Now here’s a fine mess, as Laurel and Hardy used to say. One of the biggest electric vehicle charging companies, Arizona-based ECOtality (a Nissan Leaf partner), went bankrupt, stranding about 13,000 commercial and residential stations. We all have a stake in this, because American tax dollars supported these installations through the so-called EV Project.

In the early rounds, only one bidder emerged, an unknown company called Tellus Power, which proposed acquiring ECOtality's assets for just $3 million. Consider that the federal grants totaled almost $115 million (of which almost $100 million was spent) and you begin to see the issue here. There are clear parallels to what happened to the U.S. investment in Fisker Automotive, which went bankrupt after spending $192 million of a $529 million loan (the feds then seized $21 million in assets).

But just as I was writing this, the Florida-based Car Charging Group said that it had won the prize, price unspecified. "We believe this will solidify our position as the leader in the electric vehicle charging industry," said Michael Farkas, the CEO. CCG has been aggressively expansionist, and owns pay-to-charge stations in such places as the parking garages of New York City. He's right; this makes the company a big player.

One of the issues with ECOtality's bankruptcy was making sure its network remains active, so users can swipe cards and get billed for the electricity. The worst possible outcome would have been to have ECOtality’s 3,300 public chargers (the rest are residential) inoperable because nobody could turn on their billing and operating systems. Nissan was so concerned about the network that it lent ECOtality $1.25 million to get through the auction, spokesman Brian Brockman confirmed.

electric charging station

Come to think of it, if those home units didn’t work, that would have been horrible, too. If you see parallels to the big and still-evolving government shutdown, you’re paying attention. It’s not quite veterans unable to get into war memorials, but it’s along the same lines.

Brett Hauser, president of Greenlots (which develops open-standard solutions) and a board member of the Open Charge Alliance, was watching the ECOtality debacle. He thinks it’s a clear argument applying open-source standards to all new installed chargers. That would prevent the embarrassing situation in Hawaii, where proprietary chargers installed by the bankrupt Better Place became “orphaned” because its new owners, OpConnect, couldn’t find the RFID cards to run them.

California, on National Plug-In Day, enacted a law requiring all new chargers to be accessible to credit cards — you shouldn’t have to join a network to use them. Forrest North, chief operating officer of Recargo, which runs very popular station locator apps (Recargo and PlugShare), points out, “We’re used to buying things from places like Amazon with just a credit card. These private networks and membership cards have led to nightmarish problems for people who couldn’t get a charge when they needed one.”

Pay with Plugshare

Recargo actually has its own solution to this, the newly launched Pay With Plugshare (above), which lets you use the iPhone (and Android later this year) app and your credit card to pay for a charge at any participating public station. So far, it has SemaConnect, one of the larger providers, on board. “Our focus is on the driver, trying to make it as easy and seamless as possible,” said North. The Open Charge Alliance, meanwhile, is recruiting internationally (including in Holland, which is very EV-friendly) to get all the EV players give up the idea of proprietary networks.

Back to ECOtality. I think Car Charging Group should be a good steward for the company's assets. Internationally, there are much worse scenarios. The aforementioned Better Place left a lot of stranded assets, and so far no credible buyer has emerged for it (though Iceland’s Northern Lights Energy is interested).

Tellus Power is a big question mark. The company is based in California, but very low profile there—it’s a subsidiary of a Chinese company called Tusai Holding. A division, Asola, made solar modules for the Fisker Karma, but that didn’t work out so well. Tellus has a website here, but it’s content-free so far.

The U.S. government closely scrutinized some potential sales of Fisker (also to Chinese interests), but I didn't see any similar uproar here. Hauser says his Greenlots company has “taken a look at the ECOtality operation. We want to make sure those stations stay up and are used.” He added, “Our perspective is that, whoever wins, they should continue to have connected stations and make them open source. It’s the only way for the electric car adoption to thrive and prosper.”

Here's some pre-bankruptcy video that gives you a fuller ECOtality picture:

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