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Green Wheels

EVs’ power relies on a high profile

Groups are spending considerable cash and effort on networks of public charging stations across Canada.

Published November 9, 2012

Some EV news:

Pike Research says 36 per cent of the Americans in its latest survey described themselves as “extremely” or “very” interested in plug-in EVs. That number has dropped by four percentage points annually since 2009.

U.S. EV sales soared 228 per cent in the 2012 model year. That’s impressive — but the total, 38,000, remains just 0.25 per cent of the market.

At the recent EV2012 conference in Montreal, GM product manager Dan Mepham cited forecasts that 90 per cent of EV charging will be done at home or workplaces, and only 10 per cent at public stations.

All of which suggests demand for charging stations at malls, parking lots, hotels and similar locations will be tiny for a long time.

Yet, as I wrote last week, at least four groups — occasionally with government support — are spending considerable cash and effort on networks of public charging stations across Canada. Over the border, networks boasting thousands of stations are being bankrolled by tax dollars.

Public networks are considered essential to EV sales; offering assurance drivers won’t be stranded with dead batteries. Pike argues: “For plug-in electric vehicles to reach their market potential, a robust network of . . . charging stations is needed.”

Networks are also viewed as potential money-makers, with small fees per charge adding up to reasonable profits for network managers and host businesses that operate stations.

Even if hosts lose on charging, advocates argue, offering it would attract customers. One network, Sun Country Highway, promotes free charging to boost business at hotels or tourist destinations.

But think about it.

Even if, to use Sun Country’s goal, you could drive the TransCanada Highway coast to coast, with charging stations every 100 kilometres — within range for most EVs — how would that trip go?

The chargers are Level Two, rated at 240 volts and able to refill an empty battery in four to eight hours, depending on the capacity of the car’s charging unit.

Would you do a road trip in a pure EV alternating an hour of driving with recharging stops four times as long?

Would Level Three fast chargers — offering an 80 per cent charge in 30 minutes — make the journey much more palatable?

Would drivers in plug-in hybrids stop for boosts to carry them 20 or 30 kilometres on battery power? Or would they simply let their gasoline motor handle the trip?

The reality is, for the time being, EVs are city cars. Long-distance charging networks won’t alter that.

But do city networks make sense?

Some advocates foresee a shift: EV drivers, instead of leaving home with whatever gas is in the tank and driving until they need a complete refuel, will begin with a “full” battery and, as necessary and available, top it up at public stations.

But if, as carmakers insist, most commutes are within the range of home-charged EVs, will top-ups be required?

Car-sharing systems might grow. Will they offer EVs? They’d need charging stations, but mainly at their drop-off points.

We’re left with public networks as a showcase and, more important, that psychological crutch — “a service to avoid range anxiety,” says Nicholas Bowmany, of GridBOT, which makes charging stations and is part of the Canada-U.S. Plug-n-Ride network. People will feel better if they see charging stations, even if they’re not needed, he says. “It’s only to appease their minds.”

Networks will make sense when battery power’s range and refuelling speed becomes similar to gasoline cars, but that development would likely render current stations obsolete.

I’m impressed by the energy and creativity of the network developers, and every station they install helps to raise battery power’s profile.

But, no matter how “robust,” whether they’ll generate EV sales — or profits — without a leap in technology is another matter.

This article has been edited from a previous version that mistakenly stated total EV sales in the U.S is just 0.025 per cent of the total market.

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