Amps and Bolts, Nuts and Volts: EV Essentials For The Curious (Part 1)
By: David Albrecht
So, you’re thinking about buying an electric car. For most Americans, any decision involving an automobile is a big one. Buying a car ranks as the second-biggest purchase most of us will ever make. With that in mind, the goal of this overview is to spell out the basics of what’s involved in making the leap away from traditional technology into something new.
The first big decision you’ll have to make is likely whether to go with a Battery-Electric Vehicle (BEV) or a Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV). To be clear, a BEV is a 100% electric car, which must be plugged in, while a PHEV uses both a gasoline engine and an electric motor. PHEVs can be plugged in to provide all-electric range of up to nearly 50 miles, depending on the model, but this is optional – you can also drive and fuel a PHEV in exactly the same way you’d use a conventional car (though usually with better miles per gallon).
This decision depends on many factors. Where do you live? What’s your daily commute? How many miles per week do you rack up, and are they city or highway miles? There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, which is just as true if you’re buying a conventional car or truck.
For most drivers, it all comes down to “range,” which is EV speak the number of miles the car lasts before it needs to be refueled or recharged. How far can you go without stopping to top off? Some BEVs offer more than 200 miles per charge. In September, a ranking of BEVs by range based on EPA data showed 12 out of 24 models available had ranges of 200 miles or more. However, as in most things, you get what you pay for, and not surprisingly, the longer the range, the higher the cost. Of the 12 200-mile+ models listed, eight are different models and trims of Tesla, with an entry-level cost of $28,700 after applying the federal EV tax credit.
Okay, so you’re leaning BEV: an all-electric model meets your needs, and the idea of life without gasoline is appealing. But what about charging? If you’re wondering where and when, not to worry. If your home has electricity, so will your car. BEV owners do more than 80% of their charging at home. Level 1 charging (using a wall socket) is slow, but you’ve got all night. And bear in mind that even if your car only has a 120-mile range, if your daily commute is 10 miles, you’re likely only looking at charging one or two nights per week.
Charging at home is substantially cheaper per mile traveled than liquid fuels. Energy.gov estimates that the cost of charging an EV at home over the course of a year should be less than the cost of running an air conditioner.
There are complications, however: electricity costs vary from place to place, and comparing the cost of a gallon of gasoline to the price of a kilowatt-hour is a bit tricky. Still, you can expect to pay far less per mile in an EV than when using gasoline. Let’s think local – February residential electricity rates in Kansas City, Missouri are 12 cents per kilowatt-hour. Let’s say your EV has a 40-kilowatt-hour battery and 150 miles of range: 40 X $0.12 = $4.80/150- a complete recharge at just over three cents per mile.
Of potential interest – electricity costs vary by time of day, and by plugging in your EV at night, you may be able to save even more money. Locally, Kansas City Power & Light offers customers the option of selecting Residential Time Of Use billing. What that means is that you can choose to pay different utility rates depending on the time of day you use the juice. When electricity demand is at its lowest, prices are about one-sixth of peak rates. However, this is an opt-in program and has some restrictions. For Missouri customers, you can find details here. On the Kansas side, this is a pilot program but will be available to the first 1,000 customers to apply. Both programs will begin in the fall of 2019.
With home charging squared way, what about when you’re out and about? The bad news is that you can’t just hop in your EV and head for the Rockies or the Ozarks. The good news is that with a bit of planning, you can still do a lot of what you’re used to with gas or diesel.
Remember Level 1 charging (a.k.a. “Electricity, The Home Game”)? Things get a touch more complicated as we move on to Level 2 and Level 3. Level 2 chargers are rated at 240 volts, about twice the voltage that you’d find at home. They’re far and away the most common form of public charging – in fact, the Department of Energy lists more then 23,000 Level 2 charging stations in the US and Canada. They’re what you’ve seen popping up in parking garages and office parking lots for the past few years. What they can provide is a full charge in 3-5 hours, depending on the size of your car’s battery. Obviously, these aren’t a quick and easy solution for the Great American Road Trip, but are a great option for a full charge at work or a top-off while shopping.
On to Level 3. These are the biggest and beefiest EV charging systems around. They’re also the fastest, which is what gets the attention of EV drivers planning longer trips. A full charge at home with a Level 1 charger might take 18-24 hours, depending on your battery size, and a Level 2 charge up to four or five hours, but Level 3 chargers can provide 60 to 80 miles of range in about 20 minutes, and a full charge even for cars with the largest batteries in less than an hour. There aren’t that many of these specialized systems, but they’re typically located along high-traffic interstates and near busy intersections – and they’re intended to assist in helping EV owners in making longer trips.
So, exactly where are all these charging stations? Glad you asked, since your tax dollars support a handy, free site that can provide pretty much all the essentials. The Alternative Fuels Data Canter, courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy and the Alternative Fueling Station Locator is available both online and in a mobile phone app (download it here for either Android or iPhone). It has a comprehensive map of all registered charging stations in the US, so you can plan your trips with ease and peace of mind.
With contemporary developments in electric vehicles and charging infrastructure, it’s become easier and more cost-effective to switch to electric. So what are you waiting for?
Contact David Albrecht at Metropolitan Energy Center at firstname.lastname@example.org for more info on making the switch, and stay tuned for the second part of this blog series on charging technology, decision-making tools, and more.