Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Keepin' it simple

Plug-in cars are being delivered at long last. Yet there remains confusion about the necessary infrastructure and its expense. Electric Vehicle Service Equipment (EVSE) home wall units are priced at between about $1000 and $2500. Plus installation. Need it cost this much? Is it as complex and time-consuming a process as has been experienced by many new owners of plug-in cars?

All plug-in cars these days come with a 120-volt charge cord. This will actually be sufficient for many if not most Volt drivers, and quite a few LEAF drivers. An empty Volt pack will take 10 hours to fully recharge; an empty LEAF about 20 hours. That may seem like a long time, but the relevant questions are: How long will the car be sitting anyway? Until the next morning or just an hour or two? How full is the battery when it gets parked? And where are you going next?

For most folks most of the time, chances are the battery isn’t near empty when it gets plugged in, perhaps at work, perhaps at home after work. Recharge time will usually be much less than what it takes to go from empty to full.

And the cost to the consumer to enable the 120V cordset? If you’ve already got a grounded 120V outlet in the garage or carport, zero. If you need to put an outlet in a convenient place, it would likely cost about $100.

Surprising to many, including I suspect Tesla Motors itself, they found that about half the charging of Roadsters at home in the U.S. is at 120V. Despite the fact that it takes 38-60 hours to charge a Tesla from empty to full at 120V. One can’t presume the peculiarities of a Roadster tell us too much about plug-in cars with much less range, but I think we shouldn’t write off 120V charging just yet, as many involved in readying infrastructure for EVs would have us do. The cord that comes with the car just might suffice for many, especially plug-in hybrids which have smaller battery packs.

Still it remains true that most will want the ability to charge their car at a faster clip at least some of the time, which is what 240V charging stations provide. With the 16 amp charger both cars have today (the actual charger is located in the car, not the box on the wall,) a 240V EVSE takes about four hours to fill an empty Volt pack. It takes about seven hours to fill a near empty LEAF, ensuring a complete charge overnight. If a complete overnight charge is the goal, 120V will still suffice for a Volt, but a 240V EVSE will be essential for most who buy an all-electric car.

Nissan and GM have each had their preferred provider for home charge stations in an attempt to streamline the process, but many customers have had complaints about the cost and scheduling. Dozens of manufacturers seem to be selling equipment at a range of prices, but few actually are available now. The situation for new owners has also been complicated by the various government infrastructure programs, including the DOE-funded EV Project (Ecotality) and ChargePoint America (Coulomb,) which have differing requirements and benefits depending on one's vehicle and location. If eligible, most people accept a free 240V charge station, of course, as I did. My installation was pretty simple, so it cost me nothing. But government support for infrastructure won’t last forever. Coulomb and Ecotality sometime soon won’t be able to leverage taxpayer money to keep other manufacturers at a disadvantage. Quite likely not beyond the current programs.

I am pleased to participate in the EV Project, which came late to the San Francisco Bay Area, and happy to get my tax-payer funded charger and DC Fast port. I believe in government support for electric vehicles (and many other things also on the congressional chopping block at the moment.)

However, for the last month my Blink has been on the blink. Something about firmware, they said. An email on June 8th said they’d get back in touch to schedule a visit. As I write on July 13th I’ve recently been contacted by the contractor who installed the unit, but I’m still waiting for the service call. However, I remain unconcerned. Not because I always charge at 120V mind you. Rather, because I’ve had the 120V cordset provided with the car upgraded to 240V. offers the upgrade, which allows the Volt or LEAF to charge at their maximum 240V capability of 16 amps. Cost of upgrade: under $300. (For this to work in place of a wall-mounted unit, you still need a dedicated 240V 30 amp circuit and outlet, which would cost a few hundred dollars of an electrician’s time and perhaps $50 in parts.)

The point isn’t simply to plug the good folks at, although I’m happy to do it. They’ve kept my LEAF juiced, after all. Something Ecotality couldn’t do even with $100 million in federal grant money.

I am not alone in my concern that there is some level of unnecessary complication, excessive cost, and unhelpful mystification going on around electric vehicle infrastructure. It isn’t helpful to the “cause,” those picking up their new plug-in cars or those who are considering it.

For the electric vehicle project, broadly speaking, to be successful, we need to be mindful to keep it simple and keep it cheap. This is not rocket science. We are adding yet another electrical appliance to our ever increasing array of devices, from light bulbs and cell phones to refrigerators and HVAC systems. It needs to be done safely, of course. But it needs to happen. To do it right, the focus needs to be on consumers’ interest. The result will be simple, safe and cheap. Thank you for pointing the way.