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.