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Free EV Charging - Is it Time to Move On? An Etiquette Dilemma

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Everyone likes free stuff, right?

Is it a sustainable model for hosts to offer free charging? Do EV owners bear some responsibility to not overuse free charging? We have all seen (and used) free charging, but have you ever thought about what would motivate, or discourage hosts from offering this to EV owners?

Sustainability of Charging Infrastructure

To offer EV charging to the public, hosts typically need some financial motivation. If it amounts to all cost and no benefit, can the host continue to offer free charging? Sure, hosts can charge fees to activate and use a charger, but there can be motivations which justify offering charging for free. This article explores these free options, and asks the questions: Is it ok to use these? Is it ok to abuse these?

By abuse, I don't necessarily mean treating the equipment with malice or carelessness (which seems to happen) but rather relying on free chargers in order to avoid the cost of charging at home.

EV owners probably nearly universally agree that one of the greatest benefits of owning an EV is the convenience of charging at home. The cost is generally a fraction of the cost compared to gasoline in an ICE car, so this begs the question, what would motivate an EV owner to forgo home charging and rely on free public charging?

Obviously, free beats paying, even if it involves a little sacrifice of time or distance. There are several business models for hosts offering charging, lets examine a few.

Advertising supported charging. Volta sells advertising space and offers free charging as a way to put eyes on the ads. Some of these are DC Fast, others Level 2 AC chargers. Often they are found in grocery or mall parking lots where users tend to spend less than an hour at the location.

Most of these have time limits, and are probably best described as convenience charging locations. Due to the time limits, these are not viable as a replacement for home charging, nor long trips. As a supplement to home charging, and a boost to get you a few miles to your destination, they can be quite useful. Most of these will stop sessions after a specified time period, leaving an EV plugged in overnight isn't viable, and would deprive others the opportunity to use these.

Obviously, using these free chargers according to the time restrictions is the intent of the host. Note, Shel (reCharge) recently purchased Volta, so these may be a thing of the past soon.

Local and State Government supported charging. In many states, government entities are encouraged to support the state's goal to electrify the fleet. Grants provide seed money to offset the cost of equipment and installation, and energy is provided at no cost to EV owners as a way to encourage EV adoption. Our taxes cover the cost.

Most often, these are Level 2 chargers. These chargers may be viable to use as a supplement or replacement for home charging, but EV owners should be cautious about over relying on these. Security may be lacking for leaving your EV plugged in overnight, and the charging speed is probably too slow to sit and wait. Given a lack of financial incentives to the host, reliability of these chargers may not be a high priority. Obviously, using these free chargers is the intent of the host.

Business supported charging. Some businesses install chargers as an inducement to buy products or services from them. Examples include Hotels, grocery stores, shopping malls, restaurants, and specialty stores.

The business is willing to offer free charging as an inducement to get you in the door to buy something that will generate revenue and profits for the primary business. Their intent should probably not be assumed to allow you to use these regularly and justify it based on having once bought something from the business. Rather, these should probably be thought of as a place to charge only while you shop at that host's business, an opportunity charge if you will.

These chargers should probably be thought of as funded by your spending money at the host's business, if you are using more energy than the profits on your purchases, you may be abusing the businesses kindness. So what you say? If it is free, they must intend for it to be used? Let me share a story to show the flip side of what happens when EV owners abuse a businesses generosity.

A local bank installed 3 free Level 2 chargers. Their intent was to offer these as a convenience for bank customers to use when they came to the bank to conduct business. Shortly after these were installed, a large apartment complex was built nearby and several residents began plugging in overnight, every night and walking the short distance from the bank to their homes. After several months, the corporate offices began questioning the branch expenses and discovered the EV chargers were costing the bank many times more in utility costs than the bank itself used. The branch manager, preferring to keep her job, pulled the chargers out of the ground.

What would you expect the response from the EV community was? Obviously, disappointment, but would you believe outrage? Some comments went along the line of how dare this greedy business take away my free charging. I ask, who are the greedy ones in this story? Look, I get it. Apartment (and Condo) dwellers have real challenges when it comes to home charging. But maybe that debate is better focussed on appealing to the landlord or HOA to provide solutions?

Free DCFC Included with EV Vehicle Purchase

A growing inducement is to sell EVs with free fast charging included with the purchase. Tesla used this in the early days, offering free Supercharger use to buyers of early model Teslas. The offer was discontinued when Model 3, their first mass produced model came to market.

Recently, Volkswagen, Porsche, Ford, and others have been offering free, unlimited charging on Electrify America stations. Typically, these are for a fixed amount of time (3 years for example), and more recently the offer comes with strings like up to 30 minutes, no back to back free sessions, etc.

As EV adoption accelerates, the number of EV owners needing access to chargers is starting to create queues at some sites. In other words, charging is becoming an over utilized resource.

Was it the intent of EA and the OEMs to encourage using DCFC instead of home charging? Or was it to encourage road trips? Or maybe, it is the unintended consequence of generosity and greedy behavior. OEMs surely understand limited DCFC is likely to lead to longer battery life, and fewer warranty claims.

On several occasions while charging at Electrify America stations, I have had the opportunity to talk to the owners of these EVs. More often than not, they are locals, have the ability to charge at home, but choose to use the free charging benefit rather than pay for charging at home. Often, they show up on weekends, during the busiest travel times. And a growing number of times, lines form with travelers waiting for a chance to charge. This raises an etiquette dilemma. There is no doubt owners who purchased with an expectation of free charging are entitled to use the chargers this way, but is this in the best interests of the entire EV community?

Maybe going forward, OEMs and EA could tailor this benefit with respect for the charging needs of others in mind? For instance, no free charging within 100 miles of your home, not on weekends, Holidays, during utility peak periods, or during high demand periods at the site. Also 30 minute sessions, or simply lower cost charging instead of free might encourage folks to rely more on home charging and less on public chargers?

I don't mean this to say free charging should be eliminated, but maybe we in the EV community should think about the impact our actions have on others? As long as public charging remains scarce, maybe we should be self regulating and thinking of charging, be it free or not as more of a solution in times of need rather than an entitlement?
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