Why do good things always have to get worse?

OK, I may be overstating my case just a little bit. Maybe it's not always, but surely a lot more than you or I would like.

This is a tale of EV charging station woe, and how a once-helpful solution in my area seems to have changed for the worse. I'm hoping that it's a temporary change and that it will improve in the future.

However, as of mid-April 2024, it's a problem, so of course I'm going to have to tell you about how Shell's charging station wouldn't let me charge at all and put me into an app Groundhog Day loop.

The Before Times

Back in July of 2023, I wrote about the Volta EV charging network we had access to in the Chicago area. It offered both L2 and DC fast charging options (usually not at the same location), and best of all and unlike other charging networks, the L2 options were usually completely free of charge.

Volta did this by selling banner ads that'd display on Volta's giant charging pillars. 

Quite strangely, Volta didn't even require users to download an app to utilize its chargers (at least, not the L2 ones). A person with an EV that uses L2 charging could just pull up, plug in, wait for however long the charger allowed, and be on their way. Different locations had different time limits for charging, but who's going to be mad about getting free electricity that they don't even have to hand over their personal data to receive? 

And then in March of 2023, Shell and Volta announced that Shell had acquired Volta's EV charging network.

When I first heard the news, I wondered what would happen next. It seemed likely that Shell would want to start charging for the service, rather than selling ads on its pillars. But I didn't actually know what would happen, and no one on the outside of that deal probably did.

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Bad Times In Charging App Limbo

Fast-forward to April of 2024, and while I can't tell you about the status of every single one of Volta's 3,000 or so charging stations that Shell acquired in that 2023 deal, the charging station that matters most is always the one that you, the EV rider or driver, are using right now.

Or rather, not using.

Not because you don't want to use it, but because for some reason, you can't. That is, in fact, exactly what happened to me last weekend, as I was out for a fun ride, along a familiar fun-ride route. The kind of fun ride with lots of curves, an acceptable number of stop lights/signs (read: as few as possible), and light traffic because we got out early enough on a weekend for that to be possible. 

Because I was riding a Zero, I had charging stops in mind. One was a Volta charger at a Walgreens that I'd successfully charged at in the past. 

I pulled up and immediately saw that it's been rebranded to a Shell Recharge station. OK, no big deal, I thought. Maybe I'll have to pay instead of charging for free. It'll be a little annoying having to download a new app, but whatever. I'll deal with it.

(There's an entire separate conversation to be had about how the seemingly never-ending succession of charging apps coupled with a company's insistence that you have a late-gen smartphone to use them creates significant hurdles for non-smartphone users to adopt EVs as well as data privacy and ease of cross EV charging platform use, but that's a discussion we'll save for another time.)

First, I tried plugging my bike in like I always had when it was a plain old Volta charger. It did the handshake, and I could see that the charger and my bike were successfully talking to each other. But it wasn't charging.

So I looked around the pillar to see if there were directions, and I found this:

Shell Recharge-branded Volta Charging Decal, Photographed April 14, 2024 in Lake Zurich, IL

I scanned the QR code and prepared to follow the directions in the app.

Except I Couldn't!

See, the QR code on this decal takes you to the Volta app. Back when I was eager to first borrow a Zero for a long-term review, I did all the homework you might do when welcoming a new vehicle into your home (even if only temporarily). I downloaded Plugshare, I downloaded the Zero NextGen app, I downloaded the Volta App, and I downloaded the Chargepoint app. I might have downloaded one or two more (there are a lot of different EV charging station networks), but you get the idea. I wanted to be ready.

The first time I actually used a Volta charger, though, was when I discovered that I didn't actually need the Volta app. Volta used to be kind of strange. 

The Volta app merely existed to help you find directions to your nearest Volta charging station, as well as input information about your vehicle (only if you wanted to; not as a requirement) so that it could direct you to an appropriate Volta station. Since the Volta network offered both L2 and DC fast charging at different stations, this made perfect sense.

In 2024, even though Shell Recharge has now taken possession of the Volta network, I'm here to tell you that the Volta app is still exactly the same as I remember in 2023.

Volta App - Location Information For Walgreens in Lake Zurich, IL - Screencapped April 14, 2024

Volta App - Location Information For Walgreens in Lake Zurich, IL - Screencapped April 14, 2024

What the Volta app does is tell you helpful information to both a) find the right charger (and one that's functioning/not currently in use), and b) navigate to that charger. 

What the Volta app does NOT do is have any place to input payment information. At least, not for the L2 chargers; I haven't used it for anything with DC fast charging, so perhaps the interface is different. 

There's also no interface that lets you check in and turn the charging on at a given L2 charger.

What If The QR Code Is Wrong?

Humans are, well, human. We make mistakes. What if someone put the wrong QR code in the decal? 

I hied myself digitally (in both senses) to the Google Play store and found only this:

Shell Recharge App - Not Available In Your Country - Screencapped April 14, 2024

Shell Recharge App - Not Available In Your Country - Screencapped April 14, 2024

For all intents and purposes, the electricity was there. The chargers appeared to be in good working order. They were ready to dispense electricity. They'd just been locked behind an unknown gate of inaccessibility, seemingly brought on by their change in ownership. 

To be clear, I wasn't even mad about them not being free anymore. I would have been fine with paying if I could have, you know, actually accessed whatever app I needed to use in order to pay for my electricity. Or in other words, if the directions on the charger had been clear, and hadn't just led me down a spiral of infinite and exquisite frustration.

Or, you know, I could've just used a credit card like I do if I put fuel in an ICE bike. I hear those things are all the rage.

Which, speaking of rage, I was pretty annoyed at being stuck in an app loop. Even though I wasn't critically low on charge at that point, what if I had been? It shouldn't be this difficult, period. But luckily, a totally random stranger wanted to chat about electric bikes, so they actually helped me calm down from my annoyance.

Thanks, random stranger!

Thanks Be To Randy's Cycle

Charging at Randy's Cycle in Marengo, IL - April 15, 2024

Charging at Randy's Cycle in Marengo, IL - April 15, 2024

While I wasn't critically low on charge just yet when we stopped in Lake Zurich, the whole thing about riding an electric motorcycle for a fun day out is that you need to plan your stops. I'd planned this one, in anticipation of topping off enough to get to my next one. You see how it works, right?

In 2023, although I stopped at a Zero dealer called Randy's Cycle a couple of different times to try to use their charger, it hadn't been working. So I didn't have much hope that it would be any different yesterday.

Thankfully, it was. The charger was turned on and working perfectly, so I was able to get a nice little top-up. The shop even has picnic tables out front, so you can sit and chill if you want. (I only wish I'd thought to bring snacks.)

A Few Hours Later

While I didn't stay to get a full charge at Randy's, I thought I'd stayed around long enough to be able to make it through the rest of our planned ride, and then home. I still had another Volta charger that I wanted to check just because I wanted to see if it had the same issue as the Lake Zurich one or not. 

Notably, I didn't want to have to depend on that Volta charger, since I didn't know if it would work out. That inherent distrust that equipment won't be working when and where you need it to seems to be a defining feature of EV life when you're charging anywhere other than home.

I was, perhaps, either overly optimistic or overly throttle-happy in most of the rest of my ride, because I did end up needing that second Volta charger if I was going to successfully make it back. 

I gritted my teeth and hoped I wouldn't end up walking.

Thankfully, while these Volta stations (another set in pairs at a Jewel Osco, which seems to have a lot of Volta stations in the Chicago area) had the new Shell Recharge branding, they did NOT have the QR code on the side.

When I plugged the charger into the bike at one of the stations, it immediately did the handshake and started charging. 57 amps. 6 kilowatts. Whew. 

What Comes Next?

I've reached out to Shell to ask about this situation, whether it's common, and what it plans to do to fix the problem. At the time of writing, I've not yet received a response. I will update this piece if and when I do.

Shell is a massive company. In a recent document called Energy Transition Strategy 2024, it plainly states its goal to become a net zero emission company by 2050. In order to do this, the company says that it wants to both focus on growing its public charging network and also "remain one of the world's largest blenders and distributors of biofuels." 

That's well and good if the company's actions match its words, but having all the charging stations in the world isn't helpful if EV users can't access them. 

To meet this goal, Shell has also acquired other EV charging networks in the past. In 2021, it acquired what was then the UK's largest public EV charging network, Ubitricity. Back in 2019, it purchased Greenlots and then rebranded those locations as Shell Recharge stations in 2022.

Spend time perusing Reddit or EV forums and as you can probably guess, you'll see a range of experiences with Shell Recharge-branded EV charging stations. Some people have good luck, and some don't. Some locations allow users to just use a credit card (the dream, I tell you), while others require you to use the app.

Some say the Shell Recharge app is flaky, and say they've had multiple charges (of the monetary rather than electrical kind) to their connected account. Some swear by using the Shell RFID card instead of trying to use the app, which is another thing that interested users would have to carry around with them and worry about losing. 

Speaking of the Shell Recharge app, if you've read this far, then you've already seen that when I searched for it in the Google Play store on April 14, 2024, I only found the app meant for Europe. And so, I couldn't download or use it.

Once I was back at my computer, I was able to locate the US app in the Google Play store. As with most apps that have more than a few downloads, the reviews are mixed. One in particular struck my eye, with the opening line reading, "Doesn't have anything at the charging station to say this is the app you need to download, it has two completely different brand names, I had to Google it!" 

It's far from being a robust data set to study, but that means I'm not the only one running into this frustrating multi-app riddle, simply because I made the mistake of wanting to charge up at a station that Shell had acquired and rebranded. And that's a problem that Shell needs to sort out if it's serious about offering a robust EV charging network with Shell Recharge.

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