Monday, November 25, 2013

Why One LEAF-Driving Cop Can't Drive Straight Home After Work Anymore

Friday November 22, 2013

Today I met a San Francisco cop. He wasn’t in uniform, so I figured he was another of those early adopter techie types buying EVs. We chatted while he finished charging his LEAF at the recently installed Quick Charger at the new Market Street Whole Foods in San Francisco.  I'll call him Officer Bill.

Officer Bill has had his LEAF since February 2013, about 9 months.  His infectious smile alone communicates how much he likes his car. It saved him a lot of money for six months. That’s why he leased it originally. He has come to like the car so much that the fact that now it is costing him closer to his gasoline past doesn’t seem to get him down. He’s accepted the changed situation at the station house that has increased his cost in dollars and commuting time. After a while driving electric became it’s own reward. That’s really too bad.

Officer Bill's story is important because it points to the steps that can be taken now to create millions of EV drivers like him.  Think of all the people around Bill, starting with his fellow officers. Many became very interested after Bill showed up in his LEAF and told them the hundreds he had been spending on gas paid the lease on his cool new ride -- and then some.  But now they are back on the fence, holding off on getting a plug-in car. 

Bill lives a good 60 miles from San Francisco, so he needs to get some juice to make his trip home after work.  For six months Bill was allowed to plug in at the station house, and his LEAF became very “cash positive.”  Bill had spotted an unused outlet in the employee only parking lot. A standard 120-volt outlet - Level 1 in EVspeak. He asked permission and the one in charge said okay --as have many employers around the country.  

Perhaps he’d heard that the President and the Governor and the Mayor want to see more people drive EVs and figured why not let Bill plug in? Perhaps he’d done the math and figured less than a buck a day wasn’t even worth pondering. Chances are he hadn’t read the Plug In Electric Vehicle Collaborative report which documents workplaces where Level 1 meets employees’ needs reliably and cheaply. Perhaps he figured electric cars are such duds it wouldn’t be long before Bill got a regular car. 

Then one day a few months ago Officer Bill's boss changed and the replacement said Bill could no longer plug in.   

Bill likes his car and is resourceful, so he got a Blink card and ChargePoint card and an EVGO card and he makes do. That’s why I ran into him at the Whole Food DC charger.  He had stopped to charge up for his commute home after work. 

He told me about city programs to install EV infrastructure and said the Police Department is competing to get an allocation of 240-volt charging stations (EVspeak: Level 2 EVSE). But Bill says the program requires the EVSE be public. He’s hopeful one day politics will land “one of those at the station house” he said to me as he pointed to a ChargePoint Level 2 across the parking lot. 

Of course, as he proved for six months, he doesn’t need a Level 2 EVSE at work. With his Level 2 charge at home, the 120V outlet at work made his daily 120 miles a piece of cake.  And I bet some of his fellow officers would be driving an EV today if Bill had been allowed to continue using the convenient outlet. Bill's fellow officers could be using existing “EV infrastructure” as well. Maybe they would need to add a few more outlets if the cars prove that popular. Perhaps the officers who plug in could create a kitty, throw in a buck a day, to create a fund to pay for the expansion of their Level 1 employee parking to induce even more cops to go electric. But I dream. The station chief said no. The City seems committed to Level 2 EVSE whenever the discussion turns to plug-in cars -- even when it would be simpler, cheaper and more convenient for both employees and managers.

Let’s be clear on the benefits. Access to a 120V outlet at work is the simple, reliable, low -cost solution for most commuters to get home. And then some. (If it’s truly not enough of a charge for someone, in a sea of L1, a little L2 can go a long way.) It’s also the simplest, least expensive and least disruptive way for employers who provide parking to answer growing requests for charging from their employees.  The employer has no “system” to manage, and employees don’t have the distraction of having to move their fully-charged cars to open up the spot for someone else.  Officer Bill would get home to his family sooner on Level 1. And with Level 2 EVSE, he might not be around to move his car for the new guy's EV while he’s out battling bad guys. 

Simple Level 1 access to electricity: that’s exactly what the state and city should be funding to drive the market. As a starting point for some workplaces, or as part of a well-considered mix of charging options at others.   

Unfortunately the opposite is the case.  That very morning I was in Sacramento for the “Pre-Application Workshop for PON-13-606 - Electric Vehicle Charging Infrastructure” workshop. A million dollars is allocated to “Category II - Workplace Charging without Public Access.” This of course is Officer Bill's situation. His car sits all day in the employee lot while he drives a squad car. 

It’s hard to believe, but one of the category II requirements is “Charging must be provided at Level 2 or direct current Fast Charging.”  In other words the one workplace charging solution that is cheap and easy and proven to work is disallowed in a solicitation intended to encourage more people to switch to plug-in cars. 

Some argue it’s so easy and so cheap employers should just do it.  What do they need funding for, unlike the prestigious, higher voltage Level 2 contestant? After all, Level 1 can cost hundreds instead of thousands per charge spot.  Excuse me, but that’s the point: a little money can create dozens of 120-volt outlets. Charging for lots more people driving still more people to get EVs. Instead, with workplace infrastructure pushed toward the expensive, grant-driven Level 2, to the extent we succeed in inducing higher EV ownership we create new problems to solve at the workplace.

To add insult to injury, in cases where the “infrastructure” already exists in the form of a serendipitous 120V outlet, many including government employees like the San Francisco police officer I met at the Quick Charger, are forbidden from using them.  While other government employees and contractors - mostly not EV drivers - are spending millions of dollars to assess strategies and develop programs to stimulate plug-in car sales, government is at the same time standing in the way of actual employee EV drivers. 

The Governor of California and the Mayor of San Francisco are committed to the proliferation of plug-in cars. Could they not issue executive orders to permit government employees to use existing Level 1 infrastructure (120V outlets) in government owned employee parking lots? Maybe they tout it as smart and cheap. Maybe they whisper it to Officer Bill's station chief. It’s no silver bullet, but none of the “solutions for EV charging” are. The bankruptcies of Ecotality and Better Place, both recipients of government grants in the millions, have proven that. Is simple, cheap and proven anathema in this age of the high tech solution?

Friday, November 1, 2013

Garage Lessons: Charging in The Real World

I participated in the Governor's Office Conference Coast-to-Coast Workshop on E-Mobility in Sacramento sponsored by the governments of California and the Netherlands on Wednesday.  The biggest impression of the day regarding EVs was made upon me before I even made it to the hotel.

For the past decade I've been driving the 91 miles to Sacramento without stopping to charge in a 2002 RAV4 EV. I suspected I wouldn't find a nearby available old RAV charger. Most have been replaced with units compatible with the new PEVs.  So that day I was driving my LEAF.  Less range but lots more public charging stations and fast-charging available.

I'd scoped out the closest garage with charging stations beforehand and hoped I'd find an available Level 2 charging station.  The three in that garage were occupied by 8:30am, and I was pleased to see quite a few more PEVs parked in spaces without charging stations. Government workers who likely live close enough to not bother plugging in, I surmised. Or perhaps they just got beat out that morning and would have plugged in if the charge points were available since they are cost free.

Anyway, no time for idle conjecture; I was due at a meeting soon. I drove up through the 5 story garage hoping there might be some more charge stations elsewhere. There weren't. But what I did see, including on upper levels with few cars at all, were PEVs scattered throughout plugged in to 120V outlets.  More cars were charging at these unintentional "guerilla" Level 1 charging stations than the "official" (and costly) Level 2 stations. What lessons are we to learn?

Some might say, given the number of plug-in cars showing up in that garage, that it's time for more Level 2 chargers. I don't think so. Maybe some day, but not now. We have one mission: getting more consumers to buy plug-in cars. In Norway tax policy has resulted in the the world's quickest uptake of EVs. In October, more LEAFs were sold in Norway than any other model, gas cars included. We need to find other means to the same end. The Real World demonstrates that what's most useful and cost effective is more access to 120V outlets, perhaps lots more, at America's workplaces. It's simple and affordable by America's small and medium sized employers.  And it's more than most drivers "need," actually.

Britta Gross of GM is reporting 70% of Volt customers charge at 120V. Nissan was surprised at the number of buyers uninterested in Level 2 at home, but we don't have real data.  Nissan and the others ought to be required to reveal more data on how cars are charging. Relying on EVSPs gives us wildly skewed data that does not include Level 1 or EVSE-less Level 2. We already know that the real world charging experience is not exactly what was predicted and planned for. We need good information from the 10s of thousands of EVs on the road to help us make smart infrastructure decisions.

Where outlets exist already, as in that Sacramento garage, they need to be checked for safety and repurposed for EVs. It's the least expensive way to create a charge point and arguably the most powerful single carrot available to turn commuters into EV commuters and employers into willing accomplices. New Level 1 installations - outlets - will be the least expensive, lowest maintenance option - no EVSE.  And they can be made Level 2 ready with proper wiring and conduit for the day five or ten years hence when EVs can partake of all the the "grid smarts" envisioned.

Later at the meeting I was told about what's happening at CalEPA. There are at least 28 Level 2 chargers in garages within one block of CalEPA, possibly many more. Yet there are so many PEV drivers now they've got a system to facilitate communication amongst themselves to enable the daily shuffle of cars to chargers during work so everyone can avail themselves of the free charge. Is that grass-rootsy EV driver success to apportion charge opportunities fairly? Or is it failure, taking state employees away from work, costing the state still more in the name of advancing plug-in vehicles?  Is it reasonable to expect private employers to tolerate such a situation to promote EVs?

Back in the garage, I didn't find an available outlet.  In the end I went to the hotel, which doesn't have any official EVSE but PlugShare reports does have a 240V outlet for EVs. So I pulled in, found the outlet, plugged in my unit, and charged up.

The meeting was informative.  Clever financing, electric public transport, and "interoperability" are important issues and a lot is gained from cross-national conversations. But right now Job One is increasing PEV sales.  We ought to spend more time considering what will actually drive sales in the next year or two. "Interoperability," once we decide what we are talking about, and "smart" charging capable of providing grid services some day, will not sell one PEV now.

A 120V outlet with a welcome matt at one's workplace will. Surely there's a way to make that a priority.


Saturday, July 27, 2013

The Workplace Charging Challenge

It’s been one full year since first Tesla S deliveries began. In the luxury car market you can feel that the ground has begun to shift. After numerous awards and accolades, it seems fair to say that the best luxury car is an electric car. Given its range, and the rapidly growing free Supercharger network, the Tesla Model S works well for virtually everyone who can afford one. Without paid advertising, Tesla is selling all they can manufacture. Legislative roadblocks promoted by old-line automaker dealerships boomeranged into an eco-libertarian cri de couer that garnered well over 100,000 petitioners. Tesla’s luck continues to hold, unchallenged as either a luxury or longer-range EV. Automakers continue to only offer sub-100 mile range vehicles.  The electric Infiniti has been “postponed,” and BMW is entering the market with a car that doesn’t challenge Tesla.

Although Tesla gets the headlines (and stock price boost), Nissan and Chevrolet make the sales. Plug-in vehicle sales are indeed increasing, with the LEAF and Volt each selling about 2500 units in June 2013.  Workplace charging certainly isn’t a concern of Tesla S owners, but it should become the focus for getting drivers into EVs and PHEVs. With leases in the $200 - 300 range, for commuters the numbers already add up. These are the cars that must sell in greater numbers if some automaker is to market the 125-150 mile range car with fast charging I (and perhaps most people) want. Simple access to power while at work is a tremendous additional incentive for PEV sales of these lower-range cars.  Even with Level 1 charging at work, these become 100+ mile cars. On the other hand burdensome complexity and unnecessary cost could inhibit employers from making it easy.

As government looks to enable employees to make the switch to electricity, what sort of charging infrastructure should we be focusing on?  Where should continuing government support be directed? 

Government support for EV infrastructure has largely been directed at Level 2 charge stations, both for residences, public access and workplace. Level 2 is perfect for the home.  You can charge fully overnight at the cheapest time of use rate. And thanks to the efforts of Plug In America, you can still claim a tax credit for your investment in home charging. 

In public, Level 2 is often a compromise. If you really need it, it’s probably feels too slow; if you don’t it might be too expensive to justify using it. It is certainly useful as an occasional range extender. But only time (and usage) will tell what value exists in public Level 2 (up to 30 amp) stations, how much is needed, and which business models will survive to provide necessary coverage. 

Workplace is actually the second most useful location for charging, after the home (where about 80 - 90% of charging occurs.) Cars sit for hours and hours. At the workplace, Level 2 is usually overkill. Most PEVs would fill in an hour or two, leaving expensive equipment occupied but un-utilized or requiring the employee to leave work to move their car during the workday to facilitate co-workers with PEVs.  The Google example of an expensive networked, free Level 2 charger in every employee’s slot is unrealistic, unaffordable and unnecessary in the real world. If we really want to leverage workplace charging to drive PEV sales, we need to encourage a different scenario for workplace charging. 

The Department of Energy “has launched the Workplace Charging Challenge, with a goal of achieving a tenfold increase in the number of U.S. employers offering workplace charging in the next five years.” The Fortune 500 will get on board (garnering awards and photo ops with politicians at well-designed charge stations.) The effort, however, will be truly effective only if it entices medium and small businesses, where most Americans work. Level 1 makes it easy for business to join the effort and is adequate for drivers, most of whom would recover their commute’s needed electricity. It’s also grid-friendly.

Many workplaces could become EV friendly on the cheap, repurposing existing 120V outlets in parking areas and expressly allowing PEV charging. They should be encouraged. Providing a conventional 120V outlet is cheap and familiar. At about $1 a day for electricity it’s a small perk like many others at work, costing more to collect than it’s worth. It’s likely the parking space itself has a higher real value. A simple message needs to come from the American workplace: We’re ready when you are. Your new plug-in car came with a plug.  Use it! 

The DOE needs keep foremost in mind that their own mission is to increase the availability of workplace charging, and not presume that means Level 2.   Private companies and large public institutions are beginning to consider the issues surrounding employee and visitor parking.  Charging equipment and service providers are making their pitch, which focusses on selling what they’ve got - Level 2 charge stations and networked services. 

Level 2 has a role to play for employees, after determining what needs remain after supplying simple Level 1 access.  A smart strategy would forsee ubiquitous free 120V outlets and a relatively small number of monetized Level 2 charge stations for visitors and employees with a need for more juice. 

In many employee lots in California today unfortunately we see either a small number of oversubscribed free chargers or underutilized monetized ones. Neither scenario encourages co-workers to buy PEVs. 

The DOE EV Everywhere Challenge will provide a great service if it can help America’s employers open their arms to the arrival of employees pulling up in a plug-in car. Resources are limited. The easiest and most economical first step is 120V outlets and a “Plug-in Cars Only” sign.