If electric vehicles are ever going to grab more than a sliver of the U.S. auto market, there needs to be a robust infrastructure of EV charging stations. At least that is the common wisdom. But public charging stations also act as infrastructural billboards; market signals to the consumer that public charging is simple and readily available. In other words, the benefits of new electric car charging stations are not only the tangible kind - that they provide a place where people can charge their car’s batteries and (perhaps) spend money at the business associated with the charger - the benefits also come in more abstract forms - they help erect the psychological infrastructure many consumers need to be in place before they jump into EV ownership.
But a third dimension, one that has both tangible and intangible properties, sees the addition of new EV charging stations can as powerful marketing tools, especially when the charging stations being installed have all the familiarity of the traditional gas station but include the unmistakable connection to clean energy roots via the solar panels they are attached to.
Beginning last week with stations at Serra Automotive in Grand Blanc, Michigan and American Chevrolet in Modesto, California, GM is outfitting at least 26 dealerships with solar canopy arrays to charge and display the plug-in Chevy Volt in its clean energy habitat. Each installation will allow the simultaneous charging of 6, 12,18 or 24 vehicles, depending on how many solar canopies the dealer chooses to install.
“The question isn’t whether to install a solar canopy, it’s where and how many,” said Joe Serra, president of Serra Automotive in Grand Blanc, Michigan.
The solar canopy projects are being installed by Michigan-based Sunlogics, a global developer and operator of large-scale solar power projects that just received $7.5 million in investment capital from GM Ventures, the $100-million venture capital arm of GM. The addition of Sunlogics brings the number of companies to six in the GM Ventures portfolio, all of which are developing technologies in the sustainable mobility sector.
According to GM, each 20-kilowatt canopy will generate electricity equivalent to 12 full vehicle charges per day and excess electricity created will help supplement the dealership’s electrical power needs, providing as much as one-quarter of a dealership’s electricity.
“The beauty of this program is that there is no capital cost required from the dealership,” said Dave Halvorson, president of American Chevrolet in Modesto. “Not only do we generate the solar energy to increase our reliance on renewable electricity, but the Green Zone is a billboard of our commitment to the environment."
But GM isn’t the first car company to turn to solar for EV charge stations. Japanese manufacturer Mitsubishi announced its own plan for solar-assisted electric car chargers. Mitsubishi will be dropping the all-electric i MiEV onto the U.S. market in March, 2012.
The 100 percent-electric Nissan LEAF, another plug-in already garnering attention in the U.S. also has a growing infrastructure of dealer-based EV chargers to back up the fleet. And what Nissan’s charging network might lack in flash and symbolism, as compared to the new solar canopies at a couple dozen GM dealers nationwide, it makes up for in sheer scale. Every single Nissan dealership in the U.S. is expected to be outfitted with public EV chargers by year’s end, if not sooner.
So while it may be too early to say GM has hit a marketing/PR home run or gained any advantage over Nissan with the introduction of the innovative solar-powered EV-charging stations at select dealerships nationwide, I don’t think it’s too early to suggest they could have come up with a name that was a little less corny and a lot less trite than "Green Zone."
But if that’s all they did wrong, they’re doing all right!
Reprinted with permission from Earth & Industry