“Rip off” at the e-car charging station?

There are huge price differences at the charging stations for electric cars. In most regions, a single large operator drives the market. This could have serious consequences for the expansion of electromobility.

A charging station for electric cars in Stuttgart

OWithout an assortment of apps, charging cards, plastic and digital money, the journey with the electric car can come to an abrupt end. Because practically every provider of charging stations cooks their own billing soup and some of them also like to cook their customers. Huge price differences are not uncommon. “At Germany’s charging stations, rip-offs and chaos rule. There is no competition, ”says Ralph Kampwirth from the green electricity provider Lichtblick.

The Monopolies Commission also criticizes the lack of competition. The government advisors complained in a special report that charging current is unnecessarily expensive and electromobility is being slowed down. In most regions, a single large operator dominates the market. According to the Commission, such regional monopolies dominate particularly in the case of fast charging stations. And because they can switch and control pretty freely, displeasure grows. “The market is of course still emerging. But we are already receiving more and more complaints about the prices and conditions at the charging stations, ”reports Andreas Mundt, President of the Federal Cartel Office.

On Thursday, the Bonn competition watchdog initiated a so-called “sector investigation” to examine the situation at the charging stations. Such analysis is the first step when there is evidence that the competition is not working. If that were the case, it could make the switch to more climate-friendly vehicles considerably more difficult. Environmental bonuses and lower VAT when buying electric vehicles are not very convincing if the big end comes when filling up. “The establishment of a comprehensive charging infrastructure is a prerequisite for the success of electromobility in Germany. When consumers decide to switch to electromobility, the conditions and prices for charging in public spaces are of central importance, ”says Mundt.

The Federal Network Agency has no control

The Cartel Office therefore wants to identify “structural competition problems” in this early market phase. According to the government plans, a nationwide charging infrastructure is to be built by 2030. The problem with this is that unlike the power grids and household electricity, for which every customer can easily switch providers, charging stations have not yet been subject to any comprehensive regulation. Largely undisturbed by official market surveillance, the operators can therefore make access more difficult or even deny access to other electricity suppliers and tank electricity providers.

The network agency recently made a first foray: It wants to persuade regional electricity suppliers to also offer the charging tariffs of their competitors at their own stations. Charging station operators would then receive an “appropriate fee” from their competitors, as stated in a consultation paper. What sounds good has a horse’s foot: the operators have to play along of their own free will. “We create the technical prerequisites where providers voluntarily enable a supplier to be selected. The Federal Network Agency has no legal means to oblige operators of charging stations to compete, ”said a spokesman.

In principle, the Cartel Office would have better cards. “Possible competition problems can be taken up with the help of antitrust law,” writes the authority in a communication on its sector inquiry. In addition to non-discriminatory access to suitable locations for charging stations, “the specific conditions of use at the charging stations are of decisive importance”, including the prices that competitors may be charged.

The Cartel Office also wants to take a closer look at how cities and municipalities proceed when they select locations for charging stations and assign them to operators. Finally, the third block are the prerequisites for more competition on the motorways. Now extensive questionnaires are sent out to collect data and information. “The intervention of the cartel office is a right and necessary step”, praises the green electricity provider Lichtblick. But it will be many months before the results are available. And only then will it be decided whether and how the Cartel Office can actually take action.