says he is looking forward to the sense of community and meeting new people that comes with inviting likeminded strangers to hang out. Already, a group of electric vehicle enthusiasts have been talking to Eric about adding more charging stations. Heck, Eric even suggested you could use their grill if you invite him to join you for lunch!

Decide your terms, and post them publicly
Of course, inviting people to hang out in your place of business is not without its challenges. But Eric says it's all about creating a space, and setting things up on terms that work for you. At TS Designs, for example, the charging station is set up inside the building, so it will only be available during business hours. Posting such terms publicly on sites like Plugshare—as TS Designs has done—avoids the disappointment of people showing up and not being able to charge. Eric is also working to install visible signage on the roads outside the factory, making sure that the offer is visible to the surrounding community.

The electricity will cost you a lot less than you think
Often, when I talk to business owners about public charging, they're super nervous about a big jump in their energy bills. But at the end of my hour+ of charging as we talked electric mobility, Eric was pleased to show me that I'd added about $0.60 to his overall bill. Assuming that many businesses are offering charging as a perk to bring customers in the door, I'd say that's a pretty negligible cost of getting business. Even at locations like TS Designs, which is less about retail and more about community, it's a tiny fraction of their overall bill. (The fact that Eric comped me a bunch of t-shirts may have hurt the bank a little more...)

Every situation is different
Eric's example is an important reminder that providing electric vehicle charging infrastructure isn't about reinventing the wheel. Most of us are already on the grid, so adding what's essentially a fancy plug in the wall and a higher power circuit isn't a major challenge. It's worth noting, however, that every location is different. If you're trenching across a parking lot, for example, your installation costs may be in the thousands, not the hundreds. And if you're wanting to charge for your electricity or offer fancier, networked charging stations accessed by a card, the hardware will cost you thousands too.

Chargepoint, for example, offers cutting edge "networked" charging stations to retail and business locations, and EV Solutions offers lower cost charging stations that can still be controlled via smart phone access—making it easier to charge for charging, or to restrict access to customers or employees only. So take the time to figure out what you can, and are comfortable with, offering—and what, if anything, you'd like to get in return—and then make some choices about what set up and location is likely to work best for you.

And that's about it. Much like private citizens who lend out their charging stations to other drivers in need, the process of providing public charging can be pretty darned simple. I suspect a growing number of businesses will start offering public charging—either as a perk for employees and customers, or as a more general good will gesture for the community. I'm hoping to tell more stories of businesses making this work in the months to come—so please post examples or personal experiences in the comments below!

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