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Tuesday, May 14, 2013

The EV Range Anxiety Myth

Cross-posted from Energy Trends Insider

Bosch has just entered the electric car charging market with its simple 240 volt Power Max charging station for $499.00. Considering that dishwashers, clothes dryers, and hot water heaters can cost less than that, you can bet that the price for this small, relatively simple device will eventually be a lot lower. The Ecotality Blink charging station in my garage cost about $1,200. Neither is actually a charger. They are devices that interface with the charger carried inside the car. How fast you can charge with 240 volts is ultimately limited by the charger that came with the car. The difference is that the Blink station interfaces with the internet, allowing the DOE to study my charging habits, which is fine by me because they paid for it.

The Ecotality business model

Ecotality is also installing Level 2 (240 volt) charging stations in business parking lots. For now, charging is free but eventually you will be charged for your, ah, charge. I don't see this business model having a long-term future. An analogy might be a company that designed a hitching post tailored for Henry Ford's first car design (that looked a lot like a buggy) which might have seemed like a great idea by car and saloon owners until they realized you don't need a hitching post for a car.

A Level 2 charging station will provide about 6 miles of range for the 2011-2012 Leafs, and about 12 miles for the 2013 and newer models in the 30 minutes you're shopping, worth maybe 25-50 cents or so depending, while it is still free. But how many EV owners will bother to drive a few extra miles to a store with a charger, especially when it isn't even free?

The smart grid may eventually be ushered in by the necessity of utilities to monitor things like electric car charging and solar panel output. Considering that many utilities already have smart meters outside of the home that transmit data back to the utility, there is no need for your car charging station to also do so. Internet connected stations may have a niche market for people who want to view charging stats from their computer, but I'm guessing that simple, cheap charging stations like the Power Max will become the norm. Both the Ecotality charge station design and business model may fade in tandem with the government subsidies that now support them. We've seen this pattern before with several biofuel start-ups.

An alternative business model

Fast public chargers (Level 3) capable of completely charging a nearly discharged battery in minutes are an entirely different story. Imagine every 7-Eleven having a few of these chargers sitting next to the tire inflation machine that accepts quarters. One problem with this idea is that a Level 3 charger needs a third power line from the utility. Residences and small businesses typically have two power lines. Large buildings that need the extra power for things like elevators and HVAC will have a third line. For homes and small businesses it would be prohibitively expensive to have a utility string a third line from wherever the closest third line connection may be.

One answer to this conundrum may be a battery-backed charger similar to the ones being tested in Portlandia. Although this particular design still requires a third power line, it is possible to design one that doesn't. The battery DC current could, in theory, be converted to AC to act as the third power line.

This "Level 3 charger at every 7-Eleven" concept is not a perfect analogy for a gas station because most EV owners will do most of their charging at home. They may occasionally use the 7-Eleven as an emergency stop, or for an occasional long trip. On the other hand, there are a lot of people who live in apartments or homes without garages that would like to own an EV but don't have a place to charge them. This idea could be just the ticket although it could also lead to more ...

Range Anxiety

We've all read about electric car range anxiety which may have a negative impact on EV sales, but is it real? From Wikipedia:
"Conventional wisdom is the body of ideas or explanations generally accepted as true by the public or by experts in a field. Such ideas or explanations, though widely held, are unexamined. Unqualified societal discourse preserves the status quo."
Which is all fine and good except conventional wisdom is not necessarily true, and where does conventional wisdom come from? Again, from Wikipedia, if enough people read and believe something (in this case, hundreds of lay press articles that accept electric car range anxiety as a fact simply because each is parroting another article that accepted it as a fact), then it may very well become accepted as conventional wisdom.

The idea is that a car with less range will necessarily lead to more instances of range anxiety. But, as I have discovered, that isn't how it always works. As a Leaf owner I've found that I experience range anxiety less often than I did when I drove a conventional car. I procrastinated when it came to gassing up. To minimize gas station visits I usually let my tank get pretty low, which occasionally resulted in range anxiety. In short, frequency of range anxiety is a function of how often you let the needle on your gas gauge (or battery pack) get close to zero, which is not necessarily a function of gas tank (or battery) capacity. Simply put, people who rarely let their tank (or battery) get close to empty, rarely experience range anxiety regardless of car range.

I no longer procrastinate because I don't have to go out of my way to find a gas station, get in a line, stand around while the car is filling up, fiddle with a credit card and smelly pump handle, then watch in dismay as the dial passes $50. My garage is my gas station. It takes a few seconds to plug in and a few more to unplug the next morning. Because my battery rarely gets close to empty, I rarely experience range anxiety anymore.