Coulomb Comes to Omaha

By Bill Moore

Posted: 11 Nov 2009

Picture this. I am in a brew pub restaurant in the heart of Omaha's 'Old Market', a renovated, 19th century jobbers district near the turgid Missouri River where steam-powered paddle boats once docked to unload their supplies, destined for distant military outposts and scattered homesteaders.

On a tall table next to the bar stands a demonstration model of a ChargePoint electric car charging station.

While I -- and the attractive lady at the corner of the bar -- look on, Scott Saffian with Coulomb Technologies and Brian Levin from Carbon Day in Chicago run through a demonstration of how a subscriber would access the charging station.

Anne McCollister, Coulomb's sales representative for the state of Nebraska, had invited me to have dinner at the Upstream Brewing Company with Saffian and Levin. She'd arranged introductory meetings with policy makers in Lincoln, the state capital, and then in Omaha. The dinner allowed me to meet her and her colleagues before they flew back to San Francisco and Chicago, respectively. McCollister lives in Lincoln.

It was also Saffian's opportunity to demonstrate the ChargePoint unit to me -- and anyone else in the bar area interested in what we were up to -- and explain their business model. Levin was on hand to represent Carbon Day, Coulomb's distributor for the multi-state upper Midwest region, including Nebraska.

It was clear from when we met inside the restaurant just a little after 7 PM that this was going to be a business dinner. I got there first and a few minutes later, the trio arrived, Saffian dragging a solid-looking case on wheels behind him.

Moments after being seating and handed our menus, I asked the inevitable question, "What in the world are you guys doing in Nebraska?"

Despite Warren Buffett's investment in the Chinese battery and electric car maker, BYD, the state isn't known to be a hotbed of automotive innovation. Yes, our local utility has a couple plug-in Priuses, as does Lincoln Electric Service, I learned last night; and yes our new mayor drives a Dodge Durango two-mode hybrid SUV, one of the few before the program was canceled last year. But as a rule, the state tends to be a trend follower, not a trend setter, and usually by several years, if not decades.

So, what was Coulomb Technologies and Carbon Day doing here? What they're doing everywhere: trying to convince officials and businesses that they need to be preparing for an EV world, one that is set to roll out in earnest starting next year and building momentum thereafter, especially in the wake of the launch of the Nissan LEAF, an event which clearly has Saffian excited. Coulomb chargers are likely to be recharging many of LEAFs across America.

For her part, McCollister said she saw working with Coulomb as a great business opportunity, but one that can help achieve an environmental agenda, given her background of having once worked for the Natural Resource Defense Council.

As we talked about the attitude of people they'd met in the state, Saffian explained that this was an introductory trip. His job was to show people the technology and to encourage them to begin thinking about how the state and its communities would begin preparing for a future that includes electric-drive vehicles: PHEVs like the Volt and BEVs like the LEAF.

Of course, the central question everyone asks is, "How do we pay for it?" Yes, electricity -- especially in Nebraska -- is relatively cheap, but buying, installing and maintaining a smart charger like the one Coulomb is selling isn't. The model in the photo retails, before federal tax credits, for between $6,000-7,000. With the stimulus bill credit, its about half that, Levin added.

Saffian's eyes twinkles. "Now I understand what your knowledge level is about our business model." Pretty much zip.

Over the steady drone of restaurant chatter, he explained that Coulomb sells the chargers to businesses or government entities who install them at their expense. The owners of the system make back their investment based on system usage. It works like this.

A LEAF owner, for example, will be able to subscribe to Coulomb's service network. They will be issued a RFID smart card that is used to access any available ChargePoint charger in the world. The basic subscription plan is under $10 a month. Each time the car is plugged into a charger, the subscriber is billed $3 regardless of the time connected or amount of electricity used. Coulomb then rebates 80% of that, or $2.40, back to the charger owner.

Now, to be honest, that seems like a lot of money for a few cents worth of electricity, but its two chief selling points are convenience and security. Presumably, most people are going to do the majority of their charging at home, but inevitably there will be times when the electric car's battery is going to need a charge and having access to a public charger will be, as they say in the credit card commercial, "priceless."

And speaking of credit cards, non-subscribers with bank-issued smart cards will also be able to access ChargePoint chargers; the unit's reader will be able to recognize the card, open the secure access door and bill the customer accordingly. How much, I didn't learn, but it's probably safe to assume it will be more than the $3 subscribers pay.

As Saffian demonstrated various security modes of the unit, it is clear Coulomb has given a lot of thought to all the various contingencies that might arise from vandalism to city-wide grid outages. He also noted that the network, connected back to the company's headquarters in northern California via cellular telephone network, is also capable of communicating with subscribers, sending text messages to their cellphones, notifying them of the state of charge, loss of power, etc. Subscribers will also be able to find the nearest available chargers on the network using their wireless PDAs and cellphones, or via the web.

Coulomb's current ChargePoint unit offers 120V charging, but this is about to be upgraded to 240V with the final adoption of SAE J1772, which will enable much faster charging at higher current and voltage levels. Coulomb, Saffian explained, is offering customers who order the new unit now with a free exchange of the 120V unit once the J1772 model becomes available. Customers who order the current 120V unit will have six months to exchange it for full credit for the J1772 unit.

Still, making an investment in electric car chargers in Nebraska is going to take some serious vision on the part of what is traditionally a pretty conservative business community, especially in a city like Omaha where you can count on one hand the number of electric cars on our streets. Yet, it is encouraging to see that gradually even we are moving towards a future of electric transportation. Maybe in time, Omaha will become more than just the digital home of EV World, but a very real, tangible one.

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