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

By Susan Bloom

With more than 1 million EVs estimated to be on U.S. roads within the next five years and the possibility of more than 1.5 million charging locations put in place to service them, the market for electric vehicle supply equipment (EVSE)—forecasted to reach $4.3 billion in sales worldwide by 2017, according to Pike Research—is one that distributors are taking notice of.

Photo gallery: EVSE products currently on the market 

Here, Brian Bonner, IEC New England chapter president and vice president of Uncasville, Connecticut-based electrical contracting firm Bonner Electric, shares his perspective on the current EV market and offers tips to help electrical distributors tap into this growing and dynamic market.

Related story: Secure a space in the EVSE marketplace 

Q: Tell us about your firm and its experience with renewables like EVs.

Bonner: Bonner Electric was founded by my father in 1976, and I’ve been running it for the past eight to nine years. We serve customers in Connecticut and Rhode Island within about a 90-mile radius of our facility. We’ve recently worked on many solar projects and have actually been involved with alternative energy sources since the 1970s and 1980s, when we oversaw installations at a hydro-electric plant and worked on a cogeneration project involving gas from cow manure. Renewables have always been a niche area, but with the regular electrical contracting market becoming increasingly competitive since the downturn in 2008 and 2009 and the margin on public bid jobs declining, we decided to start pursuing renewable energy projects and serve private customers with high-end products. We’re unique among the electrical contractor community in that we have a lot of breadth in energy-efficient and alternative technologies and can bring all of these solutions together for our customers. Among other projects, we recently installed eight EV charging stations in the city of Norwich, Conn., through the DOE’s Clean Cities program. At our own headquarters, we have a commercial charging station activated by proximity RFID cards and we plan to install more stations in our parking lot.

Q: You personally own an EV—a Volt. Tell us about it and why you elected to buy it.

Bonner: I’ve owned a Volt since the spring of 2011, when I became one of the first consumers in Connecticut to get one. I love technology and I’m an electrician, so the car seemed like a good fit—plus having an electric vehicle seemed very attractive and supported the message we were sending in our business. Given that it’s going to be a large market, I wanted to be able to understand first-hand all of this market’s challenges—such as how and where to get power—so I could relate to our customers.

Q: In what ways is the EV market still developing?

Bonner: The EV market continues to develop in a lot of ways. For one thing, distributors currently in this market typically carry entry-level residential charging stations for home use, though the manufacturer we recently worked with for an EVSE project in Norwich, Conn., offered units with retractable cords—so there is a wide variety of residential and commercial products available with multiple options on how to activate them. The market will continue to develop here.

Another issue revolves around who pays for the electricity and how access to charging stations will be offered—at the point of sale, through a key card, etc. Not every owner of a private company wants public use of their stations.

A third issue involves the theoretic sale of electricity at these stations because there are regulations on selling or reselling electricity. These current rules and standards will need to be revisited as the industry grows.

Q: Is there confusion or overlap today regarding installation of EV charging systems?

Bonner: Yes, to some degree. When I bought my car, I was sent information on how to have a charger installed in the house. But with a market this new, the auto industry recognized that the distribution system might not be in place to get systems installed reliably, so they set up their own network of authorized installers, including such companies as SPX and Aerovironment. While global installer groups have been designated by each car manufacturer, some distributors are carrying residential systems and now the Level 2 charging stations have been standardized with J1772 connectors and are available through local distribution. At first, the manufacturers didn’t necessarily make this information readily available, but now they seem to be doing a better job of getting the information out to local distributors and educating electrical contractors on their products. The bottom line is that there are currently multiple means of distribution that still need to be ironed out.

Q: What tips can you offer electrical distributors that want to pursue the EVSE market?

Bonner: Though auto manufacturers often use their own installers, cities in particular are offering more and more opportunities for contractor and distributor involvement. Distributors need to take the time to educate themselves. Manufacturers have tremendous programs to help educate channel members—for instance, GE has a solar-powered carport installation for training purposes in Connecticut that’s proving to be a great and informative showcase. In addition to the hands-on opportunities they sponsor, some of the manufacturers of charging stations offer solid literature and online training; in particular, Square D/Schneider Electric has an excellent online training program for contractors wishing to install its products.

Q: Any final thoughts on the EVSE market for distributors?

Bonner: Educate yourself on this technology and keep your eye on it—there isn’t a tremendous number of cars out there yet (Volts just became available in 2011 and were only rolled out in six states), but this market will boom in the next five years as the economy turns around and the market grows. And the more distributors know about this market, the easier it will be for contractors and distributors to work together on EV projects for mutual benefit.

Susan Bloom is a 20-year veteran of the lighting and electrical products industry. Reach her at susan.bloom.chester@gmail.com.

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