In the past, most of my EV travels have been in New Mexico and Arizona. On those trips, I saw EV fast charging stations at Walmart stores, convenience stores, shopping centers, and restaurants. What made those locations great is that they both help you with your human needs (bathroom, food, water) and perhaps give you something to do during the charge session.
But, then I took an EV trip across Texas. I’ve crossed Texas plenty of times in a gas-powered machine, but on my first time in an EV, I was in for a weird experience. The first stop (El Paso) was the typical Electrify America experience I’m used to. There’s a Walmart and a few other shops and restaurants around there. But, after that, the next charging stop was at a motel.
The motel did have one very important thing right: a bathroom that’s accessible even during the night. But, there was nothing else. Truck stops were out of normal walking distance away. A small gas station across the street was closed for the night. No restaurants were in sight. No shopping was nearby. It was just a hotel I didn’t intend to get a room at, with a bathroom.
Further along the trip, I encountered that same scenario two more times. One was a nice hotel, but there were no other businesses nearby. There was a fast food place a 5 minute walk away, but that wasn’t in sight. Another one was at a not-so-nice motel that had no other businesses nearby, trash all over the property, spider webs, and some ground-floor rooms that obviously had someone living there full-time. What’s sad was that the hotel was at a really scenic hillside location, but neglected.
The key problem with all of these locations: bathrooms only, no restaurants or even snacks available for sale.
This Doesn’t Make Sense For Anybody Involved
In an ideal situation, locating an EV charging station helps everyone involved. Drivers get a charging station. The charging company gets a location to put their equipment. The host of the charging station gets a trickle of customers who need things.
But, I don’t see how the operator of a nice or a bad hotel benefits from this arrangement. With rare exception, people showing up to charge cars at a rapid charger don’t need a place to sleep. So, the hotel operator presumably has to leave restrooms open for EV drivers as part of the deal, or they get to go pick up piss bottles in the parking lot most mornings. Can they sell EV drivers anything? Probably not. All they’re getting is the rent or whatever payment they get for hosting the chargers.
The charging provider also misses out on opportunity, eventually. If you locate your chargers at a hotel, and someone else installs charging stations at a gas station, truck stop, or restaurant, EV drivers will choose the location with better amenities most of the time. So, revenue will be lower than it should be as soon as a competitor locates their charging station better in the small town.
The driver also misses out, because we have needs that a hotel just isn’t equipped to handle, other than bathrooms. Snacks, drinks, meals, and other things just aren’t there.
When It Does Make Sense To Put EV Charging At Hotels
I won’t go as far as to say that charging doesn’t ever make sense at hotels and motels. Travelers do need sleep, and hotels are (usually) a good place to sleep.
But, if you’re stopping to sleep, DC fast charging makes no sense. Not only is it expensive to install, maintain, and power, but it’s expensive for EV drivers to use. DC fast charging generally costs more than $.30 per kilowatt-hour (kWh), which comes out to $10 or more for the whole session. Level 2 charging, because it’s far cheaper to put in, is often provided for free or for 1-2 times the local price of electricity.
Providing L2 charging for EV drivers at hotels ends up being good for everyone involved. The charging provider can make a little money, the hotel can keep their electricity costs cheap, and the driver gets to save time and money by charging slower while they sleep. Plus, this attracts customers to the hotel.
A Quick Word About Walmarts
In many ways, Walmarts were the ideal place to put a DCFC station. Before the pandemic, Walmarts had almost all gone to 24-hour operation. They already had people working at night, so having 1-2 people to check night-time customers out made a lot of sense. With bathrooms, snacks, drinks, shopping, and even hot food (whether from Walmart or from nearby restaurants), it was a great place for EV drivers to stop, even in the middle of the night.
But, I’ve seen no Walmart stores open up at night post-pandemic. This now means that EV drivers traveling at night will have none of the amenities that made Walmart great for them. We can’t blame Electrify America for partnering with Walmart, because there’s no way they could have known that Walmart was going to cut hours back permanently later.
At the minimum, Walmart does need to do something to hold up their end of the deal here. An outhouse near the Electrify America station would be great, but letting EA customers in to use a real bathroom would be even better, even if they don’t want to open the store to sell things.
How Charging Providers Could Fix This, Despite Obstacles
In the smallest towns, a hotel parking lot might have been the only option for a host business. Gas stations and truck stops might have their own future charging plans get in the way, and locally-owned businesses might be owned by people who are antagonistic to EVs for political or financial reasons. I get that the hotel might be the only option.
When this happens, it might be better for charging providers to take on more of a “rest stop” model. Adding a bathroom or outhouse, a couple of vending machines, and a microwave could be enough to cover drivers’ basic needs. This might be possible on cheaper land at the edge of town, too.
I know that partnering with a hotel is a lot cheaper than going alone for the bathrooms, so it makes sense for companies like Electrify America to expand what’s available at a hotel. Just adding a couple of vending machines, a microwave, and some napkins to the hotel lobby would greatly improve the experience for minimal cost. Partnering with a local vending machine company could bring the cost of doing this down to just paper towels and a microwave.
Finally, bringing in less traditional partners could be a good option. Food trucks and “roach coaches” could be a good partner, and they can be attracted just by designating a couple of spaces for them to park. EV drivers won’t bring in enough business, but if the hotel is on a major street, the food truck operators can make money parking there. Also, rental scooter companies could be a good partner, allowing EV drivers to go further from the charging station.
So, there’s really no reason that the situation can’t be improved, with some creativity.
Featured Image: Screenshot from Google Street View showing an Electrify America charging station at a rural hotel with no other businesses nearby.
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