Sometime this month, the Ontario government is going to reveal the winning bidders for $20 million in provincial funding to build charging stations for electric vehicles. But before the winners are even announced, critics are warning the province could be preparing to repeat costly mistakes made elsewhere.
“If you don’t do this right, very expensive pieces of hardware become junk,” says Kevin McIntyre, business development manager at Greenlots. Greenlots is one of the companies bidding for provincial funding, and operates charging networks in North America, Malaysia and Singapore.
McIntyre’s concern is that the province hasn’t spelled out in black and white that companies operating the new charging infrastructure have to use a particular open network standard for their data transmission and collection. Greenlots does: the open charge point protocol, or OCPP.
He warns that if the government doesn’t specify OCPP as the data standard, if an operator goes out of business the province could be left with useless charging stations. The question isn’t the physical connection between car and charger — that’s standardized among car manufacturers — but the computer network behind the chargers.
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“It’s like in the bad old days of cell phones, where if you wanted to change from Bell to Rogers you basically had to throw out the phone,” says McIntyre. “As a company, we’ve supported open standards from our inception.”
The question of how the province handles charging infrastructure matters because 2016 is shaping up to be a banner year for electric cars. Tesla’s most affordable car yet, the Model 3, has pre-sold 300,000 units. General Motors has also announced it will have the Chevy Bolt on the market this year, at a similar price point to the Model 3. Tesla’s offering is about US $35,000, while the Bolt is projected to come in at US $37,500. Government subsidies will bring that sticker price down: in Ontario, the similarly-priced Chevy Spark EV gets between $9,000 and $11,000 in rebates from the province, depending on the model.
While both cars will have a range of over 300 kilometres when fully charged — easing the range anxiety that has partly kept consumers away from electric cars — a more robust network of charging stations will allow electric car owners to plan even longer trips. That will help accelerate their adoption, which in turn could bring down air pollution from car use, as Ontario’s nuclear and hydroelectric-heavy electric grid produces few harmful emissions.
This will happen only if the charging stations stay in use. In 2013, California-based ECOtality went bankrupt after taking more than $100 million in public funding, leaving charging stations inoperable for months, and in some cases years. McIntyre says part of the problem in ECOtality’s case was the lack of open standards in the data network.
Ontario’s own history with electric car companies is decidedly mixed: the government gave Better Place, an Israel-based company, $1 million in 2011 to help develop a network of stations. The company went bankrupt in spectacular fashion in 2013.
At least some of McIntyre’s competitors aren’t as concerned. Scott Miller, vice president of North American sales for ChargePoint, said he was “surprised” to hear concerns about the adoption of OCPP.
“If the government had spelled out OCPP in its documents or not, it wouldn’t change our bid at all,” Miller says. ChargePoint, working with Vaughan-based Autochargers, has proposed a network of nearly 300 locations across the province, which Miller says will be compatible with the OCPP standard.
The Ministry of Transportation says Ontario’s bases are covered, despite the fact that the OCPP standard isn’t part of the requirements for the $20 million program.
“MTO will be working with all successful Electric Vehicle Chargers Ontario Program applicants through contractual agreements to ensure our expectations regarding open data collection, data reporting, communication and networking are met,” ministry staff said in an emailed statement. “Through contractual agreements, the province will be ensuring that, in the event the station or network operator was no longer available, another party could easily take over operations of the station or network.”
One outstanding problem is the province’s ONroute stations along its 400-series highways. Rebuilt with a public-private partnership in the last decade at a cost of $300 million in taxpayer funds, the ONroute stations already have conduits in place to accommodate charging infrastructure. However, the government can’t necessarily control which firms the private operator of the ONroute stations, a company called Host Kilmer Service Centres, will choose to supply electric car infrastructure.
HMSHost, one of the firms that makes up Host Kilmer, declined to answer TVO.org’s questions for this article.
The government insists that the ONroute stations will be served through the $20 million program to be announced soon, saying “the same expectations will apply” to charging stations inside and outside the ONroute system.