Friday, October 11, 2019

What's involved when charging an electric car? A beginner's guide

If, like me, you have been considering an electric car but are not quite there, either in your head or in your wallet, then information is gold. I have reached the hybrid level of auto evolution, but a combination of range anxiety, sticker shock and general ignorance has prevented me from going the whole electric hog thus far.
As electric cars improve their ranges, and prices come down (and maybe you are lucky enough to live in a jurisdiction that offers government grants and discounts for EVs), I have been doing a bit of research into the practicalities of owning an EV or PHEV (plugin hybrid electric vehicle). One thing in particular that worried me, perhaps unaccountably, was the actual process and logistics of charging. So, I went out and got me some knowledge, because knowledge is power, apparently.
I found a few good videos and websites that show in detail how to charge an EV, and explain about the various options available. It seems there are three main methods: just plug it in to a regular mains socket; plug it in to a fast charger, either at home or on the road; or plug it in to a super-fast rapid charger of the type that can be found in various public locations in most developed countries. The first two of these utilize one type of connector port, the latter a separate special port (your EV will have both of these). You will often see charge times to 80% quoted; this is because, after 80%, the charging usually slows down so as not to risk overcharging the battery, so charging to 80% is the most time-efficient part of charging. Level 3 chargers typically only allow charging upto 80%, after which they shut off.
The good thing about being able to use a regular electricity socket (120v here in North America) is that you can charge up pretty much anywhere, whether or home or, say, at a B&B or a campsite (although I am not sure how a B&B or hotel would deal with such a request or how they might charge you). The bad news is that this kind of Level 1 charging is painfully slow, and can take anywhere from 8-20 hours for a full charge. Obviously, it takes less time for a lesser charge - you don't actually need to fully charge it each time - and the time for charging also depends on the battery size, which varies between different models of EV.
A 240v fast charger socket (Level 2)  is something you can install at your home (for a sum of money, as it has to be installed by a professional electrician), and this brings down the time required for a full charge to about 4-6 hours. This is also the most commonly encountered type of public charging station, although bear in mind that, in practice, the average EV driver does about 80% of their charging at home.
And then there are the Level 3 480v Direct Current Fast Chargers (also known as CHAdeMO) which can be found at some public charging stations - this is not an option for home. With a Level 3 charger, it only requires half an hour or so for an 80% charge. For this you would use the separate rapid charge port on your car, and not all EVs come with this facility. Some manufacturers like Tesla have their own "superchargers", using propriety connectors, but they will also charge to 80% in as little as half an hour.
There are various networks of charging stations (in the same way as there are various brands of gas station), some more widely available than others, some with the super-fast rapid charging facilities and some not. Also, not all EVs are compatible with all charging stations, and there may be different rates and payment methods involved (e.g. flat rate, by the hour). Some are even free! I guess it wouldn't take too long to figure all that out. Also, you can subscribe to more than one charging network (or.even all of them, to be safe). Typically, you tap a charge card to operate them, and pay off the card periodically, just like a credit card, or some are more like prepaid cards that you can top up as needed. Most EVs have an option where you can either lock the charger in place until you come and release it, or you can set it to automatically release when fully charged, so that someone else can use it for their car at a public charging facility.
There are a variety of phone apps that will show you where charging stations can be found, and which ones are currently free for use. You can pre-plan long-distance trips this way. With some you can even book chargers in advance for specific time periods using the app. You can check the progress on your charging on your car's dash, and often on the charger too.
It all sounds a bit complicated, but apparently you get used to it pretty quickly (remember the first time you had to fill up with gas, and how daunting that was?) You basically have to adopt a whole new mindset around charging, as compared to filling up with gas, and a fair bit more forward planning is required (depending on your car usage, of course - if you typically just drive a short distances around town, you may never need to use a public charger, and you may only need to charge at home every few days, or even once a week). Bear in mind, though, that the car's range and the chargers' speed both take a hit in cooler weather (which can means anything under 20°C!), and a significant hit in a Canadian winter.
As for how much it costs to "fill up" an EV, that obviously depends on the cost of electricity in your area, and that can get complicated. For example, you can take advantage of substantially cheaper off-peak electricity rates at night in some provinces, like here in Ontario. One analysis by concludes that a reasonably basic EV like the Chevy Bolt costs anywhere from $1.16 to $4.21 to drive 100 kilometers (based on the cheapest and the most expensive electricity in Canada), as compared to $8.40-$9.24 for an equivalent efficient gas car like the Honda Civic (i.e. anywhere from eight times to twice as cheap). A luxury EV like the Tesla X might cost between $1.55 and $5.63 per 100 kilometers, as compared to around $18-$20  for a more-or-less equivalent Range Rover.
By way of corroboration, the Ontario Ministry of Transportation estimates that an average EV would cost about $300 a year ($0.78 a day) in "fuel", as compared to $1,000-$2,500 for a gas car.  So, looking at these studies, very roughly and taking an average, you can probably count on an EV costing around one-fifth of the cost of an equivalent gas car for its fuel.
The carbon footprint of your "fill-up" is a while other issue, and it also depends on the electricity generation energy mix in your area. Here in Ontario, about 34% of our electricity comes from renewable sources, and almost 98% from non-carbon emitting sources (including nuclear), so the carbon footprint would be minimal. I also have solar panels on our roof, so I would feel even better about charging up at home.
So, am going to go out and buy an EV right now? Well, not right now, but when our trusty Prius starts showing its age, yes, probably.

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