Costco Unplugs Chargers: Getting the Story Straight

By Bill Moore

Posted: 23 Aug 2011

Back in the heyday of the California Zero Emission Mandate (circa 1996-2003) and its allied "Memorandum of Understanding" between the California Air Resources Board and the six largest carmakers selling product in the state, Costco, the big box retailer, stepped up and announced it would install charging stations at many of its stores, especially in the Golden State, where most of the electric cars were being leased.

By 2006, it had installed 90 chargers at some 64 stores, including some in Arizona, New York and Georgia. This week it announced that it would begin removing those units, explaining that few of them are being used any longer. Normally, the removal of a relative handful of charging stations would go pretty much unnoticed by the world at large, except that electric vehicle skeptics and detractors have latched onto the news apparently as more proof that electric vehicles are folly. If companies like Costco can't justify keeping its chargers online, what's that say about the current multi-million dollar, federally co-funded program to install thousands of newer units across America and Britain?

What these reports fail to mention is that the chargers in question are, in effect, obsolete. When Costco installed them, there was no industry consensus on a common charging standard. General Motors, Toyota and Nissan coalesced around GM's Magnacharge inductive, paddle-style charger that used magnetic fields to transfer energy to their vehicles' batteries, asserting it was safer and more convenient. Ford, Honda and Chrysler adapted the AVCON conductive connector that used direct metal-to-metal contact to charge the battery, contending it was cheaper and just as safe. To support all of these vehicles, a Costco would have to install both types of chargers, which at many stores, like the one above, it did.

When the MOU effectively ended around 2003, controversially "killing of the electric car," nearly all of the less than 7,000 EVs being leased were pulled off the road and destroyed. A few hundred first generation RAV4 EVs and Ford Ranger EVs were sold to consumers, most of them former lessees who had come to appreciate the virtues of driving a petroleum-free motor vehicle. Almost none of the Honda EV Pluses, Chrysler EPICs, Nissan Hyperminis and Altras, and EV1s and S10 EVs remain except a few research vehicles and museum models. Little wonder Costco's stations aren't being used. There are no vehicles left to use them, largely because of carmaker actions.

Of course, the few hundred owners of Toyota RAV4 EVs and Ranger EVs, one from whom I just heard this morning and reports his electric pickup is still going strong at 66,000 miles, will be disappointed by Costco's actions. It will make it difficult for them to find places to plug in their vehicles. But, they also will be the first to acknowledge that many of the inductive and conductive charging stations installed over a decade ago no longer work; the company that originally planned to maintain them having gone out of business years ago.

In the intervening half decade since Costco installed its last station, the industry in North America has agreed upon a common charging standard known as J1772, which applies to both private and public chargers. Like the earlier inductive and conductive units, it charges at both 115V and 240V, the latter taking between 3-5 hours to recharge a fully-electric vehicle like the Nissan LEAF and Mitsubishi i-MiEV, the former considerably longer. A 'fast charging' standard that would cut this time down to under 30 minutes is still being formulated.

So, the suggestion that Costco's actions are a blow to the introduction of electric vehicles totally misses the point. The industry and technology have moved on. Just as few of us use computer floppy disks any longer, so too have those old -- and very expensive -- inductive chargers and less-expensive conductive units become obsolete. I have no doubt that many of them will end up on eBay and find homes somewhere, but with the exception of the few hundred people who still drive RAV4 and Ranger EVs, they won't be missed. They were a milestone along the road to an EV world and served an important function in not only providing early EV owners with a place to charge away from home but also served as an important proving ground for future electric vehicle infrastructure.

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