Plugged in with Electric Cars

John Stonier

Electric carsA brand new Maserati was ahead of me. Responding to a shot of gasoline, the rumble of its mufflers pierced my car windows. A few blocks later, I’m beside this polished symbol of testosterone and money. Red light. This is the situation where I can’t resist the opportunity to have some electric car fun.

My grey Nissan LEAF four door hatch-back family sedan looks pretty harmless, even lame. The light is about to change. I tap my accelerator to acknowledge the cigarette smoking gold-chained driver next to me. Green. I pull ahead to ensure he knows I’m looking to challenge his six figure sportster. I maintain a lead and start to hear all 12 cylinders sucking maximum gas, the roar of the engine turns to a strained whine – the man has panicked pedal to the metal. I’m still in front, our speed is now approaching the legal urban limit. He passes me as I realize: Crap! I had my LEAF in Eco mode! My wife rolls her eyes… “What are you, sixteen?”

To drive an electric car is to experience the most energy efficient, and the most luxurious combination of silent, smooth and swift acceleration available to the motoring public today. Yes, you can have it all – power, sustainability, economy, all in one technology. I have yet to find anyone who has driven a modern electric car who wants to go back to ICE (internal combustion engine).

So the question is will electric cars work for you? Performance and operating costs are exceptionally good. The electric drive system takes only the energy it needs to move the car, and regenerates energy when you brake recovering some of the energy spent to accelerate. Electric drive trains are four times more efficient than internal combustion for a number of reasons. In BC, where we have a high gasoline to hydro cost ratio, the advantage is almost a ten to one. $45 per month will power the average electric car 1,500 kilometres (km), saving some $250 in fuel costs. Maintenance of an electric car is minimal: windshield fluid, rotate tires, wash and dry. Because of regenerative braking, brakes last a quarter million kilo­metres before you need to service them. I’ve estimated one-sixth the maintenance costs compared to ICE. No oil changes, no fuel injection, no mufflers, no catalytic converters, no oxygen sensors, no timing chains.

It comes down to range.
Is 120 km enough? Given that the North American daily average is 50km, it is for most people, most of the time. The lowly 110 VAC double receptacle is all you need to replenish 50km of driving overnight. Ninety percent or more of all electrical vehicle (EV) charging will occur at home. The fact is that if you like to sleep at least eight hours a night, or work eight hours a day at your office, that time and $1.50 of electricity from your plain old duplex receptacle will give you a full charge and keep you painlessly rolling along at the daily average driving distance.

With the right equipment you can venture from home and not even have to rely on public charging stations.  Standard kit for any EV owner is to purchase a Level 2 “dryer outlet” sized EV supply equipment (EVSE) available for charging three times as fast as 110V outlets. Costing about $600 these small portable EVSE systems can be fitted with a plug connection so you can take them with you for greater charging options. With a set of adaptor “pigtails” you can tap into high energy circuit options: dryer, oven receptacles and welding outlets that are widely distributed, but not always accessible, from the parking spot you’re in. A broad network of parking spot recharging locations has been available for decades, and are well established on most cross-country highway routes and RV parks. In my experience, when asked in advance, I’ve received a warm welcome from friends, family, businesses and RV park operators to plug in my car.  They are intrigued by this new auto technology that frees you from gas stations and usually want to know more.

Public charging stations extend the usefulness of EVs and provide the cord and charge plug right at your parking spot. Because most charging is done at home, public charging does not deliver the majority of energy for electric cars, but it does deliver convenience when far away from home. In the past two years, more than 600 public charging stations have been installed in British Columbia. Only that many again have been installed in the rest of Canada. However, Quebec has announced an investment of $500 million to promote EVs, EV charging, and EV industry development.

The holy grail for electric car charging is the “DC Fast Charge.”  DC because this type of high speed charging doesn’t go through a battery charger – it’s a direct connection to the Direct Current terminals on the car’s traction battery. Sophisticated electronics safely handle the high energy transfers and a bulk charge to 80% can take as little as 20 minutes. British Columbia currently has nine DC Fast Charge stations located in Duncan, Nanaimo, Burnaby, Surrey, Squamish, Meritt and Kamloops. Six more are in development for completion in 2014. Located in-between larger centres, DCFC doesn’t require many stations to provide wide coverage – it has been estimated that 50 would cover 90% of the highways in BC.

Continuing on the economic development theme, EV drivers are one of the most attractive demographics anywhere: upper income, progressive early adopters, with additional spending money monthly through electric car operating cost savings. It is the roadside marketing opportunity of the decade to install charge stations to attract these new customers, especially for the hospitality industry.

Supply constraints are limiting the availability of EVs in Canada. While we only have 6,000 EVs in Canada, there are almost 200,000 EVs in the USA and that number should reach 500,000 by 2015. For now, expanding charging infrastructure could be a significant tourism beacon for our American motoring friends, while we wait for more EVs to arrive in our showrooms. A robust  charging infrastructure in Canada will enable substantial uptake when the cars arrive and waiting lists decline. The economic benefits, and lure of the ultimate driving experience await.

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John Stonier, CA, is a principal consultant with Signature Renewables Inc. and co-founder and CEO of VeloMetro Mobility Inc. a Vancouver start-up that is building the human powered (with electric assist) velocar as an automobile alternative for urban mobility.

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