September 19, 2010 in Business

Buzz Kill? Running electric vehicles not as simple as plug and go

Electric cars are gaining popularity, but there are many factors to consider before rushing out to buy one
Dana Hull San Jose Mercury News
 
Are you “EV”-ready?

If you plan to buy an electric car, here are a few questions to consider:

• What kind of home charging system does the automaker advise you to get?

• Do you have a garage?

• How many miles do you expect to drive each day?

• What time do you expect to begin charging your car?

• Have you called your utility company and told them of your plans to get an electric vehicle?

SAN JOSE, Calif. – You’ve reserved your electric vehicle and can’t wait to zip around town in an all-electric Nissan Leaf, plug-in Chevrolet Volt or one of the other models soon to hit the road.

But choosing the EV that’s right for you is just the first step. You will need a reliable place to charge up your electric car, and for most people that means getting a charging station installed in their garage – a process likely to require a permit and signoff from your local building inspector.

Among the questions to ask yourself: What kind of home charging system does the automaker advise you to get? How many miles do you expect to drive each day? What time do you expect to start charging your car? Most important, have you told your utility company you plan to get one?

The first wave of mainstream electric vehicles will hit showrooms by the end of this year, and automakers and utilities alike are eager for consumers to get their home charging equipment installed before they drive their cars off the lot. But because many cities are struggling with budget deficits that have included layoffs of building inspectors, getting a charging station installed can be a 30- to 45-day process. Electric vehicle advocates are working to streamline the permitting process to spare consumers any frustrating hassles.

There are two levels of home charging. Level 1 uses a common 120-volt outlet and doesn’t require anything new: You can basically plug your vehicle into an existing three-pronged wall outlet. But it’s slow, taking eight to 14 hours to charge up most cars.

Level 2 charging, at 240 volts, is twice as fast and is the type of charging most consumers are expected to install. Nissan is telling its Leaf customers that the home charging dock will require a 220/240V, 40-amp dedicated circuit connected to a breaker. The charging dock will need to be hard-wired directly to the circuit by a certified electrician.

Most automakers are forming alliances with specific companies to supply home charging stations in an effort to make the process consumer-friendly.

Nissan has chosen AeroVironment, a Southern California company best known for its work on battery-powered planes, to install “home charging docks” specifically for the Leaf. The cost of the charging dock plus labor and installation runs about $2,200; AeroVironment handles all of the permitting and paperwork involved. Federal tax credits may offset half the cost through December 2010, and there are hopes the government may extend it further.

“No matter how you look at it, it’s a significant electrical change to your home,” Kristen Helsel, vice president of EV Solutions for AeroVironment, said about the need for permits.

Already, several consumers who reserved a Nissan Leaf report that AeroVironment has come out to inspect their garage.

“It’s been a pretty low-effort process from the buyer’s perspective,” said Alex Tang, a software engineer who lives in Mountain View, Calif. “They showed up, looked at the wiring in my house, and figured out what they’ll need to do to get the charger installed.”

GM has yet to announce its partner for home charging stations for the Chevy Volt.

Apartment and condo dwellers, or those who park on the street, will need to make other arrangements.

“If you live in an apartment or condo, you need to start having the discussion about EV charging with your landlord or homeowners association,” said Chelsea Sexton, an electric vehicle marketing expert. “Or have the conversation with your workplace. You need a reliable place for day-to-day charging, and if it’s not at home, it ought to be at work.”

But the wild enthusiasm for electric vehicles in certain affluent ZIP codes creates numerous challenges. Utilities are worried that if several EV chargers are installed in the same neighborhood and used at the same time, it could result in overloads on transformers, the pole-mounted device that transfers electricity from one circuit to another.

That’s one reason the city of Palo Alto, Calif., requires a permit, complete with building and electrical plans, before any charging equipment can be installed.

Other utilities have launched consumer-education programs or plan to inspect home charging stations to make sure they interface with the larger electric grid in a safe way.

“The best thing a customer can do if they are thinking of buying a vehicle is contact us,” said Gary Powell, manager of Plug-In Electric Vehicle Readiness for utility Southern California Edison. “If we know a vehicle is showing up, we want to get out there and inspect the transformer.”

Then there’s the issue of rates. The cost to recharge an electric vehicle battery depends on two factors: how much of the energy in the battery is depleted and the cost of electricity.

Nationwide, the average consumer pays about 11 cents a kilowatt hour for electricity. At that price, Nissan says, the cost of fully charging a Leaf will be about $2.75.


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