RV meetings will ignore the elephant

Private campground owners from around the country will descend on Orlando, Florida the next couple of weeks for two of the year’s biggest annual conventions, hosted by the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC) next week and Kampgrounds of America (KOA) the week after. And next week, at least, the subject most prominently on the agenda–as it was last year–will be electric vehicles (EVs) and how they “are poised to be a major factor in the future of outdoor hospitality.”

How prominently? For openers, a plenary panel led by ARVC president Paul Bambei on Tuesday morning will provide “a vision of the future where EVs play an integral role in outdoor hospitality.” Immediately following will be a lunch panel, “Your Campground’s EV Road Map,” described in early convention programs in language exactly the same as used for the earlier panel. Apparently this will not be a fast-charging discussion.

Two predictions about this confab. Number one, the elephant in the room will be completely ignored. Number two, while convention-goers will be urged to start installing EV chargers at their campgrounds, little to no attention will be paid to the costs of such an amenity. While much will be made of how EV chargers are a necessary accommodation for a changing customer base (ARVC already is claiming that EV owners are currently twice as likely as everyone else to be campers), to which will be added the observation that campgrounds offering such chargers will have a competitive edge, any analysis of the costs that face campgrounds going the EV route will be sketchy at best.

It’s not that the charging station itself is prohibitively expensive: figure $500 for the equipment and possibly a like amount for installation of a Level 2 EV charger, which is sufficient for a full recharge overnight. (Level 3 “fast” chargers are commercial grade and therefore in an entirely different price category, starting at $20,000 per charger.) 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 problem is how to recoup the “fuel” costs. The amount of EV traffic into RV parks is still nominal, prompting most campgrounds that offer charging stations to simply absorb the cost as a goodwill loss-leader. But as more EVs start hooking up to a campground’s grid, that nominal expense will become a growing hit against the bottom line–inevitably prompting campground owners to wonder just how much of an increased cost they incurred and how they can 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. And while such restrictions are gradually loosening up, 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 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. And while Level 2 charging stations are not consumption black holes like Level 3 stations, they nevertheless can add an incremental boost to peak demand that will have a disproportionate effect on the final bill, as the higher demand charge will be multiplied across all of that month’s kilowatt consumption.

(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.)

Sorting out such cost complexities requires a lot of study and possibly the advice of a consultant, and undoubtedly will not be something the ARVC panels explore in any meaningful fashion, if at all. But back to that elephant. The other subject the convention won’t address–my second prediction–is the growing vulnerability of RV parks and campgrounds to climate change and extreme weather.

It’s ironic, actually, that ARVC will be meeting in a state that only weeks ago was battered so severely by Hurricane Ian that several dozen campgrounds were shut down, some permanently. Horrendous as the destruction was, and as inevitable as it is that similarly extreme storms will strike not just Florida but many other states, not one mention of the climate threat appears in the convention’s program. The cost and availability of flood or 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 never made it into the program.

It’s likely that the KOA convention will be just as mum on the subject, since the industry’s “thought leaders” seem incapable of actually leading on so threatening an issue. One might wonder how much longer they can ignore the elephant in the room, but the fact that they’ll be doing so in Florida suggests their myopia cannot be overestimated.

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