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Is the electric car charging infrastructure ready for prime time? My personal range experiment.

electric car range experimentBoth positive and negative news for electric cars have been in press recently.  Here’s a quick round up:  Tesla Motor’s company stock TSLA is hitting all-time highs ($59/share at time of this writing) and positioned to announce a first ever quarterly profit on May 8th, 2013. Coda Automotive has just filed for bankruptcy last week. Total plug-in electric cars sales (including that of plug-in hybrids like the Chevy Volt) are up 140% over last year (source: Current EVents newsletter, April 2013)

 

But are electric cars ready for prime time?

To help answer this question, I poised myself for an adventure, to drive 140 miles round trip using existing charging infrastructure in the North Bay area. My vehicle of choice on this trip is a converted electric MR2 with a range similar to that of the Nissan Leaf at 70 freeway miles per charge.

 

Range record breaking plan:

Enphase EnergyLike any good adventure, my plan began with a day off from work so that I could drive 61 miles (freeway) up to Petaluma, CA to attend the annual stockholder’s meeting for Enphase Energy (ENPH).  ENPH pioneered the designs and manufactures solar micro-inverters that convert DC solar energy to AC on a per panel basis.  Micro inverters significantly increased the efficiency of a solar system because the performance of the overall system is no longer dependent upon the least performing panel in a system.  With a freeway range of 70 miles, my plan was to attend the meeting in the morning, then drive to the nearest ChargePoint charging station to refuel and hang out at a local coffee shop and possibly get some work done for 3 hours, and then head back home.

 

The Meeting:

In the words of Benjamin Franklin, “The only things certain in life are death, taxes, and traffic…” he would have said that if he were alive today and had to deal with city driving. I was a half hour late due to traffic and missed the entire meeting. However, I did meet the legal counsel, Taylor Browning and chatted briefly with him, as he provided me with highlights from the meeting.

I also met the receptionist, Monica, who was kind enough to entertain my conversation while keeping up with her workload, a true multi-tasker! I can’t say enough great things about Monica; she created such a warm and inviting atmosphere that could be immediately felt upon arrival. As people walked in, she either already knew them or already anticipated their needs. I found out that things overseas in Europe were going well as she answered the phone and talked to a recently relocated employee to the UK supporting operations in Europe.

After my visit, I felt good about the company knowing that people like Monica worked for them. In the hour there, I saw at least 30 folks walking in and out of the building, varying from vendors, engineers and executives, all of whom shared the same high energy and bright smiles; which suggest things are going well at Enphase. I’m definitely holding on to my shares of ENPH!

 

The Complication

After the meeting, I drove about five miles to the nearest ChargePoint stations at Casa Grande High School. Here’s what I found..

Electric car charging parking spaces taken by gas cars

“Electric Car Parking Only While Charging”

Not a good sign, no pun intended, but the sign clearly says “Electric car parking only…”  I double parked next to the parked cars and plugged in my MR2 electric and turned on the charger… Error message: “System HALT due to relay stuck open”.  I tried again…same thing… tried the second station right next to the first one and same thing.  I then called the ChargePoint tech support line (who was very helpful). After checking the networked database, he suggested that the stations are in need of repair and marked them unavailable right away in the ChargePoint database.  The rep offered to find some nearby stations and located a few ChargePoint branded stations nearly 13 miles away, and confirmed that they were in service.  That was great news! However, I only had seven miles of range left before I would draw more than 80% of the charge and risk shortening the life of the LiFePO4 cells.  There was a silver lining, there are a couple of stations 4 miles away in the Petaluma Premium Outlet Center on the SemaCharge network.  Their site seemed operational so that gave me some confidence that I should be able to find something. Careful with my driving to not waste energy, I made it to the outlet.

 

Murphy’s Law

The next challenge was to find the stations on the Semacharge network. To preserve charge, I parked in the first spot I found and started walking around the parking lot to find the charger (here is an opportunity for improvement of charging station finding apps, they should lead you directly to the exact location of the charger!). The address on ChargePoint app for the stations (there were two) is 2200 N Petaluma Blvd.  After walking around the two parking lots with no luck, I consulted the Semacharge site and found that they list the same two stations as available, but at a different address of 2000 N Petaluma Blvd.  I back tracked and walked to this address instead and this is what I found…

mobile home park where electric car charger are supposedly located

Is there a level 2 charger in there?

 

Another bad sign… I stopped by the pet shop next to the mobile home park, told the shop owner my charging dilemma and asked if she knew if I could get into the park, her response, “probably not.”  After accepting some water and the use of the restroom, I headed back to my car.

 

 

Back up plan

Time for the backup plan, AAA, their basic membership include a five mile tow range up to four times a year, free of charge. The nearest working charge point stations were still 9 miles away, which meant I would still have to pay an additional $40 for the tow ($10 per mile over 5miles). They do have a premium membership at $91/year that will tow you up to 100 miles four times per year. If I am to do more range experiments like this, I think I will sign up for that. As I sat waiting for the truck, I continued searching on the ChargePoint app and found a Nissan dealership called Nissan Northbay that was a mile way. I had a bit over a mile range at this time. I called and asked to speak to the sales manager.

 

The Resolution

“Hello, this is Ben”, he answered.

“Hi Ben, I’m Ken and I drive an electric car, it is not a Nissan Leaf, but a converted 1986 Toyota MR2. I am quite a ways away from home and have a bit over a mile of range left, and I am about a mile away from you. Do you mind if I came in and use your charging station?”

“Absolutely! No problem, just come on in, and we’ll take care of you.”

*sign, a breath of relief*

 

electric MR2 charging

Finally recharging!

“I’m saved!” I thought, I quickly called AAA and cancelled my tow and headed straight for the Nissan dealership. I could have almost given Ben a huge hug when I saw him, but I refrained from such behavior. Ben directed me to the charge port that was charging his white Nissan Leaf and offered the use of their waiting room with fresh coffee and drinks. Such a wonderful host!

 

I ended up charging there for two hours which gave me enough charge to be on my way. While there, I chatted with various techs, one of whom I remembered was working on an electric racing car. I asked him if he knew about the White Zombie, a converted Dodge Datson that goes from 0-60 in 1.8s and hold various other racing records. He said yes, we immediately struck up a conversation. After the charge, I offered to pay them for the energy I used, but they were adamant about not taking my money. They even said that the gates to the chargers are always open (even at night) for any electric car drivers in need of a charge.

 

Picture of me and my hosts at Nissan NorthBay

My saviors!

I thanked my awesome hosts and told them that I would blog about this experience. I also met the eCommerce Director Ron Coury (the gentleman pictured in the middle), who is an active member of various Electric Auto Associations around the bay (EAA Golden Gate, EAA Petaluma). He is an active speaker at these meetings, educating the public about EVs like the leaf and what to look for when purchasing an electric Nissan Leaf (insider insight for those looking to buy an electric car).  He also mentioned that Nissan NorthBay is having a 10% off MSRP sale for Leaf S model and 11% off MSRP for the Leaf SV/SL model for the next 2-3 months. If you are in the market for an EV, please go and visit them!

 

More Charging Needed

Fairway waterfall in Novato, CAThere is a bit more to this adventure. The two hour charge, was not quite enough to get me all the way home.  Armed with my new found energy, I got to Novato, CA and stopped by the beautiful Inn Marin where there is a free ChargePoint station on premise and worked in their lobby for a couple of hours while I charged.  While there, I ordered some food at the Ricky’s restaurant and while chatting with the hostess came up with the idea of bringing my family out for the upcoming mother’s day here to spend a night away from the hustle and bustle at home to enjoy a nice brunch, swimming by the pool, and hiking to the Fairway waterfall in Novato.

 

 

Conclusion

I finally made it home in one piece and am grateful for completing this 140 range experiment without the trusty help of AAA. In my opinion, the charging infrastructure is not quite there yet, but has come a long way since I started converting my electric car five years ago. ChargePoint has a great network of charger within easy reach of your phone. There is also the Blink network of chargers as well as a Plugshare app that lists charging spots made available by people willing to share their outlets with EV drivers, though I suspect it would be very slow to charge if you can only find 110V outlets. More recently, there are Level 3* chargers using the CHAdeMo standard being deployed. I saw one at Nissan Northbay, as all new Nissan Leaf electric cars come standard with this plug. My electric MR2 doesn’t currently have such a plug yet, but I hope to install one in the near future when they are available aftermarket and when there are more stations deployed.

For those of you that own electric cars, what has been your experience on the existing charging infrastructure? Please share by commenting below!

 

*Note: In the US. Level 1 charging is 110V (10-12hours to charge), Level 2 is 240V (3-4 hours to charge),and Level 3 is 480V (30 min to 1 hour to charge)

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Posted in MR2EV, Range

9 Responses to “Is the electric car charging infrastructure ready for prime time? My personal range experiment.”

  • Brian Smith says:

    I’m glad that you were able to complete the trip, though obviously it didn’t go well. But I think you’re misrepresenting what these cars are for. It’s not really for “adventure”, but instead its for your daily commute, regular short trips around your local area. If a longer drive is needed, most people have access to a gas-powered car, or could rent one. (http://www1.eere.energy.gov/vehiclesandfuels/facts/2012_fotw727.html)

    My Leaf, for example, takes me about 25-30 miles each day. No drama, no fuss, and I NEVER plan to recharge outside the home. Murphy’s Law would surely kick in; the day I need to use a public charger would be the day it’s blocked or broken. I plug it in to a regular 110V socket in my garage every 2nd night and its never come close to stranding me.

    Thank you for the article, but I think you should make it clearer that it won’t represent the average daily experience of commuting in an electric car.

    • Ken says:

      Hi Brian,
      Thanks for your comment! I completely agree with you. I commute in the electric MR2 4-5 days a week at 50 miles per day and use energy from my solar panels to charge the car.
      This was definitely an experiment and not the ordinary use pattern for me. My point of doing this was really to test the charging infrastructure and whether the my range of 70 miles could get me around further away then my normal daily use.
      We do have a couple of gas cars still and would love to get rid of another one and replace with a Tesla Model S at some point! The Model S would definitely have passed this test since the biggest battery pack has a range of 300 miles.

  • I think a more appropriate title would have been “Is a low range 20 year old converted gas car ready for prime time?” or “Is our current electric vehicle charging infrastructure ready for prime time?”

    An electric car can have as big a range as a gas car if you want to use a $50,000 battery as Tesla as proven. I believe your biggest issue here was the small range of your conversion and the current state of our EV charging infrastructure which has made great advances in the past two years and will likely continue to expand as a fast pace. It’s going to take a while before you see chargers on every block and in every parking lot/garage but it will happen and sooner than most think I believe. I drive a BMW ActiveE which has about a 70 -100 mile range and I really have never had the experience you described although I don’t doubt it’s easy to reproduce if you aren’t familiar with where you are going and don’t have confirmation the chargers will be available. I have nearly 50,000 miles on my car and have only had it for 16 months so I drive a lot but it’s generally to places I frequent and know the areas and know where there are charging stations. There are EV’s coming out soon with greater ranges (BMW i3 & Nissan LE) and the i3 will even have a range extender as an option. Many people even find a car like the LEAF offers then all the range they need so it’s hard to really say that car isn’t ready for prime time either. I suppose it’s all up to what the individual needs. For many today’s electric vehicles are perfect, but others need more range, faster charging times and a better infrastructure. I’m fine with what we have now, but certainly will be happy as cars and infrastructure improves.

    • Ken says:

      Tom,
      I do think the title of “Is our current electric vehicle charging infrastructure ready for prime time?” is the better fitting title. Thanks for your comment.

      80-90% of my driving is on my electric MR2. I do still have to drive the gas car for longer trips. I, like many others, would love to see EVs become more mainstream and hopefully one day replace most of all gas cars on the road. How much easier will our kids be able to breath then? But in order for that to happen, we need faster charging and a better charging infrastructure.

      With companies like Tesla pioneering in the market place with their long range EVs and standards like CHAdeMO, I don’t think we are far from this dream!

  • Venky says:

    Hi,

    Thank you for sharing your adventure. I will really take these insights into account for any planning. I have been leasing a Nissan Leaf since the last one month now, and am using this on almost all of my drives here in the Bay Area. Charging experiences have been excellent thus far. Some charging stations seem to favor Teslas, for example, there is only one ChargePoint outlet in Santana Row in the San Jose Area for J1772 use. This outlet additionally seems to charge charge a lot more money. Apart from this minor experience so far most of my charging has been just great!

    Thank you once again,

    Venky

  • Ken says:

    I got this email from a fellow eletric auto association member in silicon valley. I am posting here since I think the links are helpful. Also, note the location of the Semacharge stations that I could not find in Petaluma.

    Hi Ken,
    My experiences in the Bay Area are many and varied, but mostly positive. If you’re on a charging adventure, positive attitude and flexibility are key–sounds like you did Ok.

    One thing to note about Petaluma Factory Outlets: the two J1772 Level 2 units are on the back (east) side of Brooks Brothers, facing the 101 freeway.

    Until there is a truly up to date, comprehensive source of charging station info, I find it useful to check the following list.  While there is a lot of overlap, double-checking with other sources can really help.
    http://www.evchargermaps.com/
    (the initial map with the pins is increasingly obsolete, but if you click on a location, there are very useful reports of users with sites converted to J1772, etc.)
    http://www.recargo.com/
    http://carstations.com/
    http://www.plugshare.com/
    http://www.chargepoint.com/
    http://www.blinknetwork.com/
    http://www.semaconnect.com/
    http://www.afdc.energy.gov/locator/stations/

    Be sure to drill down on the page of the charger you’re interested in to get all the details that users or the charger itself are providing.

    Best to EVeryone,
    StEVe G

  • Mark Brems says:

    Hey Ken,

    Thanks for turning me on to your blog. I appreciate your sense of adventure and willingness to push the envelope. I will be posting soon about my trip to The Snake on Mulholland Highway here in LA, which pushed the range capabilities of my little electric Porsche 914.

    Cheers,
    Mark Brems
    914electric.wordpress.com


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