Private campground owners from around the country have descended on Orlando, Florida, for a fortnight of the year’s biggest annual conventions, hosted by the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC) last week and Kampgrounds of America (KOA) this week. But while the subject most prominently on ARVC’s agenda was electric vehicles (EVs) and how they “are poised to be a major factor in the future of outdoor hospitality,” the elephant outside the room was resolutely ignored—even as it quite literally hammered on the door to be recognized.
Going into its meeting, ARVC had just been provided by Hurricane Ian with an object lesson on how a rapidly changing climate is upending the industry’s traditional business practices. Several dozen Florida campgrounds had been shut down by Ian’s rampage, some permanently. Surely even as hidebound an organization as ARVC would take notice of a growing existential threat to its members, not just in Florida but throughout a country battered by extreme drought, flooding and wildfires? How to deal with the soaring cost and unavailability of property insurance, best practices in fire- or flood-prone areas, how to determine when it no longer makes sense to rebuild—all these and a host of other pressing topics could and should have made it into ARVC’s program.
But no. They did not. Instead, as Tropical Storm (and briefly Hurricane) Nicole battered the Atlantic coastline, canceled all flights out of Orlando, cut power to hundreds of thousands and killed at least two people, ARVC convention-goers were treated to the usual smorgasbord of amenity-promoting and revenue-enhancing topics: best practices to generate incremental revenue, the importance of ADA-compliant websites, “Scooters and Bicycles and Golf Carts—Oh My!” Trade association agendas, after all, are driven by vested interests that have something to sell.
EV charging a hot topic at RV convention
Indeed, the big topic of the day was the oncoming wave of electric vehicles—ironically, a wave propelled by climate change—as convention-goers were urged to start installing EV charging stations, even if only incrementally. Although evidence of market demand is still slim, ARVC made the most of what it had, asserting that 57% of respondents to a survey it conducted this past summer said that availability of an EV charging station would be important for them in picking a campground.
Well, sort of. The survey received limited attention on the convention floor, perhaps because out of 32,271 potential respondents, only 581 chose to reply—and only 457 were chosen for most data points. Moreover, the 57% response about the importance of EV charging stations came from 18 campers who already own an EV and 28 more who said they plan to buy one in the next year. That’s a slim reed on which to float expectations, plucked from a larger raft of questionable usefulness. As acknowledged by the polling firm itself, “It is unknown how those who responded to the survey may be different from those who did not respond.”
For campground owners trying to get ahead of the curve, however, the cautionary note is not necessarily one of capital costs. Level 2 charging stations, which can recharge an EV overnight, are relatively inexpensive: figure $500 for the equipment and possibly a like amount for installation. (Level 3 “fast” chargers, on the other hand, are commercial grade and therefore in an entirely different price category, starting at a minimum of $20,000 per charger. That didn’t deter some convention speakers from pushing them anyway.) Assuming, therefore, that a campground wanted to ease into the EV world with half-a-dozen Level 2 chargers, it could do so for $6,000 or so, which won’t break anyone’s bank.
The bigger and largely unaddressed problem, however, was how campgrounds will be able to recoup their “fuel” costs. Because the amount of EV traffic into RV parks is still nominal, most campgrounds that allow EV charging, whether through an RV pedestal or via a dedicated charger, currently absorb the cost as a goodwill loss-leader. Once that nominal expense becomes a growing hit against the bottom line, however, the inevitable question will become one of how RV parks will be able to start charging for the energy they’d been giving away.
The answer, alas, is “it depends.”
Electricity sales, unlike gasoline, are monopolized by electric utilities operating under rules that vary from state to state, with billing practices that vary from one utility to another. Most states, for example, don’t allow resellers of electricity to make a profit in doing so—all they can do is pass along their costs. A work-around offered by one convention panelist, that campgrounds charge for the kilowatts consumed at the utility rate but then tack on a “convenience fee” for allowing EVs to plug in, seems like a lawsuit magnet for any utility jealously defending its turf. Meanwhile, seven states still regulate EV charging as the exclusive domain of electric companies, as described in a recent Politico article.
A second variable is what’s known as a “demand charge,” which many homeowners don’t encounter but some business owners, including those who own campgrounds, know all too well. Demand charges are meant to compensate utilities for providing enough delivery infrastructure to meet spikes in demand caused by businesses with a lot of highly variable consumption—such as campgrounds. The demand charge is a base fee that is multiplied by the kilowatts consumed at peak demand each month, and is in addition to the per kilowatt cost of the electricity itself.
The problem for campground owners is that there is no one standard demand charge across the country: Such charges vary wildly from one utility to another. A relatively modest demand charge in one service area may be prohibitively steep in an adjoining one. And while Level 2 charging stations are not consumption black holes like Level 3 stations, they nevertheless can add a notable boost to peak demand that will have a disproportionate effect on the final bill.
Campground owners, for these and other reasons, should completely abandon any idea of installing Level 3 charging stations. As Politico reports, “Electrify America, a leading charging provider, says that demand charges are up to 80 percent of the cost” of operating Level 3 charging stations. And those stations, remember, costs tens of thousands of dollars just for the hardware.
Sorting out such cost complexities requires a lot of study and possibly the advice of a consultant—all but assuring that EVs will remain a convention staple for some time to come, since there’s money to be made from selling things. Too bad that’s not as readily true for the business of confronting elephants, no matter how much destruction they wreak. That takes true leadership, a rare commodity.
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Andy Zipser is the author of Renting Dirt, the story of his family’s experiences owning and operating a Virginia RV park, and of Turning Dirt, a step-by-step guide for finding, buying and operating an RV park and campground. Both books are available through bookstores or at Amazon.com.