Coming Soon to Best Buy: Electric Car Charging

Will big box retailers play a key role in ushering in the era of electric vehicles? Today charging infrastructure developer ECOtality (s ECTY) announced an agreement with Best Buy (s BBY) to install its so-called Blink smart charging stations at a dozen Best Buy stores in Arizona, California and Washington by March 2011.

Unveiled at the Plug-in 2010 conference this summer (an event that was chock full of new charging options), Blink CEO Jonathan Read called the charging stations the “Swiss army knife of telecommunication.” As he explained to us in an interview in July, the stations have been designed to connect with local area networks, Wi-Fi, Zigbee and cell phone networks.

The deal announced today with Best Buy is an initial step toward fruition of ECOtality’s vision to have its Blink stations serving as retailers’ and brands’ first point of contact with electric car-driving shoppers, and an early test of its strategy for spurring viral adoption of charge points in the private sector.

ECOtality has installed about 6,000 charging stations around the country for vehicles like warehouse forklifts and ground-support vehicles at airports. The first Blink charging stations will be installed as part of the so-called EV Project, an infrastructure buildout in 16 cities supported by $114.8 million in stimulus grant funds from the Department of Energy. Private matching funds bring the total planned investment for the project to nearly $230 million.

Yet in a time when cities and states have limited funds to invest in public charging infrastructure, the company has told us that it hopes ultimately to spur viral adoption of charge points in the private sector. The key ingredients, according to Read, will be meeting retailers’ needs, making equipment convenient for consumers, and providing tools for users to connect with a social network of electric car drivers.

Analyst John Gartner of Pike Research anticipates that a growing need for “intelligent management” of electric vehicle charging will create a $297 million industry in the U.S. as of 2015. That forecast encompasses the market for tech ranging from applications, servers, networking equipment and other hardware, to ongoing services for collecting and monitoring data about vehicle charging.

To be sure, the number of installations planned under today’s agreement is a small one in the big picture. But the move fits into a larger trend of electric vehicles and charging infrastructure opening opportunities for new business models and alliances that capitalize on several factors, such as: utilities’ need for data about energy consumption patterns, businesses’ desire to boost their green image and do location-based, targeted advertising, and the likelihood that charging stations will attract a group of consumers who (at least with the initial generation of $40,000-and-up electric vehicles) will have a fair amount of discretionary income.

In today’s agreement, the involvement of Best Buy — which began retailing electric scooters and motorcycles at some stores last year — illustrates how new players may enter or interact with the automotive space as electric vehicles become increasingly linked with electronic devices and communication networks (via systems like Ford’s (s F) Sync, developed with Microsoft (s MSFT), and tools like General Motors’ (s GM) OnStar Mobile Application).

According to ECOtality’s announcement, the company plans to install its Blink charge points at Best Buy locations in Tucson, Phoenix, Los Angeles, San Diego, and Seattle. ECOtality plans to “analyze real-world experiences of EV users,” gathering data about consumer charging behavior and working to “identify potential incentives for EV host sites.” Depending on findings from this pilot program, the two partners may expand the Blink network to other Best Buy stores.

Data gathering is a big part of the charging infrastructure build-out at this point. While ECOtality plans to pursue many revenue streams (providing subscription plans for access to charge points and selling advertising on their interactive screens), the company expects that over the long term utilities will be “the ultimate customer.” ECOtality aims to use the smarts in its Blink stations to manage electricity demand from plug-in vehicles in a way that minimizes stress on the power grid, and Read told us in July that utilities would potentially pay a fee to access data about when and how people charge.

Questions remain, however, about what the real value will be for charge point “hosts,” such as Best Buy or big-box stores. According to ECOtality’s announcement this morning, the company’s goals for this project include gaining a better understanding “the true business case” for offering charging access to retail shoppers.

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