As the gas pump fades, a new infrastructure emerges for electric vehicles

Car Charging Group president Andy Kinard is trying to build America's electric vehicle infrastructure. He says he wants to put all the gas stations in the U.S. out of business -- "every stinkin' one of them."
Written by Andrew Nusca, Contributor

If many people are to be believed, electricity is the fuel of the future.

No longer will energy conversion occur on-board the vehicle. We'll leave that for utility companies to handle, and instead accept pure, unadulterated electricity.

But how and where will we get it? Andy Kinard is working to answer that question. The president of theCar Charging Group, his task is to make a business of building America's next-generation infrastructure.

To be sure, it's a daunting task on par with the creation of the Interstate Highway System in the 1950s. Or the continental U.S. power transmission grid. In fact, it's a combination of the two -- bringing the power grid out to where the highways roam.

Here's how it works: Coulomb-made charging stations that are about the size of a parking spot are installed in prominent places: grocery stores, malls and other places of interest. A typical charge costs less than $10. Kinard's company installs and maintains the stations -- they're free of cost to the property owner -- and profits are shared.

I spoke with Kinard from his office in Miami, Fla. about the business model behind electric vehicle charging stations and how he plans to convince drivers to ditch the pump and head to a movie instead.

SmartPlanet: How did the Car Charging Group get started?

AK: Sometime last year, a bunch of guys got together and decided that the EV industry was finally going to take a foothold. We tried eight years ago and it didn't work. One of the reasons is that every electric car had a different 220-volt charger.

This time around, this administration is very interested in making electric cars work.

Every major economic downfall in the last 20 years has been caused by the price of gasoline. There are a bunch of different reasons to make this a priority. [President] Obama wants a million plug-in vehicles on the road by 2015.

First, they were going to look at plug-in car chargers -- but [electronics] manufacturers were going to make them. [On top of that] there's the big OEMs that make batteries. Then the OEMs that make vehicles. You can't compete with that. But there seemed to be a disconnect: the thing that connects them.

We decided we were going to buy these chargers in bulk, get a good rate, and sign up people as hosts. We retain ownership, we install them for nothing, and share some revenue with the customer. The whole reason why a restaurant or mall or movie theater would want one of these chargers is because it's going to bring customers to them.

These units show up on the Internet -- they show up on Google Maps. There's a Coulomb [mobile] app that you can download, or you can visit MyChargePoint.net. A public charger is something that anyone with a smartphone can find.

SmartPlanet: What's the appeal of the mall or movie theater? Most people are conditioned to making a pitstop to fuel up.

AK: You've got a captive customer for a couple of hours. We're kind of like a gas station, but we're concentrating on parking garages in redevelopment areas.

People ask me why I wouldn't put these in a gas station. Well, I wouldn't want to spend two hours there!

For 15 years I was an engineer with FP&L [Florida Power & Light, a utility company].

Up until recently, there was that chicken-or-the-egg argument: the infrastructure, or the cars? Early in our inception, we met with Mark Perry, the Nissan Leaf guy. [Perry is Nissan's director of product planning and strategy. -Ed.] He told us, "The cars are coming in November, so you'd better get to work." The big game-changers are Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt. As these cars start to show up, other manufacturers are going to start to show up.

SmartPlanet: Now that you're in business, are you seeing interest in this new sector yet?

AK: I've been saying for weeks that we need to stop hiring sales people. People are beginning to call me directly.

When the customer calls you, it's much easier -- right away, you're talking to the right person. Since the [BP-Transocean] Gulf [of Mexico] oil spill happened, our business has picked up. They started calling me back. It looks good for them. They can put pictures on the Internet. These units keep track of their carbon offsets.

SmartPlanet: Where do you start building an infrastructure like this?

Obviously we started in Florida; that's where we are. We don't need to cross the country to make mistakes. Getting these [chargers] in the ground is the hard part -- running the conduit to it, getting the permits. We started with parking garages, which have a lot of commercial accounts.

One example of a bad customer? A doctor with a LEED-certified building. I just can't see someone pulling off the highway and stopping at a random doctor's office.

You can talk to a grocery store, or you can talk to Home Depot, but they don't own the property. You have to talk to the property managers.

I would rather give someone a lot of things to choose from. Down here, people might not need to charge at a movie theater. They're all over here.

SmartPlanet: Do you see any opportunity in one of Florida's many theme parks?

AK: In Orlando, it would work if people rented electric cars. That's how the [Toyota] Prius got established -- people would rent them when they were in a new town.

Orlando is on one of the lists to get grant money for charging infrastructure.

SmartPlanet: Speaking of grant money, how much is that fueling your business?

AK: Not much right now, because the grant money hasn't showed up yet. But it's definitely going to help.

SmartPlanet: We talk a lot about smart cities on SmartPlanet. Do you see opportunity there, or is it too dense?

AK: There is the ChargePoint America program, which has nine cities and 300 public chargers.

Giving money to some cities and not others, that's the smart way to do it. Nissan can't roll out the Leaf all over the country. They'll need to do it selectively. You can't just spread [chargers] out all over the city, that won't help. Pick an area and conquer it.

SmartPlanet: What area do you want to conquer?

AK: There are going to be between five and 15 cities that we are going to pick. Maybe more. We're looking at nationwide and worldwide.

SmartPlanet: How do you plan to manage scale?

AK: There's not that much competition yet. We're six to eight months ahead.

You work with people who are already there. And gasoline is so expensive. Europe may be an even better market than here. But Europe will be difficult. There's a different standard, a different voltage -- it's 208-volt there. It's different everywhere.

SmartPlanet: OK, so it's still early. What challenges do you face now?

AK: Today, a worldwide company wanted us to start off with 100 of their buildings. And he called me today and said [instead] 800 different locations, by the end of the year. How am I going to do that? I'm going to get some frequent flyer miles, I guess.

By the way, that large customer who wanted 800 locations -- I asked him where he got my name from. He said General Motors. I don't know anyone there. That's an informal way of helping us.

What we do is, we go into one location and install one unit. We'll put a big sign above it, but just one unit. And we'll see how it's used. And then it's very easy to put a second or third in. The hard part's putting in the first one.

Our contract is exclusive. I've heard it referred to as a land-grab.

We know how we're going to grow. We've already got the cities picked out, when, which and in what order. The guys I'm working with are very good at raising capital.

Cities are kind of a different animal. Even though I'm giving this, it won't cost them anything, they still have to bid for this. I've got about nine different cities working on an RFP to bid for this, and we should win it because no one else is doing this. Once the first city gets their RFP out, it will be piggy-backable.

But again, I've got exclusivity in that city now. But I'll put three or four in, not a bunch. Just seeds. And I'll see how they do.

People see it and they're more apt to buy these cars at the end of the year.

I'll talk to any city that will talk to me. I'm not looking for a city out in the middle of nowhere. I'm looking for one that's got the potential to grow.

We're inventing this business. That's also what keeps me up at night, in a good way. I would love to put all the gas stations out of business -- every stinkin' one of them.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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