Should EV charging ports at shopping malls double as premium parking spaces for gas-guzzlers?

Proponents of electric vehicles struggle with the same chicken-and-egg dilemma that has held back many promising technologies over the years.

It’s easy enough selling the virtues of vehicles that plug into a wall socket and run on low-emission electricity. They’re generally clean, quiet, cheap to maintain, inexpensive fuel-wise and quick off the mark when it comes to performance.

But range anxiety continues to be a deal breaker for many. Battery technologies are getting better, charging times are getting faster, but the fact is there aren’t many places to charge an electric vehicle when it’s not parked in your own driveway.

In other words, we need more charging stations — namely, the 240-volt “Level 2” variety, which can cut charging times in half — but there are too few electric vehicles driving the roads to justify the very investment that will boost confidence in and sales of electric vehicles.

This conundrum explains why the Ontario government announced this week the creation of a rebate program for homeowners and businesses looking to purchase Level 2 charging equipment, on top of the $5,000 to $8,500 rebate already offered on electric vehicle purchases.

Starting Jan. 1, a buyer of a charging station can get a rebate of up to 50 per cent of the total purchase and installation cost, capped at $1,000. It could help spur installation of the equipment at gas stations, shopping malls and in company parking lots.

Shopping malls alone are a tremendous opportunity, as most people who go to them stick around for two or three hours — enough time to recharge a good portion of an electric vehicle’s battery system. And landlords of major shopping malls, I’m told, are keen to go “green” while offering an enhanced experience to visitors.

Still, they have a legitimate concern: What if they build it and nobody comes? What if spots dedicated to EV charging are left empty much of the time, while drivers of gas-powered vehicles — the vast majority of shoppers — have to cruise around for an open spot elsewhere?

One innovative answer has been proposed by Toronto-based CleanPark Investments, a minority-owned spin-off of solar project developer Carbonfree Technology. Joel Donen, chief executive of CleanPark, told me that one compromise is to create a premium parking area for EV charging that can also be used for drivers of gas-fuelled cars.

CleanPark’s idea is to build parking canopies near the main entrances of major retail shopping malls, with each canopy housing six parking spaces that would double as solar-assisted charging stations for electric vehicles.

Plug-in vehicles could park and charge there for a modest fee of, say, $2 every hour. Part of this fee would cover the cost of the solar panels and grid-sourced electricity, likely from a green energy retailer like Bullfrog Power, which would supplement the system when the sun isn’t shining.

A bonus is that the spots, based on where they’re located, offer greater convenience for the shopper. The nine kilowatts of solar panels that create the canopy would also keep snow and rain off the cars.

But here’s the kicker: gas-powered cars would also be permitted to use the spots, as long as drivers still paid the per-hour fee. Donen said a part of that fee would go toward either a carbon offset or an environmental charity.

“The challenge is shifting the model away from reserving parking spaces just for EVs,” explained Donen. “By allowing all cars to park in the spaces, we can likely generate sufficient revenue to make the economics work. And an ‘all cars welcome’ policy avoids problems such as empty parking spaces due to a (current) lack of EVs on the road.”

CleanPark is designing this to be economical without relying on incentives such as Ontario’s feed-in-tariff program, which pays a premium to generators of solar power. Revenues would instead come from a portion of the hourly parking fees, third-party advertising on the car ports, and net-metering that would offset the mall’s own electricity use when the sun is shining but no vehicles are plugged in.

With those three sources, “we can likely achieve returns that will satisfy investors without the need for government subsidies,” said Donen. “This would allow us to roll out the program across the country.”

Major shopping mall landlords — those who each have more than 100 malls in their national portfolio — so far appear to be cautiously keen on the idea. CleanPark is eyeing Ontario and B.C. properties initially, but after proving the concept through a few pilot sites, it envisions a network of these car-charging ports emerging across Canada and into the United States.

The mall landlords themselves don’t stand to make much money, if any, by going this route. For them it’s more about better customer experience and service, and that means providing more choice and anticipating the future needs of consumers.

For Donen, it’s about addressing the range anxiety that keeps some car buyers away from plug-in models. “If we’re going to get adoption of more plug-in vehicles, we need that chicken and egg dilemma to start unwinding itself.”

And that’s not going to happen with technological innovation alone. Creative business models, such as this one, are more often needed to turn promising technologies into commercial successes.

Tyler Hamilton, author of Mad Like Tesla, writes weekly about green energy and clean technologies.