Electric Cars Tough Sell in US Market

August 29, 2012 Updated: October 1, 2015
A Nissan Leaf electric car is plugged in
A Nissan Leaf electric vehicle (EV) is plugged into a charging station at the Seward Park Co-op apartments on Manhattan's Lower East Side, May 2011. Americans may still prefer hybrid cars to EV, but nonetheless there is a battle heating up between companies competing to install user fee-based EV charging stations in the United States. (STAN HONDA/AFP/Getty Images)

The most recent discussions about electrically charged and hybrid powered cars appear to suggest that consumers more often than not opt for the hybrid car, given the scarcity of electric vehicle (EV) charging stations.

There is disagreement among the various fuel efficiency experts concerning the number of EV charging stations in the United States. An article on the EVs Rock/EVs Roll website suggests that there were 6,300 EV stations by March.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) publishes that there are 4,364 public EV stations throughout America and provides a color-coded map of EV charging stations. According to the DOE, there are a total of 12,761 public and privately owned EV stations, with 3,038 in California and 1,061 in Texas. These numbers do not include residential EV charging stations.

The majority of electrically powered cars are driven in California and charged at the owner’s home. “California was the first state to have 10,000 hybrid cars, 10,000 light electric vehicles, and now 10,000 electric cars,” according to an August article on the Clean Fleet Report website.

The report predicts that there will be 50,000 electrically powered cars on California roads, serviced by 10,000 electric car charging stations within two years.

Californian’s are ahead of the rest of the nation, with employers providing electric charging stations for their employees.

New Jersey-based electric utility firm NRG Energy Inc. will install EV charging stations in California, valued at $100 million. In conjunction with the California Public Utilities Commission, NRG will develop an electric vehicle charging network throughout the state.

“This fee-based charging network will consist of at least 200 publicly available fast-charging stations—installed in the San Francisco Bay area, the San Joaquin Valley, the Los Angeles Basin and San Diego County—which can add 50 miles of range in about 20 minutes of charging. Retailers, restaurants, hospitals, multi-tenant buildings, and schools will be promising target locations,” according to the Clean Fleet Report article.

NRG has installed a large network of electric charging stations in Texas, with some at workplaces, retail stores, and apartment buildings. When NRG installs a charger at a home, the owner can chose among seven plans. Three-quarters of the customers choose a hybrid plan that allows them to take advantage of publicly located charging stations in addition to the home charging station.

“Google has installed 400 charge points for its electric car driving employees and Gfleet. The battle for charge station market leadership is gaining the intensity of the network competition between AT&T and Verizon, or between Google and Facebook,” according to Clean Fleet Report.

Leveling Charges Against NRG

ECOtality Inc., a leading clean electric transportation technology firm, filed at California’s First District Court of Appeal in May to block an agreement between the California Public Utilities Commission and NRG Energy Inc.

“The present lawsuit is all about who will dominate the electric vehicle infrastructure marketplace in California in 2012 and beyond,” according to an article on the Climate Lawyers blog.

ECOtality stated in its court filings (link published on the Climate Lawyers blog) that the agreement “has adverse impacts on current negotiations and infrastructure deployment activities by other electric vehicle charging operators in California that will discourage near-term and long-term competitiveness and negatively impact opportunity for a level playing field among electric vehicle charging networks operating in California.”

ECOtality charged that the negotiations went on behind closed doors without taking into consideration competition. NRG would be given the green light to install 200 rapid-charging stations, resulting in a cost to each user, profiting the company.

“By giving NRG an 18 month head start, subsidized by ratepayers, the Agreement permits NRG to ‘cherry pick’ 1,200 of the most favorable California real estate locations for EVCS [electric vehicle charging stations] in a manner that will not only saturate the market, but permanently disadvantage its competitors, including Petitioner [ECOtality Inc.], by relegating them to much less valuable secondary locations,” according to the court filings.

Electric Vehicle Sales Slower Than Hoped For

“2011 [electric vehicle] sales reached about 60,000 units. In 2012, EV sales have reacted to increasing gas prices. March 2012 witnesses a record 52,000 HEV [hybrid electric vehicle] and BEV [battery electric vehicle] sales in the good old USA. That was 3.64% of total light auto sales, another record,” according to an article on the EVsRock/EVsRoll website.

Pike Research, a Navigant Consulting Inc. market research and consulting firm, contests the Obama administration’s claim that at least 1 million EVs will be driven on American roads by 2015. The firm’s research into the EV market suggests that about 410,000 EVs will be sold by 2015, and it will take until 2018 before there are 1 million EVs on the road.

“While the PEV [plug-in electric vehicle] market will develop slower than many in the industry hope, it will nevertheless reach annual sales of 594,130 by 2015 and 1,748,268 by 2020,” according to a second quarter Pike Research report.

According to a May article on the autoblog website, PEV sales were on a downward slide. Nissan Motor Co. Ltd. sold 370 EVs during April, a 35.4 percent decrease from April 2011. General Motors Co. sold 1,462 Chevrolet Volts, almost 200 percent more than in April 2011, but when compared to March, it sold 1,000 less EVs.

The Electric Drive Transportation Association reports on its website that between January and July, 15,700 PEVs were sold, with 3,200 sold in March and 3,116 in April. This is a very small number of cars sold in the United States during the first half of the year when compared to 249,311 hybrids sold during the same period.

The Hybrid Cars website states that 3,016 PEVs were sold during July, a 16.1 percent decrease over June.

“The Volt continues to dominate the plug in segment and has consistently sold over 1,500 units monthly since March. The Leaf continues to struggle, with Nissan citing distribution issues,” according to the Hybrid Cars website.

OECD Gets Into the PEV Dialogue

“If there is one word that characterizes current electric car markets, it is ‘uncertainty’. Overcoming this uncertainty is the rationale for government intervention,” according to an International Transport Forum policy brief published in June by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD).

There are those who claim that any government intervention carries a cost that changes to potential future savings, while others complain that government interference with PEVs possibly would result in neglecting better alternatives that are much more cost effective.

According to the OECD brief, at this time, buying a PEV would cost a private owner between 4,000 euros (US$5,003.84) and 5,000 euros (US$6,254.80) more over the lifetime of the vehicle than a car powered by conventional fuels. Also, society’s cost would range between 7,000 euros (US$8,756.72) and 12,000 euros (US$15,011.50) more when compared to the cost of a regular fuel powered car.

The cost of owning and operating a PEV “depends on the user and on the viewpoint taken—a typical consumer counting out of pocket expenses or society at large looking at costs of electric over fossil-fuelled mobility. It also depends crucially on how far the car is driven and how much the battery costs to produce,” according to the OECD brief.

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