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Charge your EV faster downtown, and an ECOtality-NRG dispute charges forward

ECOtality's Blink DC charger won the day in LA. But it's in a war with NRG's eVgo over territory on California's electric highway.
ECOtality's Blink DC charger won the day in LA. But it's in a war with NRG's eVgo over territory on California's electric highway.
Todd Mowen

The city of Los Angeles unveiled a fast charger for electric cars Thursday in an Arts District parking lot. The Blink DC fast charger will fill up your battery in 30 minutes. (As an added bonus, the owner of the car plugged into it can smile a little smugly at the other 10 cars parked around it, who only get regular chargers.) The mecca for EV charging in the Arts District is officially the Biscuit Company & Toy Factory lofts area; there aren't more than a handful DC fast chargers in the entire state, in fact.

“Today is a great day for the Arts District, a great day for Downtown and a great day for the City of Los Angeles,” said Councilmember José Huizar, in a press release. “Today is about celebrating and embracing innovation, about shifting the paradigm in how we think about transportation and how we align our lifestyles with our beliefs in creating a cleaner, greener environment for ourselves, our children and our City.”

It was also a pretty great day for ECOtality, a San Francisco-based EV charger manufacturer who is in a pretty serious race for territory with eVgo, a subsidiary of the Houston-based energy powerhouse NRG. Every charger added to the state's nascent electric highway is welcome news to EV owners, but the high stakes for growing companies are reflected in their incremental fights in the marketplace.

NRG got in trouble with the state of California a decade ago over price-fixing related to energy contracts. The company settled with state regulators back in March; NRG is to pay most of its penalty in kind, by building and installing “make-ready” spots and in some places, fast chargers themselves around the state, including in poor neighborhoods. I reported back in April that NRG will collect fees for the high-speed chargers they install. I also reported EV enthusiasts liked the settlement.

Among those who don’t is ECOtality. The company filed with the California Public Utilities Commission to request more public review. ECOtality objected to the fact that only eVgo/NRG can build chargers at the “make-ready” spots for the first 18 months of the deal.

NRG responded publicly and loudly to ECOtality’s CPUC filing. Arun Banskota, president of NRG Energy’s EV Services Division, told Plug-In Cars’ John Gartner:

I would emphasize that the CPUC wanted someone with “skin in the game” to ensure this infrastructure was successful by incenting NRG to site this infrastructure at properties with a higher probability of attracting EV drivers. The 18-month period allows us to have a short amount of time to try to take advantage of our $40 million investments, but is short enough to ensure that competitors can take advantage of it as well when this period is over.

ECOtality then filed suit in a state appellate court in May. ECOtality argues that the state has granted a boon to a company it was supposed to penalize, and endorsed one competitor in a crowded field; eVgo has responded there, too.  The court refused to grant an immediate stay, but the case, and market competition that borders on bickering, continue.