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Plugging Into a New Business: Shea Electric and Communications found opportunities with EV charging

By Chuck Ross | Nov 15, 2023
SHUTTERSTOCK / DRAZBEDEL
Two years ago, Dan Shea, chief operating officer of Oshkosh, Wis.-based Shea Electric and Communications, knew little about electric vehicles and charging equipment. Today, Shea is an evangelist for both technologies and helping lead the effort to electrify his state’s roadways. 

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Two years ago, Dan Shea, chief operating officer of Oshkosh, Wis.-based Shea Electric and Communications, knew little about electric vehicles and charging equipment. Today, Shea is an evangelist for both technologies and helping lead the effort to electrify his state’s roadways. He’s urging other electrical contractors to start doing their research now, as a $5 billion federal program is rolling out funding to states to develop a national EV charger network throughout the U.S. highway system. That adds up to a lot of opportunities for electrical pros. However, Shea cautions those seeking to get into the business to do their homework first and ensure their suppliers will meet customer needs over the long haul.

An “aha!” moment

Shea’s business focuses on commercial and industrial operations in his east-central Wisconsin service territory. His company, co-founded with his wife, opened its doors in 2006 with an emphasis on low-voltage and communications work, though general electrical assignments still make up 40%–45% of its business, according to Shea.

Shea’s “aha!” moment regarding business and EV charging came during a July 2021 meeting at a local Chevrolet dealership, where he was called in to help the owner understand the needs his company would soon have to support. That’s when a startling statistic opened his eyes.

“They had the number-five guy for GM come in, and he said that by 2030, they’ll have less than six models that will run on internal combustion engines,” Shea said. “He looked me right in the eye, and said that this is coming like a freight train. So, I said, OK, they’re committed to this—then why aren’t I selling these chargers?”

The expanding EV market

Now for a quick primer on the burgeoning EV market, the charging options needed to support it and the expansive federal programs coming online to help finance the needed infrastructure. We’re at the early days of changes that will be shifting century-old transportation habits, with ECs becoming vital participants.

As of Q2 2023, EVs had 7.1% of the U.S. new vehicle market, according to Cox Automotive. That percentage might seem inconsequential, but it’s up from 5.8% for the same period in 2022—a climb of 22% in a year. In terms of vehicles sold that quarter, EV purchases climbed by 48% over 2022’s results. Tesla remains the market leader, but buyers now have 40 fully electric models to choose from, which is a big leap up from just a few years ago.

The ability to go gas-free is appealing, but EVs’ advantages for consumers go beyond less-expensive fuel costs. With no transmission or exhaust system, EV owners can forget about oil changes, transmission servicing and spark plugs. Even brakes need less attention, as the regenerative braking EVs use to capture more energy for their batteries creates less wear and tear on pads and rotors. The big sticking point for shoppers, however, remains range anxiety—the fear of running out of battery power without access to charging options while out on the road.

In June, Shea Electric and Communications hosted local residents to learn more about, and test drive, several electric vehicle models. Photo by Dan Shea.

In June, Shea Electric and Communications hosted local residents to learn more about, and test drive, several electric vehicle models.

The November 2021 bipartisan infrastructure law is beginning to make a dent in addressing charging availability with the $5 billion in grants it authorized for states through the National Electric Vehicle Infrastructure (NEVI) Program. Its goal is a national network of 500,000 Level 3 fast chargers capable of adding 100–250 miles of range in 30–45 minutes along 75,000 miles of U.S. highways. This ease of access is meant to give prospective EV buyers confidence that a cross-country vacation drive is possible. But while funding comes from the federal government, states have to develop their own implementation plans in their applications for those grants, with requirements to ensure:

  • Stations are built along approved alternative fuel corridors
  • Stations are no more than 50 miles apart and no more than one travel mile from an off/exit ramp or highway intersection
  • Charging solutions are nonproprietary, so any and all EVs can successfully charge at each station
  • There are at least four 150-kilowatt (kW) chargers per site capable of simultaneous charging
  • Site power is at least 600 kW

The U.S. Department of Transportation accepted Wisconsin’s plan in September 2022, and the state now has access to $78 million in funding to help developers get a statewide charger network up and running.

Customer-focused research

Following that fateful Chevrolet dealership meeting, Shea dove into research. He and his wife had built their business by focusing on partnerships rather than price—for example, they don’t participate in bidding arrangements. So, with this new potential charger installation offering, Shea wanted to learn all he could about the equipment and its makers to ensure the products he chose for his customers would meet their needs for years to come and not just provide a first-cost discount.

“I needed to look at it through the eyes of the customer, not the eyes of a contractor,” he said. “Typically, a contractor is going to pick up the phone and call a couple of suppliers and say, ‘Hey, what do you sell for EV charging—great, send me the price,’ and then send that pricing back to the customer and install whatever the suppliers have.”

The software component

Through his research, Shea recognized how critical a manufacturer’s transaction software could be to the charger owner and their customers. The software is typically sold on a subscription basis separate from the cost of the charger, he said, and owners can be locked into contracts for up to 3–5 years. With some charger manufacturers’ designs, it can be impossible to shift plans, even if the software maker goes out of business, because the code is burned into the machine’s hardware.

An industry standard, Open Charge Point Protocol (OCPP), is meant to address this issue by requiring participating manufacturers to design their boxes to work with multiple software offerings. (Note, this standard is not related to charger manufacturer ChargePoint.) In practice, though, Shea said, while manufacturers may indicate their products are built to OCPP requirements, they can still refuse to release the machine’s controls to allow a new software package to be downloaded.

“If I’m putting in 30 boxes a year and I sell three years with the software, and then customers come back and say they’re unhappy with the software and can’t change it, that’s going to be a really bad experience for me,” Shea said, explaining the bottom-line implications for contractors who don’t do their own product research. “That’s what’s going to happen—not to me, but it’s going to happen to other people.”

The breezEV charging system. Photo by Dan Shea.

The breezEV charging system

Shea’s customers are looking for Level 2 commercial chargers drivers can use to top up their batteries with 30–40 miles of driving in an hour or so, depending on the charger and vehicle. His research led him to systems from breezEV, Middleton, Mass., with software from AmpUp, Santa Clara, Calif.—though owners are free to switch suppliers if needs change with time. Shea liked the way the software uses an automated system to ensure the charger is online and available on at least a daily basis. By getting a heads-up regarding any possible problems through the software, charger owners can better ensure their equipment is up and running when needed.

Advice from a pro

For other ECs who might be called in for their first commercial charger installation, Shea suggests first ensuring the location has a cell signal to enable the unit to communicate with monitoring and billing systems. Then contractors need to work with customers to determine how many chargers are needed.

“If they think they want one charger, then they really should be putting in two,” he said, noting the investment to just bring power to the location and the advantages of making subsequent chargers easier to add. “And then we tell them, why don’t we rough-in for multiple chargers and get them ready, and as you get utilization, put in the next two.”

For owners who want to earn an income from their chargers—or at least break even on their investment—an understanding of state utility rules is required. In many states, utilities’ monopoly status makes it illegal for others to resell power, but they can charge for the time their equipment is in use. Setting these rates means doing a bit of math, multiplying the equipment’s charging capacity by the local per-kilowatt-hour rate, along with a figure to account for any related demand charges that could show up on the monthly electricity bill. 

In some cases, charger software developers can help walk owners through these calculations, based on the number of hours the equipment is expected to be used each month and how quickly owners want to recoup their costs.

Building up business

Building a commercial charging business will take some time, Shea said, and more discussion about this technology might be useful. For example, he started by hosting an open house with local Ford and Chevrolet dealerships, with test drives included.

“We just have to demystify it and get people comfortable with electric vehicles, talk calmly and not let them run around saying ‘range anxiety, range anxiety, range anxiety,’” he said, noting the way NEVI funding will help address this concern. 

“That’s what NEVI is going to bring—you’re going to have fast chargers every 50 miles up and down the highway, and it’s going to allow you to traverse from, say, Wisconsin to Pennsylvania without a problem.”

shutterstock / Drazbedel; Dan Shea

About The Author

ROSS has covered building and energy technologies and electric-utility business issues for more than 25 years. Contact him at [email protected].

 

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