Fast Electric Car Charging Is Slowly Picking Up Speed

By · April 13, 2011

AeroVironment's futuristic DC Fast Charge station

AeroVironment's futuristic DC Fast Charge station.

While electric vehicles are only being delivered by the hundreds today, plans for clusters of fast DC charging stations around major cities and along highways are fully underway. During the next 18 months, it may be more of a challenge to find enough cars to warrant the chargers' existence than it will be for EV drivers to find a fast charge station.

DC chargers (which are not Level 3 chargers, as some folks mistakenly have called them), can charge a vehicle at up to 10 times faster (50-80 kilowatts) than the top Level 2 rate. They are being installed across the country, largely thanks to you, the American taxpayer. The theory is that knowing that there exists a place where you can charge in less than half an hour is a great pacifier for prospective EV owners who would otherwise be susceptible to "range anxiety."
In Oregon, a federally-funded contract was recently awarded to AeroVironment to install 8 chargers along highway 5 in the southern part of the state. At $80,000 per installation, the freedom to drive electric to Ashland comes at a significant cost. Another federal grant will see up to two dozen fast charging stations in northwest Oregon.

Similarly, San Diego (60 DC chargers), San Francisco (20), Philadelphia (22) as well as Chicago and Houston are also in the midst of installing equipment, mostly subsidized through state or local grants.

DC charging faces an uphill battle not only because of the high cost, but also because of a lack of compatible EVs and the potential impact on the grid. Thus far only the Nissan LEAF can work with the fast chargers if buyers request the DC charging option be installed at the factory at a cost of at least $700. Plug-in hybrids like the Chevrolet Volt and upcoming Toyota Prius Plug-in Hybrid don't have much need for DC charging given their smaller batteries, and the Coda Electric Sedan won't support DC charging either. The Mitsubishi i-MiEV will have a DC option when it arrives in select markets at the end of the year.

The emphasis for Level 1 and 2 charging has been on smart charging EVs by managing the flow of electricity to emphasize off-peak charging. DC charging is the antithesis of this concept since it is high power, and usually not overnight. The good news is that using battery storage creates a buffer against peak DC charging. Several vendors, including hardware companies and automotive OEMs, that participated in last week's EV Infrastructure USA conference in San Diego acknowledged that storing energy off-peak in batteries connected to charging stations is a necessary part of the DC charging equation.

There was considerable debate about the efficacy of Level 2 charging, which is the vast majority of the equipment currently installed, with folks arguing that DC charging or even charging via a standard 110V outlet as more cost effective solutions. 350 Green, an EV charging services company that has landed several large contracts in U.S. cities, claims that DC charging is cheaper to deliver by the kilowatt—but that assumes a steady flow of customers during the day and into the evening.

DC charging will likely grow even faster once the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) chooses a standard. The equipment currently being installed is based on the CHAdeMO internationally-supported hardware specification, but SAE has been dragging its wheels in acknowledging CHAdeMO or picking another standard, which would be fairly disastrous for the industry.

New to EVs? Start here

  1. Seven Things To Know About Buying a Plug-In Car
    A few simple tips before you visit the dealership.
  2. Incentives for Plug-in Hybrids and Electric Cars
    Take advantage of credits and rebates to reduce EV costs.
  3. Buying Your First Home EV Charger
    You'll want a home charger. Here's how to buy the right one.