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Solving Middle-Of-Nowhere EV Charging Could Be Profitable

Jennifer Sensiba

Aug 9, 2023

I spend a lot of time thinking about the future of EV charging infrastructure. Every EV driver wonders about this a little, and we probably all have ideas about where stations should go, based on our local knowledge. But, I’m a little weird about this. Instead of worrying about what 99% of EV drivers need, I also think about all of the little edge cases that probably won’t be addressed until sometime after 2030.

Things like rural roads hardly anybody drives on, towing campers into the backcountry, and trips for EVs with smaller batteries might seem unimportant. After all, these are rare things only a few people do, right? But, at the same time, nobody goes to buy an ICE car and asks for 99% of a car. They want the car to do 100% of the things they expect, and they want unexpected needs to be met as often as the vehicle’s design permits (and maybe some of what the design wasn’t built for via the aftermarket).

So, the future of the EV transition really does depend on serving as many of these edge cases as the industry can.

In some ways, you can charge an EV just about anywhere that there’s a plug. Early adopters (many readers here) have probably done crazy things like charge at an RV park or even run an extension cord into a hotel room before charging infrastructure came to an area. Sadly, even the patience for those kinds of slow charging sometimes isn’t enough.

I’ll give two examples.

First, there’s an interstate in Utah with over 100 miles of, well, nothing. No gasoline is available. No water is available. There’s a rest area, but it’s just a place to park and poop. There’s not a single wall outlet available along the whole stretch, and it’s a steep uphill climb most of the way. Most EVs can top up in Green River and make the climb, but what happens when you use something like a Chevy Bolt to pull a little trailer? Turns out, my Bolt would make the climb according to ABRP, but it would get stranded if there was a freezing headwind (something that happens in winter along that route).

Another great example is U.S. Highway 180 between El Paso, Texas and Carlsbad, New Mexico. With or without the little camping cargo trailer, it would easily make it there, but coming home is another story. There’s no rapid charging in Carlsbad, at the little “city” next to Carlsbad Caverns National Park, or at the park itself. Going home would require either staying at the little RV park overnight or going way out of my way to find rapid charging, and completely missing out on the opportunity to visit Guadalupe Mountains National Park.

One thing both of these routes have in common is just how little there is along the sides of the road. There’s little to no power anybody can tap into and build an EV charging station. There are either zero businesses (Utah), or businesses that keep going in and out of business (Texas).

In both cases, there hasn’t been enough customers to support a business, but plenty of people pass by all the time. As gas-powered cars got more efficient and comfortable, the old gas stations and roadside cafes disappeared one by one, leaving behind ghost towns. Toyota has even made a few funny commercials over the years at the expense of rural gas station owners whose customers didn’t need them anymore, so putting in charging at a business is pretty much not possible.

I’m sure there are plenty of other examples around the United States, Canada, and Mexico where there are long stretches of road and no place to build a charging station. Some of them can be found in state NEVI plans, where they’re begging Uncle Sam to not make them build a station every 50 miles.

The “easy button” for this problem (something that’s needed but not profitable) would be to just have governments build the station. But, it’s going to be hard enough to cover interstate highways and higher-traffic routes that need government funding to get off the ground. Even the 5 years of NEVI funding (which will probably take a decade to build out) won’t cover these most rural areas along otherwise good roads. Worse, the best places for charging along these routes would probably be rest areas, but businesses aren’t allowed to operate at rest areas under U.S. federal law.

But, as Henry J. Kaiser said, “Problems are only opportunities in work clothes.” There is probably some money to be made providing the occasional charge along these routes. To make a charging station work, you’d need to be off-grid, provide at least basic amenities (food, drinks, bathroom), and make sure drivers know where you are. All of this is not only possible, but could be done profitably if you don’t need a human attendant.

At its most basic, you’d need to get a larger residential-sized solar carport (around 10 kW is probably the bottom end for this, but more is better). Under this carport, you’d get some battery storage, probably 30-40 kWh. This would feed 1-2 Level 2 charging stations, priced appropriately to help cover the cost of the solar+storage.

You’d also want a couple of composting toilets, some vending machines, and maybe a small breakroom-type shed building with a microwave and a table. Finally, you’d want a Starlink internet connection and some surveillance cameras to discourage vandalism and theft. The internet connection could also serve wifi to people stopping for a charge, perhaps for a small fee.

This off-grid Level 2 rest stop would be good enough to help people get enough charge to get to the next Level 3 station, make the station owner a few bucks on charging, and make a few more bucks providing a simple hot meal and drinks. In some rural cases, such a station would be a crucial link for people leaving the interstate near those places, too.

This idea could be expanded in several ways. More battery storage (with something like a FreeWire station) could support Level 3 charging, allowing people to not need to stay as long. This would require a larger solar installation, but it could still be cheaper than demand charges on the grid for a traditional station. Better food, better drinks, and other amenities are also possible to attract rural travelers.

On the social side, this is good because it helps the EV transition, and it doesn’t require waiting for governments to do it. So, there’s more than just a possibility of profit here. But, there’s still plenty of room to make money.

While these probably wouldn’t be wildly profitable, they’d be a near-monopoly in the areas they serve. Big charging networks, governments, and others are unlikely to put EV charging in these hardest to reach areas for a long time, and between now and then (probably the serviceable life of the station), this charging hub would be the proverbial only girl in town.

It wouldn’t be a good idea to price gouge people too hard, but simply being there when nobody else even plans to be would justify a pretty big premium on pricing that could cover the extra costs. The obvious environmental benefits (powered by renewables instead of the grid) would also justify the cost for many people.

This obviously wouldn’t be a good solution anywhere but in the backcountry, but it would serve in that role well.

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