Distributors

Secure a space in the EVSE marketplace

By John Paul Quinn

In electrical distribution terms, the electric vehicle supply equipment (EVSE) market is somewhat like the lamp market. Think of it this way: Combustion engine gas guzzlers are like incandescent bulbs, hybrid cars are like halogens and CFLs, and pure electric vehicles (EVs) are like LEDs.

In other words, the automotive industry is going through a challenging transitional period, made more difficult by the fact that, like the lamp industry, it is trying to convince people to stop doing something the way they’ve been doing it for a century. And while it might be for all of the right energy-saving and ecological reasons, in the final analysis, people just aren’t lining up to buy.

Photo gallery: EVSE products currently on the market 

The fact is, the rate of change in consumer attitudes in the auto field has been stuck in the slow lane, with the average car buyer being whipsawed between two intimidating catch-phrase threats: sticker shock and range anxiety.

Both hybrids and pure EV models are pricey items, and drivers are additionally concerned about the possibility of running out of power on the road en route to a destination.

Add to that the state of the economy and constraints on discretionary spending, and it’s no surprise that EV sales have not lived up to expectations. Hybrid cars represent only 2% to 3% of the automobiles on the road today, and pure EVs account for only a minuscule amount—less than 1%.

Related story: VP of Bonner Electric gives tips to help distributors get into EV market 

However, this may be changing. The Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) reports that over the past few months sales of hybrids and pure EVs have

been roughly at parity. This is important because the consumer’s choice of pure EVs over hybrids will drive the need for expanding the EVSE public infrastructure.

“As operating costs for all EVs come down, coupled with high gas prices, greater public acceptance is expected,” said Steve Rosenstock, manager of energy solutions at the Edison Electric Institute (EEI). “Also, as model prices decline, there will be greater interest in EVs, analogous to the development of the VCR and DVD markets. Home charging is an attractive and familiar feature, since people are already used to recharging appliances overnight, like cordless phones, iPods, and e-books.”

A wider choice of models is also anticipated.

“Currently, the Nissan Leaf and the Chevrolet Volt are the two main vehicles for sale,” said Patrick Davis, the DOE’s vehicle technology program manager. “But in the next 24 months, we are going to see probably 20 additional models hit the market, so we see the market growing quickly.”

Also beneficial to sales: Car buyers can now even kick the tires of an act-

ual EV.

“It’s only in the past few months that a buyer could go to a dealership and find an EV available for a test drive,” said John Halliwell, senior project manager at EPRI. “Earlier, people might have driven models at a promotional event or ordered a vehicle sight unseen. Now the EVs are in dealers’ lots.”

The Distributor’s Role

So where does the electrical distributor fit into the EV market? The distributor’s role appears to be mainly in providing charging stations to the marketplace, but there are a few factors involved here that should be understood.

First, the number of charging stations that can be sold obviously depends on the number of EVs being bought.

Also, virtually all EVs sold come equipped with a Level 1 charger, which is essentially a glorified extension cord that plugs into a standard 120V receptacle. The limitation of this equipment is that it takes 10 hours to charge a car and will charge up to only 1,200W to 1,400W; the new models being rolled out over the next two years will have power levels for inboard charging of 6.6kW.

For these EVs, Level 2 charging stations will be required, which involves a hard-wired 240V installation with a box that provides ground fault protection and ensures that the cable does not energize until it is plugged into the vehicle and proper signaling has occurred. These will be the most widely used charging stations, whether in the driver’s garage or in a public space, and this is where electrical distributors and electrical contractors will have an opportunity—but how sizable?

“On the infrastructure side, we don’t know how many public charging stations it will take to make a consumer comfortable,” said Halliwell. “This plays into the range anxiety issue. Some say the ratio of public charging stations to EVs sold should be one to one; others say that there should be two or three per vehicle.”

The DOE has an ongoing transportation electrification program that includes the EV Project, a study that collects and analyzes data regarding the installation of charging stations in a number of states nationwide.

“We’ve installed about 9,400 chargers to date,” said Davis, “and the vast majority of those were Level 2. The main reason we’re doing this demonstration is to learn where people charge and how often they charge. This information will be valuable later on—when more infrastructure is needed and there’s no federal support for it—as businesses use this data to help guide the infrastructure for further rollout.” The geographic spread of these installations relates to a number of factors—including prevailing utility rates, tax incentives for EV buyers, and the number of EVs being operated in a particular area (see map on page 70).

The bottom line: The need for a Level 2 charger in every EV owner’s garage is virtually a given; therefore, the variable will be how many public stations will need to be installed.

Manufacturer Relations

One piece of good news for distributors is that Level 2 charging stations are currently being made by some 40 manufacturers, and a number of them are companies with whom electrical distributors have been doing business for decades—including Coleman Cable, Cooper Wiring Devices, Eaton, GE, Hubbell, Legrand/Pass & Seymour, Leviton, Panasonic, Schneider, Siemens, Southwire, and Toshiba. Distributors can simply contact these traditional suppliers for detailed information on how to become involved in the EVSE market.

NEMA can be another source of help. The association has developed a set of recommendations for EV readiness in three areas: residential, commercial, and the community.

“Homeowners and builders should take steps on new or retrofit projects

to prepare for installation of conduit or wire from the electric supply to the charging location in accordance with applicable building and electrical codes,” said Joseph Higbee, NEMA communications director. “Commercial owners should be prepared for immediate installment of EVSE and, for example, parking facility management should anticipate that 10% of parking spaces will require charging stations. Local governments should consider the location and number of public EV stations, draft appropriate ordinances for EV parking, and institute an efficient permitting process for EV owners.”

The association has a special link on its website devoted to communicating the latest EVSE system developments to industry members; find it at nema.org/

prod/be/evse.

Rate of Growth

While there are indications that the EV market is growing at a faster pace than it had been, distributors should understand that this current rate of growth is not going to result in exponential expansion overnight, and there are still significant uncertainties.

“It’s only really in the past year that we’ve had enough vehicles and chargers operating to develop a statistically valid database,” said Davis. ”The assumptions right now are first, the most important thing is home charging; second, workplace charging is going to be quite important; and third, there will be public charging at commercial establishments. It is true that there’s going to be far more Level 2 chargers used, because if you own an EV or a plug-in hybrid, you would want a charger at home, and that is probably going to be a Level 2 charger.”

Many observers stress that the relative newness of the EV industry and lack of understanding of its dynamics and needs are a potential danger for traditional supply chain members.

“The EV market is still in its infancy, so supply and demand can often be inconsistent,” said Chris Rogers, CEO and president of Rogers Electric, a systems integrator specializing in lighting services, energy management systems, and EV charging stations. “While most of our partners are prepared to meet demand, inventory management for items like Level 2 chargers can be tricky. Establishing efficient methods to connect distributors and their customers will help this emerging market continue to grow.”

And there are also problems involving where the charging stations are installed.

“For single-family residences, it’s a straightforward situation: EV owners either use the Level 1 cord set provided with the vehicle or have the Level 2 EVSE 240V equipment installed,” said Halliwell. “But complications set in for those living in a multifamily dwelling. This raises issues of who owns the equipment. Does a condo owner own the equipment or does the owner provide it? This gets into an ownership etiquette issue: Is this really public charging or is it a private situation that involves multiple users?”

Distributors considering entering the EVSE marketplace are advised to proceed with caution and identify their target customer base carefully.

“In terms of volume, home chargers have the most potential,” said Tim Hubbard, vice president of automotive and EV business at Intertek, an EV testing provider.

“Since there are a lot more homes than planned public charging stations, distributors should focus on working with the residential contractor and project developers to secure as much of the home installation of Level 2 charging stations as possible,” he said.

In the final analysis, how much business electrical distributors—or anyone else—does in the EVSE market will depend on the degree to which the public accepts the EV, a question of changing an established mindset.

“People have to begin to understand that EVs are something quite different from gas vehicles,” said Halliwell. “For 100 years we’ve been used to refueling virtually at will while driving to a location near or far. The EV requires the driver to think in an entirely different way about how the car is going to be used.”

John Paul Quinn reports on a broad range of business topics for journals in the United States and Europe. He can be reached at 203-323-9850 or mirabel@snet.net.

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