By Martin Leggett
When it comes to bringing on a clean energy transformation for the US, the ‘poultry problem’ is one that has reared its awkward head for many a green technology. But it may be that the chicken-or-egg issue that has bedeviled the twin-track deployment of electric vehicles (EV’s), and the chargers needed to fuel them, will soon be fading into the background.

That’s because, in the eyes of many industry observers, an inflection point – where the nascent electric car market develops a self-sustaining momentum – is upon us. If they’re right, it means commercial property owners need to sit up and take note. An electric fueling infrastructure rewrites all the rules of our auto-dependent society  – putting commercial premises and businesses on the front-line for a slew of new opportunities. EV chargers in the front lot can be a brand-builder, customer magnet and revenue generator, all rolled into one.
Laying the foundation for the ‘Third Industrial Revolution’
What has helped to propel the EV, and the EVSE (electric vehicle supply equipment) markets forward has been the supporting hand of federal and state investment. Tax credits for EV’s and EVSE’s, and the pump-priming of ARRA-funded state partnerships in several targeted US cities – such as EV Project and Chargepoint America – have helped lay the charging foundation needed for EV’s to flourish.
Jill Sorensen, Executive Director of Baltimore Electric Vehicle Initiative (BEVI), is one EV protagonist who sees federal investment as bearing fruit. “This has been a critical catalyst. More is needed, but we are on the verge of transitioning to private market opportunities to unleash what scholars are calling our Third Industrial Revolution in clean energy.”

The numbers bear her analysis out. In the last two years the count of installed chargers has leaped forward – in April 2011 there were a mere 750 EV chargers nationally; as of May 2012there were 10,660. Forecasts from PikeResearch suggest that such exponential growth will continue: its latest report pencils in bold 1.5 million EVSE installations staked out across the US, by 2017.

Electric avenue – a one way street?

The backdrop to these positive projections is a grasping of the fundamental direction of travel that the personal transport sector is in. Whatever the ups-and-downs of monthly EV sales (and there have been bumps on the road over the last 12 months), electric cars have caught the wave of the future. As a clean, affordable, and more socially acceptable form of transport, the buzz is all on the electric, not the gasoline, side of the fence.

Those cities that have benefited from government investment, to lay down EV charging infrastructure, can be compared to the leading lights in the movement to make public smoking unacceptable. “Gas is like cigarettes, the less we smoke the healthier we all will be. Even non-drivers are inhaling second-hand smoke from others’ vehicle emissions,” commented Jill Sorensen.

Commercial property owners keen to catch the wave

Baltimore can be seen as one of the clean sweet-spots from which EVSE infrastructure is likely to spread. Here, thanks to ARRA (American Reinvestment and Recovery Act)funds that have channelled grants through Maryland’s Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Program (EVIP), the greater Baltimore area has over 80 EV chargers installed – the majority of them for public use. But private premise owners are starting to see the logic in installing chargers themselves.

About 80-90% of the charging station installations to date in Maryland have been public. But certain commercial properties like the Bozzutto Group, Tower Companies, MOMs Organic Markets, The National’s Stadium and Walgreens have been more progressive, and taken the initiative to install their own EVSEs,” Sorensen said. But what is driving commercial property owners to make their own slice of investment in the clean energy revolution?

The one dominant factor is the bottom line, of course. And EV chargers can deliver that in a number of ways. First and foremost, in these early days of the EV transition, charging stations are a fantastic statement of intent. With the strong association between EV’s and environmental benefits, those premises sporting an EV charger are likely to gain eco-kudos – even among those who aren’t yet EV drivers. Installing a charger helps to raise a brand’s profile amongst an eco-conscious consumers.

A bold statement of intent

Brand-strengthening isn’t just a consideration for retailers, though. Those letting out residential and office property which has been fully furnished with EVSE are likely to see a marketing boon for their property – and even a rental premium. Corporate tenants are likely to see the advantage they will accrue to their own image, and ability to recruit staff, by operating from premises sporting cutting-edge clean energy technology.

The second big positive for commercial property owners who are EV-ready is the potential for extra draw for EV custom. Although the number of EV’s on the road right now is still small, the charging patterns of EV users, and the relative scarcity of chargers in most locations, makes ‘EV custom’ punch above its weight. And this is a market potentially on the cusp of exponential growth. Early adopters of EVSE would be well-positioned to catch that wave, when it rolls in.

‘Green is good’ for commercial owners

Finally there is the lure of direct revenue to be tapped from EV charging itself. This part of the EVSE benefits package is, however, less certain. In many states it remains illegal to resell electricity, a hangover from the days when unscrupulous landlords took advantage of their tenants. But legislators are recognizing the need to give property owners scope to recoup costs from installed charging equipment.

Colorado recently joined a handful of states that are letting businesses charge their EV customers for topping up their batteries, for a license fee. But even where that is not an option, many premise-owners are experimenting with other ways to generate monies – by placing a premium charge for using EV-ready parking lots, or asking for a monthly subscription for access to their installed EVSE.

So, as Jill Sorensen points out, the ramping up of the EVSE network is going to rely increasingly on commercial premise owners – and they will be taking the plunge for hard-headed, as well as green-tinged reasons:

“Green is good for commercial property owners when environmental benefits also translate to economic benefits.

Martin is a freelance writer from the UK, who specializes in writing on the strategic impact of environmental issues. After a 10-year sojourn as an analyst at Brady plc –  a Cambridge-based provider of services to commodity investment banking professionals – Martin set himself up as self-employed writer at the beginning of 2010. Since then he has written for a number of environmental websites and companies, and has been one of the principle journalists for green news website, The Earth Times.