110-Volt EV Charging: It Makes More Sense Than You Think
The most common scenario for electric cars is this: You buy the car, and then shell out another $2,000 for a garage-based 240-volt charger that, most likely, will come with some neat smart grid features allowing you to check charging status on your cellphone.
A lot of it will go down that way, but Dave Zehala, executive vice president of the Plug Smart energy services and technology start-up that grew out of the Center for Automotive Research at Ohio State, is making a bet that plug-in hybrids will catch on big, and they don’t necessarily need 240-volt charging—with smaller battery packs, 110-volt house current (known as Level I) will do.
Rob Peterson of General Motors told me that 80 percent of Chevy Volt charging will probably be through an eight-hour 110 connection. For battery EVs, it’s a bad proposition because it will simply take too long—14 to 20 hours, too long for an overnight charge.
Plug Smart makes the chipset for the General Electric WattStation that allows it to communicate with PCs and smart phones. But Zehala says the company is also planning a smart 110 charger with that same connectivity that could be sold at Home Depot or Lowe’s for $300 or $400. It might take 10 hours to fill up a Volt or Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid, but you can use your computer to dial in a late-night charging session—just as you can with that $2,000 240-volt unit.
“You’ll go down to Home Depot and there will be a version of our smart socket,” Zehala said. “All you have to do is plug it into a socket, and then hang it on the wall. You’ll be able to meter the load, accept all the pricing protocols, talk to smart meters and your telephone.” According to Zehala, GM is interested in a private-label version of the 110 cable.
I think Zehala is on to something. We’re probably under-estimating the potential of 110-volt EV charging, particularly for plug-in hybrids. The category is rather under-served right now, but it’s about to get crowded. Approximately 3,200 Chevrolet Volts have been sold, and the Fisker Karma has reached its first customers (or maybe just Leonardo DiCaprio). Fisker says that by November production will have reached 300 per week (by which time it will have fulfilled its 3,000 pre-orders).
Still to come are the Toyota Prius plug-in hybrid and the Ford C-Max Energi, both in 2012. Chinese automaker BYD wants to sell a plug-in hybrid in the U.S., and many others are in the planning stages.
Sales of plug-in hybrids could eclipse those of battery-only cars because a) they cost less; b) they have five times the range. If that happens, then 110-volt charging will take off, too, with greatly simplified installation. You won’t need an electrician for a device that just plugs into the wall. But if people find 110 to be just too slow, then all bets are off.
Plug Smart also has another piece of software called Zephyr whose purpose is to store charging data on the cloud. That way, you can charge your car at your friend’s house, and you will get the bill instead of him. “The telecom people figured out how to do this a long time ago,” Zehala told me. “You can roam through someone else’s service area, and the bill still comes to you.” This process needs to be seamless for EV charging, too, and it’s on the way there.
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