The age of electric vehicles is upon us, leaving many people wondering about the practicalities of the increasingly popular technology.
Several readers had questions after reading a recent Crosscut article on the installation of electrical vehicle (EV) power charging stations at Qwest Field (newly renamed CenturyLink Field). And well they should: There is much to understand about how this major technology will impact our lives as individuals and our society as a whole.
Following are several key questions and answers about current EV developments, with an emphasis on western Washington — and some basic consumer information you might need if an electric vehicle is in your future.
Are all electric vehicles the same?
No. There are essentially two major types of EVs: the all-electric vehicle, and the plug-in hybrid car, which uses some combination of electric power and gas propulsion. Both types are full-performance, freeway-capable vehicles.
Is powering my EV basically the same as filling my gas tank?
No, charging your EV is not like fueling your gasoline-powered car. The EV model is based on charging your vehicle overnight and using varying percentages of that stored power during the day. It is more akin to using your cell phone by day and charging it at night; charging stations make it possible to "top off" your stored power so you can travel confidently.
It is important, however, to understand the various charging levels: Level 1, which uses your home 110 AC electricity and is the slowest charging speed; Level 2, which charges vehicles in four to eight hours; and DC Fast Charge, sometimes called Level 3, which can charge electric cars up to 80 percent of full capacity in less than 20 minutes.
Who runs the business of electric-vehicle charging?
Again, there are key differences between EV charging and the familiar gas-station model. Anyone can purchase and operate an EV charging service, so long as they obtain the proper municipal permits.
At the same time, large federally funded corporate efforts are working with a variety of public and private partners to make a smooth transition from gas-powered to electric powered vehicles — and to install large numbers of chargers. In western Washington, the two most prominent efforts are the EV Project, operating with $115 million in federal grants from the federal Department of Energy, and the ChargePoint America project, with a $30 million federal DOE grant. (The grants are for each company's multi-state activities, not Washington alone.)
Both are commercial ventures; Ecotality, the driving force behind the EV Project, markets Blink chargers and related services; Coulumb Technologies runs ChargePoint America and sells ChargePoint systems.
How many EVs are headed our way?
Two major companies — Chevrolet and Nissan — are already delivering all-electric or plug-in vehicles in Seattle. The Tesla Roadster is also appearing locally in some areas.
According to the nonprofit PlugIn America, nearly 130 EVs, either fully electric or plug-in hybrids, are being developed for the U.S. and worldwide markets. Ford has announced the all-electric Focus will be available late this year. And a plug-in version of the Toyota Prius is due early next year, as is the anticipated debut of the Ford C-Max. Models from virtually every other major car manufacturer are in development; models from Honda, Mitsubishi, Volkswagen, and Nissan may go public next year.
How many public EV charging stations will be installed around Puget Sound area?
The state expects 1,200 to 1,400 Level 2 public charging stations to be operational by the end of 2011. About 900 are expected to be installed in consumers' homes over the next 12 months. And 50 to 60 chargers should be provided by local governments, adjacent to public buildings, according to the estimates provided by Gustavo Collantes, senior energy policy specialist for the energy policy unit of the state Department of Commerce.
Private commercial operations are not yet tracked.
Level 3 chargers are planned for I-5 and state Highway 2 between Seattle and Wenatchee under the state's Electric Highway project.
Collantes heads the Plug-In Electric Vehicle Task Force, convened last year with Commerce and WSDOT at Gov. Chris Gregoire's request to coordinate the multiple public and private interests bringing EV commerce and technology to the state. "Government is not in the business of bringing the cars to the market," he said in a phone interview. "We are trying to prepare the state to be ready to welcome this [movement], to make it more convenient for consumers from the installation of the charging stations, the permitting process, to all the planning around that."
Who can set up a charging station?
Virtually anyone can set up a charging service, with proper permits. That market is not limited to the big guys like Ecotality and ChargePoint America.
A recent ruling by the Washington State Utilities and Transportation Commission has made this possible, essentially removing charging-station venues from being classified as utilities.
Under state law, only utilities can sell electricity. Without the UTC's ruling, vendors charging customers for electric power would be illegal. "Most vendors and retailers are not regulated [by the UTC] to resell electricity," said Stephanie Meyn, program manager of Puget Sound Clean Cities. "This ruling however, gives them the flexibility to recover the costs associated with electric use as well as use of a parking space, maintenance, security and networking fees. It allows vendors to bundle their fees for a vehicle-charging ‘event’ rather than charging customers on a kilowatt-hour basis — which would be illegal because they're not utilities." (More information is here.)
Could my local doughnut shop theoretically offer me free charging as an advertising gimmick?
Yes. The business model for marketing charger service is among the most contested issues in the EV rollout. You may pay something — or pay nothing.
Companies such as Ecotality/Blink and ChargePoint America believe that drivers will pay at the "pump" as have generations of gas auto drivers; others believe that the market may develop as a free or ad-supported service.
Dan Davids, president of the nonprofit Plug In America, believes the EV market could be similar to the rollout of WiFi in public places: initially promoted as a paid-for service (pay-for-play companies like Boingo) but increasingly free as either a public service (free airport WiFi), an ad-driven medium (Starbucks, McDonalds) or as a sponsorship opportunity.
"Let the marketplace decide: That's the bottom line," Davids said, "but it is not written in stone that you must charge in order to have a viable installation of a charging station — not at all."
As an example, he noted that Costco warehouses all over California have had free charging stations in place for years. "Does Costco care about the 35 cents worth of electricity they could charge you for?" he asked. "No, because they know you’re in the store and spending $300 to 400."
While that may be the ideal for consumers, plans to monetize charging are under development at the dawn of the EV age.
In a recent press release, for example, ChargePoint spells out how its charger can "enable businesses to attract new customers and generate revenue from EV charging." It also gives details on how municipalities can use charging stations "much like a parking meter."
Whatever the future model or models may be, early EV adopters currently pay nothing to charge their vehicles from Blink or Charge Northwest stations, according to spokesmen from both organizations.
How easy is it to find charging stations here?
It's getting easier, thanks to online maps, new-installation announcements, a new EV road sign and even an iPhone app.
The most comprehensive map is provided by the federal Department of Energy, according to WSDOT. A national charging-station data base is under development by the National Renewal Energy Laboratory. Google Maps has added an EV charger station location search feature, though results can be somewhat spotty.
Some drivers will benefit from in-car mapping systems. The Nissan Leaf’s Carwings service, among other features, will help drivers locate charging stations while they are on the road, according to an Ecotality spokesman. Ford’s Sync and GM’s OnStar services will provide similar data, he noted.
Announcements of new charger locations are becoming commonplace.
Qwest Field chargers went online June 9. Eight commercial and residential buildings in South Lake Union now feature 24 Blink charging stations. Last May, ChargePoint America announced the installation of its 100th station in western Washington; its network runs from Bellingham south to Olympia and covers Eastside cities including Bellevue and Redmond. An apartment complex in Redmond, Red160 Apartments, expected to turn on its charger today (June 22).
By September, the city of Seattle will have installed 20 chargers at Seattle Center, the Central Library downtown, Pacific Place garage, and SeaPark (Sixth Avenue and James Street), according to Chris Wiley, Seattle City Green Fleet coordinator. (Rainier Square was the first downtown Seattle facility to offer public charging.)
On the road, EV drivers will soon see bright blue charging-station signs, recently adopted by the federal Highway Administration for use in Washington and five other states. WSDOT has requested federal approval to use them on local roads.
PlugShare, a recently updated iPhone app, reportedly allows people to post sightings of new charging stations. Businesses and homes that volunteer to share their chargers with EV/hybrid drivers can also post locations using the app.
Does it matter whose charging station I use?
The short answer is no. Regardless of the brand or the look of the charging station, all vehicles that use Level 2 chargers have the same standard charger-plug design. Billing systems, however, will differ from service to service.
How easy is it to hook up an EV to a public charger?
One standard universal charging connection (S.A.E. standard J1722-type connector) has been established allowing virtually any Level 2 EV to access any charging station. Some older EVs such as Tesla cars may require custom plugs, but all new EVs have a standardized connector.
How much does it cost to fully charge an EV?
According to a Seattle City Light spokesperson, a full charge costs about $1.60, estimated at City Light’s highest rate, vs. the $50-plus for filling most gas-powered passenger vehicles at current prices — though a full charge won't get you as far as a full tank.
Viewing it another way, energy costs for driving 100 miles in the all-electric Nissan Leaf would cost $1.60; the same 100-mile trip in my 1999 Honda Accord would cost $15.63 (24 miles per gallon at a $3.75 per gallon cost).
How do I get power from free public charging stations?
Any vehicle can use Blink or ChargePoint charging stations and can call a 24/7 free phone connection at each location to arrange a vehicle charge. Each company has a card service — Blink has the InCard; ChargePoint offers the ChargePass. Both eventually will be used to pay for charging; both will operate on a pre-paid basis.
Can my EV take advantage of Level 3 fast charging?
If your car is an all-electric model like the Nissan Leaf, then yes; however, an optional port must be added to your vehicle and on-the-road services will be limited.
According to Collantes, the high-speed connection is aimed at the all-electric vehicles, not plug-in hybrids. No Level 3 chargers are operating locally. CHAdeMO, a Level 3 engineering standard, has been adopted in Japan. The U.S to date has not officially endorsed a standard, but the national Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) is evaluating several approaches.
All-electric vehicles are not intended for long-range travel, however. "DC Fast Charge may be a solution in search of a problem for the everyday person," Davids said.
Where can I learn more about EVs?
The state Plug-In Electric Vehicle Task Force will launch its own website within a few weeks: Electricdrive.wa.gov.
This PDF from Advanced Energy in North Carolina provides a good overview of current EV charger equipment. In addition, Ecotality’s EV Project has its own primer. And for a big picture of the emerging EV effort nationally, this blog has an interesting wrapup. EV.com specializes in news of EV developments, and information also is provided by the federal Department of Energy and its Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy blog.