Why Is Electric Car Charging Equipment So Expensive?

By · March 27, 2014

Why do home EV chargers cost so much? It’s just a little box with some wiring, so why should it run $500 to $1,000, plus another grand or so for installation? Chalk it up to initial development costs, the expense of certification by Underwriters Laboratories (UL) and—in a low-volume market—expensive materials and connectors.

The actual charger is in the car. The equipment connected to your wall is technically the electric vehicle supply equipment, or EVSE for short.

Kevin Mull is vice president of business development at Bosch Automotive Service Solutions. Asked why wall-mounted EVSEs are relatively costly today, he points to the high cost of raw materials, especially copper. “The cable and the connector are a third of the entire cost because of the copper,” he said. “The connectors are also relatively high in cost because the volume of EVSE sales are so low. Once we get the volume up, the cost will come down.”

It does seem likely that costs of wall-mounted EVSEs will come down significantly, and consumers today can really shop around for the best bargain. What's more, they have other options.

A Portable Future?

Given a bottom line that can soar to $2,000 all in (depending on the ease of installation), it’s tempting to see the release of AeroVironment’s $600 to $650 TurboCord as a harbinger of things to come. It's a portable EVSE made by an established charging leader that can charge at 240 volts (the more expensive one does both 120 and 240). Eventually, home and workplace charger setups could start with a simple 240-volt plug, with the consumer supplying a low-cost connecting cord. "It's a category killer," said Wahid Nawabi, senior vice president and general manager of AV's Efficient Energy Systems division. "It's an incredible breakthrough in EV charging."

AV TurboCord

AeroVironment's TurboCord is a pioneer in portable 240-volt charging, but upstart EVSE Upgrade was there first. (AeroVironment photo)

That table has already been set by EVSE Upgrade.com, which has been very successful at selling retooled OEM 120-volt cords that can handle 240 volts. Mark Dutko, director of marketing at EVSE Upgrade, says his website is now also selling the TurboCord, but so far has moved only two, compared to “thousands” of the repurposed OEM cords.

Amperage is an important and often overlooked factor. Get ready for some numbers to get thrown at you. The TurboCord provides 16 amps versus EVSE Upgrade's 20 amps. In rough terms, that means a 3.8-kilowatt versus a 4.8-kilowatt supply of juice. If you want to take advantage of today's 6.6-kilowatt in-vehicle on-board chargers, we recommend an EVSE capable of 30 amps. (That's only available from a wall-mounted, rather than portable, EVSE.) It's nice to know that you can add about 25 miles of range in an hour, rather than about 15 or 13 miles, respectively, with 20-amp and 16-amp chargers. But realize that if you mostly charger overnight, you might not feel much difference.

No Single Answer

The path forward isn’t yet clear. Right now, AV’s TurboCord, which is available at many dealerships selling EVs, doesn’t have a big price advantage over garage-mounted EVSEs, which have been coming down in cost. The cheapest alternative is the EVSE Upgrade repurposed 240-volt portable units, which run $300 or less (provided you supply your OEM-supplied 120-volt cord for conversion). The company’s Nissan LEAF five-kilowatt cords draw 20 amps and can charge the car in four or five hours. Your only other expense is going to installation of a 240-volt outlet.

But AV's Nawabi cautions that such repurposed cords are not UL-listed. “It’s not endorsed by the OEMs,” he said. “The consumer has an enormous amount of risk.”

AV TurboCord

AeroVironment's TurboCord in action. (AeroVironment photo)

Dutko counters that the EVSE Upgrade units would pass UL inspection, if his company went to the expense of re-certifying them. He adds that the original Panasonic-made cords come with built-in “advanced safety detection” that monitor for dangerous conditions and shuts down charging if necessary. He said the units have proved reliable and safe in service. “A lot of the manufacturers have a problem with us because we’ve taken such a big chunk of the market,” he said.

Costs Coming Down

Bosch Power Max

The Bosch Power Max starts at $449. That's cheap today, but costs should come down soon. (Bosch photo)

Nawabi agrees that EVSE costs will come down with volume. “EV charging has to get simpler and less expensive,” he said.

Bosch’s 16-amp Power Max unit, at $449 with a 12-foot cord, is definitely a price leader among wall mounts today. “When we launched the Power Max, we saw a tremendous uptick in sales,” Mull said. “That was a clear indication to us that price is a key driver. We intentionally designed it as a very basic unit, without many bells and whistles. Remember, the car itself has sophisticated technology to control charging.” The Power Max isn’t networked, though Bosch may introduce a version with that added. The key question is if EV drivers over time will regret the lower amperage, rather than spending $100 to $150 more for a 30-amp charger from Bosch or one of its competitors.

A Box With Wires

Dutko adds, “The actual design of an EVSE is very simple, though there are several hundred components, including a processor and firmware. But making it all work reliably is the difficult part. Keep in mind that the actual charger is on the car—the EVSE’s purpose it to provide fault protection between the fuse box and the car, offer a disconnect so the charging plug isn’t hot when off duty, and also monitor the circuit so it doesn’t get overloaded. If a Tesla, for instance, tries to draw 50 amps from an ordinary household circuit, the EVSE will dial it back to 30 amps.”

Bosch’s Mull is skeptical that the portable EVSE cord will ultimately triumph. “I can’t say we feel that kind of product will dominate anytime soon,” he said. “You still need the 240-volt circuit to your garage, and the price point [of the AV TurboCord] is very similar to wall-mounted units.” Consumers can also elect to buy a wall-mounted EVSE with a pigtail that plugs into an outlet, so it can later be easily moved around if necessary. Many EVSEs offer this option, if not mounted outdoors. However, the Power Max now is designed for a permanent installation, but a future model could include portability, Mull said.

Yes, the industry is in flux, but that’s no reason to delay buying an EV, and either installing a garage charger or electing a portable EVSE. For the time being, the price of being an early adopter might be a Benjamin or two—about the same you would pay, and never get back, with a few fill-ups of a gas-powered car.

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