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Payback is a switch: Business case for EV charging

John Anton is a small-business owner in Tempe, Ariz., with an environmental consciousness that is growing but has its limits.

In 2009 his company, DesignAShirt, scored a contract with Arizona State University to provide the school with all its shirt design needs. There was a hitch: The ASU Global Institute of Sustainability required that the company use only water-based ink, which is less noxious to the environment. Anton agreed.

Not long after, the sustainability folks came back and encouraged him to go solar, and he came to see the economic—as well as the environmental—benefit of that, and the company put up more than 200 solar panels.

More recently, they came and suggested installing charging stations for electric vehicles in his parking lot. "I said, 'Now hold on a minute,'" Anton recalled.

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DesignAShirt's business is mostly conducted online, but it does have customers that come in to pick up or drop off orders. "These people are in and out in five or 10 minutes. The last thing I need is for people to stop and say, 'Hey, I think I'll stay and visit for a while while my car charges,'" Anton said. "And the fastest chargers take at least 30 minutes. We're busy. We don't have time for it."

A switch has flipped
As electric vehicles catch on, business owners like Anton are weighing the question: Do I need charging stations on my lot to keep customers and attract new ones?

Some see momentum for EVs building fast, perhaps fast enough to overcome the nascent sector's circular problem: Car buyers being wary of going electric until there are more places to charge, and businesses' hesitancy to build or host charging stations until they see more EVs on the road.

"In the last six months, it's like a switch has flipped," said Pasquale Romano, CEO of EV station network ChargePoint, which boasts 15,000 nonresidential charging systems across 2,100 customers and is backed by, among others, venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins. "The question we get from businesses now is not whether to put in stations but how to scale up."

(Read more: Tesla aims for world record electric-car trip)

A 2013 Deloitte report, "Plugged In: The Last Mile," also suggests urgency on the part of businesses in trying to stay ahead of the curve on this issue.

"A push/pull strategy appears to be at work in forming these partnerships" between suppliers and retail businesses, Deloitte wrote, with both now rushing to each other to "get in on the ground floor" of the EV charging business.


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