Coulomb’s Lowenthal: On Electric Car Charging and Looking Like the Devil

Richard Lowenthal. Image from CalCars.org

It’s been an electric car week for me, having to cover the pricing and marketing plans for the Chevy Volt. I also wrote a story about the lack of fuel economy label for the Volt. I had to learn quickly the regulatory issues for labeling plug-in hybrid and all-electric cars and what it all means for consumers. You can read more about it in today’s AOL DailyFinance.

I stopped by the Plug-In 2010 conference in San Jose earlier this week and caught a panel on electric car charging. The most interesting speaker was Richard Lowenthal, CEO of the 3-year-old Coulomb Technologies, which seems to have fared well by winning customers and snagging a $15M Department of Energy grant to give away 4,600 charging equipment in nine regions.

The company has customers in Europe, which Richard said is ahead of the United States in popularizing electric cars. Amsterdam is Coulomb’s biggest customer. In Ireland, the utilities are setting up charging stations with Coulomb’s equipment. In contrast, American utilities are still running trials. While they figure out whether and when they want to jump into the electric car charging business, other companies are getting into the electricity retail market.

“What’s been challenging for the utilities to accept is for the first time the consumers and ratepayers are two different people,” Lowenthal said during the panel discussion.

Just yesterday, the California Public Utilities Commission decided that charging service providers wont’ be regulated as utilities.

Richard offered some personal anecdotes about his own charging habit – he drives a Mini E. He also talked about some lessons Coulomb has learned. Here are some of his quotes:

  • There was a time when I was the nut in the room because no one was interested in smart charging. No one understood why you would want to network charging.
  • When we open our network in 2009 in San Francisco, one car that was poorly designed shorted our circuit breaker. We had to get the city to flip it back. Since then we have added a feature that will turn the circuit off if (overloaded).
  • I’m a daytime charger. People think I have horns growing out of my head.  I do all my charging at work. I plug it in and it’s done by 9 a.m. every day. Peak charging is never a problem. I think this idea that daytime charging is the root of all evil comes from people who only have home chargers.
  • We can’t do a membership program. We tried and it was rejected by consumers.  Anybody can charge at our stations. In Germany, because of the EU law, we can’t have names of consumers. So they can pay cash for it at the tobacco stores.

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