Is the hosting of electric vehicle charging stations a good business opportunity for retailers, a chance to promote corporate commitment to sustainability and enhance brand image, or a potential security headache? Maybe a little of all three.
Retailers, “both as places of commerce and employers, are ideal candidates to serve as site hosts for EV charging stations,” concludes a study by Atlas Public Policy in 2020, Public EV Charging Business Models for Retail Site Hosts.
Benefits can include attracting new customers and employees; new revenue streams from direct sale of charging to customers; and increased in-store sales from customers spending time in stores while waiting for their vehicles to charge. Advertising at charging stations is another potentially important source of revenue for retail site hosts, the study found.
Potential benefits vary by business model, either owner-operator, in which the retailer assumes the risks associated with operation and maintenance costs but can choose the pricing structure; or third-party owned and operated, in which the charging station owner is responsible for installation, operation, and maintenance, and has control over pricing and the overall customer experience. The different pricing structures include: no fee, nominal fee to cover costs, and profit center.
Retail site hosts face a trade-off between limiting financial risk and maximizing profit when deciding between business models. The study concludes that retailers can make twice as much as an owner-operator but that “risks associated with [it] should not be understated.”
The study offered a few insights from its analysis:
- To optimize sales revenue, retail site hosts should design fee structures to achieve longer dwell times, but also create sufficient customer turnover, as in-store retail revenues per customer tapered off after extended dwell time.
- Retail site hosts with lower expected customer spend per visit should focus primarily on achieving a high turnover of customers.
- Retail site hosts should use information on average in-store customer revenue per minute to design fee structures that optimize dwell time for their business.
In 2018, Target announced a fivefold expansion in its electric vehicle program to “build on its commitment to investing in solutions that leave our communities better for future families,” according to its vice president for property management. The retailer began adding electric vehicle charging stations to parking lots a decade ago with its partner, ChargePoint, and now has about 100 in 20 states. The retailer was driven, it said, by the lack of available public charging stations and the company’s goal to promote a healthy planet.
In addition to revenue, hosting EV charging stations can boost a retail host’s image, notes the Atlas report. “Hosting EV charging stations can signal a retailer’s commitment to advancing sustainability goals while helping to reduce transportation greenhouse gas emissions.”
ChargePoint cites data on the high percentage of customers that would rather shop at environmentally conscious businesses and employees who want to work for ‘green businesses,’ and how EV charging helps contribute to that reputation.
But if image is a catalyst in a retailer’s decision to host EV charging stations, then retailers should consider the full picture as they proceed.
It is easy to find grumbling on EV message boards of charging stations being placed in an empty corner of a big box parking lot, with users saying they felt unsafe while using them, especially after-hours. Others occasionally complain of poor lighting at retail-hosted stations. One industry analyst noted that grid-tied chargers may be placed near where power comes into a building, which can put them at the back of a grocery store next to its dumpsters. A reporter for Business Insider recounted her experience of after-hours charging in a shopping mall parking lot, which she said she would have skipped out of safety concerns had she been alone (“The biggest barrier to electric cars isn’t tech—it’s making public chargers feel safer and more accessible,” Sept. 2021).
User safety is a necessary consideration, and there is also a potential for conflicts or vandalism when vehicles with an internal combustion engine park in an EV charging spot—being “ICEd out” in EV-owner parlance. In online EV forums, there is the occasional discussion of applying ‘proper punishment’ in these events, from placing stickers on the vehicles, to keying, and worse.
Additionally, while retail hosts may not be responsible (depending on the business model), user frustration can still tarnish a customer’s overall shopping experience if they plan to charge while they shop and are disappointed. Wrote one EV owner on a charging station locator app: “One charger out of six visible is working, and it was taken. All other stations look very bashed or are displaying fault. One station the plug is encrusted with spider webs.”
Finally, national retailers could also face potential criticism depending on which stores are chosen as locations for EV charging stations. Already a gap is developing in where public charging stations are being hosted, and there is a growing concern that without access to charging stations, Black and Hispanic communities could be left behind as the country tries to move into an electric vehicle era.
Charging stations are a potential attack vector into the larger energy grid, warn cybersecurity analysts—and they’re just as vulnerable as any connected device. In surveys of industry analysts, security is identified as a primary obstacle to growth in EV infrastructure.
Charging stations authorize users and vehicles using RFID cards, Bluetooth, or Wi-Fi, and studies of widely deployed EV Charging Station Management Systems have shown an array of vulnerabilities in their communication components that suggest a susceptibility to remote cyberattacks. “We have observed that these vulnerabilities can be potentially exploited by hackers to compromise the availability, integrity, and confidentiality of a network of charging stations, or even the power grid,” concluded one study published by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Cyber-physical System Security of Vehicle Charging Stations.
Analysts note that EV charging stations include IoT technology to manage payment and data analytics—up to 16 disparate managing systems—providing multiple cyberattack vectors. Studies by cybersecurity firm Pen Test Partners suggest that attackers could potentially use EV charging stations to gain unauthorized entry into a business network, or hack user accounts to bill charges to the wrong account. “Weak code used in the charging stations can expose the credit card details of drivers causing monetary loss,” warn analysts from Panda Security.
Complicating the security picture is the current lack of standards and security certification for charging stations. As with any connected system, vulnerabilities must be patched and systems must be scanned for vulnerabilities and monitored for attacks, experts warn.
Cyber isn’t the only threat, as evidenced by an attack in February at a new eight-stall Tesla Supercharger station in Oakhurst, Calif., where all the charging cables were cut off at the base and stolen in an overnight attack. Vandalism was a possible motive, but it was more likely that thieves were after the copper inside the cables.
In guidance from the US Dept. of Energy, hosts of charging stations are encouraged to identify any necessary measures to prevent vandalism and theft of equipment and to also ensure that the communications and information technologies of the charging station comply with the organization’s cybersecurity policies.