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There are dozens of apps that may be needed to locate an electric vehicle charging station and then charge that EV.Krystyna Lagowski /The Globe and Mail

Imagine every single gas station chain had its own exclusive pump network, which required every driver to download an app, set up an account and connect their credit card before they could fill their gas tank.

And then, imagine each driver who wanted to drive across Canada having to download about 50 apps because there are so many networks.

That’s precisely the problem facing many electric vehicle (EV) owners in North America, especially those without home charging.

Every charger belongs to a network. And every time you want to charge your car at a network that you haven’t been to before, you have to set up an account. Only then can you charge your EV.

According to Simon Oullette, chief executive officer of ChargeHub, a Pointe-Claire, Que.-based charger-locating network, the problem started in the early days of the industry.

“The people who were deploying charging stations made the hardware and the software, and had a venture capital mentality,” he said. Every network wanted to “own” the customer, so they could monetize the product. That created a clunky app ecosystem, which made it cumbersome for EV owners to move from one network to the other.

A charger app shows where the chargers are for a specific network, lets drivers activate a charger from that network, and pay. There are also charger-locating apps, which show the location of charging stations from many different networks.

No matter where it’s located or which charging network it belongs to, however, a charging station does not typically generate sufficient funds to pay for itself, and this isn’t likely to change any time soon. “Public EV charging on its own is a losing proposition for whoever is operating the charging station,” said Oullette.

It’s usually up to the site host – whether a retail store, one of those rest stops on the major highways, or a municipal or private parking lot – to set the rate, or the price paid to use electricity, at the charging station, not the utility or the province.

When the host buys the charger, the cost includes not just the purchase of the electric “pump,” but also installing it (for DC Fast Chargers, this may require electrical infrastructure upgrades, breaking concrete, trenching for underground lines and so on), together with the cost of maintaining the charging station and any networking or payment-processing costs, as well as the cost of the electricity to run the station. That adds up to more than the revenue that will be generated from the station’s usage over its lifetime, according to Oullette. That is why many public charging stations are situated in the lots of retailers. As people wait for their cars to charge, they often go shopping, which subsidizes the cost of the chargers.

Oullette notes that increasing charging costs at public charging stations will likely deter usage, as most EV drivers can charge at home, unless they’re travelling out of town. There are a few high-traffic sites with multiple charging stations that can generate a profit, such as highway rest stops along the main route between two cities, but these are a minority.

As a result, most of the networks don’t see the EV driver as their customer, according to Oullette. They’re in the business of selling the charging station to the hosting entity, whether it’s a doughnut shop or a commercial real estate developer. That’s how they make money.

Oullette says most hosting entities usually pay for the chargers out of their marketing or corporate social responsibility budget. They pay up front for the hardware, installation and construction, while maintenance, networking and electricity costs are usually paid monthly. Repairs may be paid for as necessary. Some charger organizations are beginning to offer a leasing option of the hardware to cut down on the initial cost.

But times are changing as quickly as new EV models come on the market. Legacy fossil fuel players such as Petro-Canada, auto makers such as Volkswagen, and regional hydro utilities are joining the EV charging industry. Their focus is less on keeping the driver to themselves than providing a good user experience because the chargers work together.

For example, Brenna Strohschein, a marketing consultant in the Vancouver area, does not have home charging but only needs three apps to get around in her 2014 Nissan Leaf. She uses two charging apps: BC Hydro and ChargePoint, as well as charging locator app PlugShare.

Although her Leaf only gets about 100 kilometres per charge, that’s just fine for her. Strohschein and her husband both work from home, and spend a lot of time at local parks with their two young children. They drove about 12,000 kilometres last year.

“We plan our activities around where we can finding charging, like the free Level 2 BC Hydro chargers at the park,” said Strohschein. “But because of the stage of life that we’re in, we don’t find it annoying.”

Mélanie Nadeau, an assistant principal in Montreal, does not have home charging either. Initially, she downloaded about 10 apps when she bought her 2021 Chevy Bolt last year. However, Nadeau now uses only three: the Circuit électrique/Electric Circuit app (from Hydro-Québec), PetroCanada, and ChargePoint.

Right now, Nadeau has six Level 2 chargers within a five-minute walk of her condo in the borough of Saint-Laurent, all of which are Circuit électrique/Electric Circuit. She’s excited about the two chargers being installed right in front of her building. “It will be especially great in the winter,” Nadeau said.

Another way to improve the EV experience for drivers is by making networks more compatible with each other. Some EV charging networks share information through their back-end software, creating a form of roaming. For example, EV drivers can use the ChargeHub Passport app to activate and pay for chargers on the Flo network, as well as Greenlots, Circuit électrique/Electric Circuit, SemaConnect, Blink, and others.

In turn, EV drivers can use the Flo network to access other networks like Greenlots, Circuit électrique/Electric Circuit, eCharge, BC Hydro EV and ChargePoint.

It’s something Cara Clairman of Plug’n Drive compares to the early days of automated bank machines.

“When bank machines first came out, you couldn’t use your bank card at any other bank,” Clairman said. “Over time, Interac was developed so you could use any bank machine for a fee.”

She thinks that some of the recently announced federal spending on EV infrastructure should be earmarked to support “interoperability” between EV charging networks. “It would be very helpful because interoperability is an expensive process,” said Clairman.

And because it’s expensive, that means it is not a priority for EV charging networks. The process is long and complex, and networks need to dedicate time and resources to making it work. Software systems have to be analyzed and integrated in order to make it seamless for the EV driver.

According to Oullette, integrating a network into ChargeHub’s Passport system can take months.

“There’s definitely a role for federal government to play,” he says. “It’s such a losing proposition for people to deploy chargers without the help of government funding. If Natural Resources Canada had some strings attached to their funding in terms of interoperability, it would be a good thing.”