The current influx of electric vehicles bodes well for a near future era of clean, emission free motoring. But critical to making that goal a reality is the ability to recharge all of those vehicles. And creating a nationwide charging infrastructure from the ground up is a daunting task. So, is America ready to plug in?
Ready or not, the EVs are coming. Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt are grabbing the most attention now, but you can expect to see nearly a dozen new plug-in hybrids or full-electric models on the roads in 2011, with more to come.
To fuel this zero-emission driving revolution, a massive effort is underway to install public-access EV charging stations. Federal Recovery Act funds are spurring the deployment of thousands of electric charging stations across the country in the next year, and many more are being installed privately.
JERRY REICH: This is really a peppering of the market, so places like Mom's for instance, where they might have three or four under the grant program, they've actually stepped out and purchased additional units so that they can populate more of their locations with units that they actually are purchasing.
There are more than 160,000 gas stations in the US, or roughly one for every 1,600 cars on the road. But when fully deployed, the ratio of charge points to plug-in vehicles could be much higher.
Well a number of charging stations is kind of interesting, if you look at what the current administration has forecast for 2015, being a million electric vehicles on the road, and typically each electric vehicle needs 3 charging stations, one at home, one at work and one at a destination, you know, you're looking at that point at 2.5 to 3 million chargers.
Unlike the traditional, roadside pit-stop gas station setup, electric charging stations are more likely to be found at the vehicle's origin and destination points and will not be shared among many vehicles. The majority of plug-in vehicle owners will have their primary charge source installed at home or work. Since today's electric vehicles are best suited for point-to-point journeys with hours of parking in between.
MINDY KIMBALL: I'd say about 90 percent of the time, I charge at home, and it completely meets all my needs. There have been a couple of days where I had a meeting in downtown DC and I decided to drive to a public charging station, park it there for half the day, and then continue on to work. So my daily commute is about 50 miles round trip, and on days when I run errands or go out to lunch, I might drive it most about 70 miles in a day. And the most I have tapped out the battery to is about 35, 30 or 35 percent when I got home at the end of the day.
Charging time varies depending on voltage and current level of the charger and what the vehicle is designed to accept, and there are three levels. Level 1 is simply a 110-volt household outlet, and will recharge current electric car batteries at a rate of about 5 miles of range per hour, meaning that plug-in hybrids and range-extenders like the Chevy Volt can fully recharge in your garage overnight.
But the majority of public-access units will offer level 2 charging, or 220 volts. The charging time is much faster than with 110 volts – up to around 25 miles of range per hour. Most preexisting household wiring circuits can also handle the extra load, and the units can be bought and installed for as little as $1000.
Stepping up to a level 3 AC or DC quick charger has the potential to cut vehicle downtime to mere minutes, but the extra wiring and 480-volt circuitry they require can add up to $100,000 for a single installation.
That's prohibitive for consumers, and even many business owners, who might offer charging service to entice EV owners as customers.
JOHN MURACH: The typical single family home will take about 3 to 4 kilowatts of power on average demand. Car charging can add one to two times that to the system load. But if our customers charge their cars at the off-peak periods, we have plenty of capacity, plenty of supply to be able to handle those charging requirements over the next many years.
Manufacturers have agreed on the plug configuration for level 1 and 2 charging, but the level 3 interface is still open to debate.
And until the quick-charge hurdle has been crossed, electric vehicles won't enjoy the same freedom of the open road as conventionally-fueled cars. But for the majority of daily commutes, plugging in can be just as convenient as gassing up and will always be a more rewarding choice.