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?