5 Misconceptions About Electric Car Charging

NISSAN_EV8With federal and state governments, big and small automakers, utilities, and venture capitalists all dedicating increased capital and attention to building out a network of charge points for the upcoming generation of plug-in vehicles, a growing number of voices are weighing in on what’s important. The interested parties are debating where, when and how to deploy this technology, what the priorities should be and who should receive funding. Of course, many answers will have to be found the hard way — through trial and error. In the meantime, here are five misconceptions about charging infrastructure for electric cars that we learned from the folks at the Plug-In 2009 conference:

Public charge points will handle most plug-ins: “Public charging is the most visible,” Bob Hayden, chief of community and city infrastructure planning for San Francisco, said last week at the Plug-in 2009 conference in Long Beach, Calif. “But there are a lot more elements.” Speaking to a group of utility and auto industry insiders, he said, “Public charge spots — we all know in this room that that’s not the main place we want them to be charging. We want them to be charging in residences, work places during off-peak hours. But it needs to be available, visible enough for them to use.”

It’s all about fast charging: According to Nissan’s (s NSANY) Mark Perry, heading up development of the electric LEAF sedan, fast charging is critically important mainly for what the company calls “destination” and “pathway” charging — at shopping centers and along major roads, for example, for middle-to-long distance trips. “Pathway charging we think is all about fast charge,” Perry said at Plug-in 2009. But home and workplace charge points don’t necessarily require quick charging, since cars will likely be connected there several hours at a time — and these are the installations that Nissan considers “a top priority.”

Urban centers should get the early infrastructure: According to Jim Kelly of utility Southern California Edison, it’s important to have a “safety net” of chargers installed early on just outside of urban centers in order to encourage adoption of electric vehicles. These chargers won’t end up getting much use, but they can help win over drivers worried about feeling tethered to their home charge point.

Charging stations will sell electricity: In general, utilities will be the ones selling electric power, so charge point hardware makers like Coulomb Technologies have to find a workaround, as AutoblogGreen noted last week. Coulomb’s solution is to sell access, rather than electricity. Vehicle owners will pay a set rate per charging session — the same amount for “vastly different amounts of energy,” so “no one can accuse Coulomb of selling the energy,” AutoblogGreen writes. Grocery stores and other entities that pay Coulomb to install the stations will keep the single-use fees to cover electricity costs (with more to spare), while Coulomb plans to collect revenue from subscribers with pre-paid charging plans.

If you have access to an outlet with high enough voltage, you can just plug in there: Some EV enthusiasts argue that new infrastructure is not necessary to start rolling out large numbers of electric cars — after all, 120V outlets (Level 1 charging in industry parlance) aren’t exactly rare. But according to Mike Waters of Progress Energy, a utility that serves much of the Carolinas and Florida, the question isn’t whether vehicle owners have access to an outlet. Rather, it’s whether that outlet is on a dedicated circuit.

Waters explained at Plug-in 2009 that most of the customers in a large Progress survey recently had a 120V outlet within 20 feet of where they usually park their vehicle — a reasonable distance to run a cord. But less than 10 percent of those customers (8 percent in Florida and 2 percent in the Carolinas) had that outlet on a dedicated circuit. This means, Waters explained, that “something else will be turned on and will trip the circuit,” unless customers are careful.

Sure, it’s a relatively minor inconvenience to keep certain appliances off while you charge the car, but it’s one more hurdle to mainstream adoption. According to General Motors’ (s GM) Britta Gross, who heads up infrastructure commercialization, requiring a dedicated circuit to be built into every new garage would be “a big enabler for every homeowner and apartment dweller.”