No reason to blow cash on recharging network

There's no case for spending public money on recharging station networks now, nor will there be when they're needed.

  • battery-swapping concept

Are public charging stations a necessary step to getting electric cars on the road, or a boondoggle?

This summer, several companies and governments in the United States have announced a mishmash of products, services and subsidies about them.

Most recently, California-based Coulomb Technologies unveiled its first networked stations — linked to a computer that directs drivers to the nearest available charger and, slightly more important, handles billing — in New York City and San Jose, Calif. They’re the start of ChargePoint America, funded by the U.S. government, which aims to install about 5,000 of the devices in nine American cities.

Meanwhile, Washington State plans to turn its 440 km I-5 expressway, from Oregon to Canada, into an Electric Highway, with fast charging stations — capable of filling a lithium-ion battery to 80 per cent of capacity in 30 minutes — along the route. With about $1.5 million from the U.S. government as a kick-start, it’s looking for private companies to be partners in the $250 million project.

The Electric Vehicle Deployment Act, now before Congress, promises billions of dollars to communities that devise the best plans for encouraging the spread of electric cars. Applications omitting charging stations will be tossed.

Most carmakers insist charging stations be available — at others’ expense — before they’ll sell electric vehicles in any market. Vancouver is among many cities around the world dancing that waltz with Nissan, which is to launch its all-electric Leaf in a few months. A charging infrastructure is part of Toronto’s EV300 plan.

The basic argument behind all this is that people will ignore electric cars if they fear they’ll run out of juice mid-trip.

Nancy Ryan, who heads California’s Public Utilities Commission, was explicit this week as, in an effort to promote public charging stations, she exempted companies that sell them from some regulations. “Consumers will not adopt electric vehicles without adequate charging infrastructure,” she said.

Who says? Well, nobody, really.

The argument is based on a new nugget of pop psychology — range anxiety — that doesn’t stand up to a little probing:

Apart from Tesla, only for the well heeled, carmakers are designing all-electric vehicles with a range of less than 180 km. They contend, correctly, such a capacity is easily adequate for average daily driving.

Surveys, and a year’s experience with 600 American drivers who tested battery-powered BMW Mini’s, suggest owners will, overwhelmingly, opt to plug in their cars at home overnight. That provides plenty of time for a full charge with ordinary 120-volt outlets, or 240-volt versions, like those for stoves and dryers, that fully charge batteries in under six hours.

A very distant second, and only if available, is to recharge at the workplace. High-tech networking isn’t required for either choice and they obviously won’t generate demand for chargers along streets or in parking lots.

As for long trips, no one — again excepting Tesla and those few who support the battery-swapping concept of California-based Better Place — is currently considering all-electric power.

Imagine driving Washington’s Electric Highway: By my arithmetic, even with fast chargers a car with a 150 km range would need three stops, totalling 90 minutes, to complete the trip.

Oddly, the promotion handouts for the highway includes Chevrolet’s Volt, a plug-in hybrid with an all-electric range of 60 km and gasoline backup. Would anyone make the required eight charging stops, totalling four hours, rather than let internal combustion take over after the initial burst of battery power?

Some day, if battery and charging technologies improve, and millions of electric cars populate the roads, public charging might be useful. At that point, businesses will, as always, evolve to meet the legitimate demand.

There’s no case for spending public money on them now, nor will there be when they’re needed.

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