Fast-charging on the 'electric highway': Can your EV use it?

Electric charging stations will be installed on I-5 and U.S. 2 by year's end, but few electric vehicles will benefit immediately from optional fast-charging capability.

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An electric vehicle plugs into a CenturyLink Field charging station.

Electric charging stations will be installed on I-5 and U.S. 2 by year's end, but few electric vehicles will benefit immediately from optional fast-charging capability.

The “electric highway” concept, the plan to equip Interstate 5 with electric chargers for vehicles from border to border, is expected to be a reality by year's end. 

Few electric vehicles (EVs) currently on the road, however, will be able to take advantage, at least for now, of fast-charge services that slice charging times from hours to under 30 minutes.  How crucial fast-charging will be to EV drivers has yet to be determined.

The Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) recently awarded a roughly $1 million contract to California-based AeroVironment to install charging stations on portions of I-5, essentially book-ending charger installations already under construction in the greater Seattle area.  

AeroVironment will also install chargers on U.S. 2 between Everett and Leavenworth, the Stevens Pass Greenway. Last January, the Washington State Department of Commerce and WSDOT announced that U.S. 2 would be the country’s first electrified National Scenic Byway.

The project is scheduled for completion by Nov. 30.

Two different charging units will be installed at each of nine sites along the highways. Level 2 charging, standard on virtually every EV consumer vehicle, will require up to 8 hours for a full charge. And DC Fast Charge high-speed chargers “fill the tank” on EVs in less than 30 minutes.  Facilities will be located at privately owned locations such as shopping malls with easy highway access.

Charging stations will be installed every 40 to 60 miles in two stretches of I-5, from the Canadian border to Everett and between Olympia and the Oregon border, and on U.S. 2.  AeroVironment is similarly equipping I-5 in Oregon with charging stations through an Oregon Department of Transportation contract.

In a separate project, Level 2 and DC Fast Charge stations on the Seattle-to-Olympia stretch of I-5 are being installed by the EV Project, a public-private partnership with the U.S. Department of Energy.  Projected completion date is December 31, according to an EV Project spokesman.

Combined, the two I-5 projects will connect Washington drivers along the entire 276 miles of I-5 between Canada and Oregon, according to WSDOT.  Eventually, Washington’s electric highway will be part of the West Coast Green Highway, providing electric chargers from Canada to Mexico.

While Level 2 charging is standard on virtually every EV, few vehicles can take advantage of the DC Fast Charge services.  Only the Nissan Leaf and Mitsubishi i are currently capable of being equipped with DC Fast Charge ports, and those must be installed as original factory equipment. And only the Leaf is being delivered to Washington customers.  Mitsubishi orders are currently being taken for delivery later this year or in early 2012.

A Nissan spokesman confirmed that fast charge ports are currently a $700 add-on and will be a standard feature on its 2012 upper-level vehicles.  A Mitsubishi Motors spokesman said its DC Fast Charge port will be part of a $4,000 premium add-on package when its all-electric vehicle is delivered early in 2012.  

For most current Leaf owners in Greater Seattle, these extra costs are moot because portions of their purchases have been underwritten by The EV Project, operating with $115 million in federal grants from the federal Department of Energy and support from auto companies including Nissan and General Motors.  Leaf owners tied to The EV Project have received vehicles with DC Fast Charge ports built in at no extra cost, as well as the acquisition and installation of Level 2 charging stations in their homes at no cost. 

(Washington EV owners are also entitled to hefty state and federal tax breaks. According to WSDOT, drivers who purchase or lease a new electric vehicle in Washington before July 1, 2015, will be exempt from the state's sales/use tax and the motor vehicles sales/use tax. The federal government offers a tax incentive up to 30 percent on EV charging equipment and installations in homes and public sites.)

An additional issue involves the DC Fast Charge hardware and charging technology being installed on the highways. There is no current approved U.S. standard for DC Fast Charge, so both projects are installing chargers based on the CHAdeMO standard, developed by Japanese companies including Nissan, Toyota, Mitsubishi, Fuji, and the Tokyo Electric Power Company. Currently, only the Leaf and Mitsubishi i can take advantage of CHAdeMO-standard charging stations.

Until SAE International, the standards-setting body, settles on a U.S. standard, which may or may not align with CHAdeMO, it’s probable that American car companies such as Ford and Chevrolet will sit on the sidelines when it comes to fast charging. And despite Toyota's membership in the CHAdeMo organization, its new RAV4 EV will not have a fast-charge port (as reported by All Cars Electric) until the U.S. standard is settled. 

According to Tonia Buell, project development and communications manager for WSDOT's Public/Private Partnership Office, the state decided to move ahead this year with high speed chargers based on the CHAdeMO standard because its funding for the project runs out at the end of 2011. "We needed to move ahead; otherwise, it would have delayed the installation for a year and a half," she said in a phone interview.

WSDOT is hoping that SAE will deliver a draft standard by the first quarter of 2012.  "In our agreement with AeroVironment, if SAE comes up with a different standard [than the CHAdeMO standard], we will revise our agreement to reflect the new standard," she added.

EV Project-installed charge stations will support both CHAdeMO and any future U.S. standard if it differs from CHAdeMO, a spokesman said.

Some observers believe the availablity of DC Fast Charge services isn't as urgent to EV car owners as it might seem on the surface.  Early adopters of EVs are schooled in thinking about charging their vehicles similar to charging their cell phones; leaving home with a fully powered device, charging it at night, and using roadside charging stations as supplementary sources.  It is an entirely different mind set from the average gas-based car driver who thinks of filling up when the gas tank is nearly empty.

With only a few thousand vehicles from all manufacturers on the road, however, the emerging EV industry seems willing to let the market develop the hard-core realities of the emerging EV era, rather than set any assumptions in stone.  The current EV introductions are both a market opportunity and a research-oriented proof of concept on a very large scale.  

According to Kristen Helsel, vice-president for EV solutions at AeroVironment,  "There's a strong  belief [worldwide] that 80 percent of [consumer EV] charging will be done at home.  You’re doing it while you sleep, essentially. And it’s convenient because you do it where you live. 

"If that’s the case, we’re going to have to see," she said. But it's also possible that something different will occur: "that people are going to depend on fast charging more, and that will drive demand for fast charging whether you’re Ford, GM, Toyota or Nissan."


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