Not so long ago, electric vehicles (EVs) were seen as just another environmental pipe dream, posing seemingly insurmountable cost and technology hurdles. That opinion is changing now, though, with Chevrolet and Nissan vehicles hitting showroom floors and quickly being driven out, assuming preorder interest holds up. Today, the rush is on to provide new EV owners with recharging options, with an urgency that could create a large new market for electrical contractors.

Oyster Bay, N.Y.-based ABI Research predicts more than 1.8 million charging stations will be installed in the United States during the next four years. This represents 54 percent of the 3 million units expected to be installed worldwide in that time. The United States currently has about 20,000 chargers, ABI said, primarily serving commercial and government fleet programs. In its April report, “Plug-in Vehicle Infrastructures,” ABI predicts total revenues for all markets will reach $11.75 billion by 2015.

And, as further indication that EV-charger opportunities have gone from fringe to financially significant, some major players are entering the market to take on the early startups. GE, Schneider Electric, Eaton Electrical and Siemens Industry all have recently announced new or soon-to-be released offerings for both residential and commercial installations. In these economic times, a brand-new market primed to move from near-zero to $11.75 billion in four years is too tempting for even the largest manufacturers to pass up.

The next couple of years likely will be a little erratic for charger makers and installers, as manufacturers seek to track vehicle-makers’ sales. For a period of time, there may, in fact, be more chargers installed than vehicles on the road. Pike Research, a Boulder, Colo.-based observer of clean-energy industries, last year predicted 1.7 million plug-in hybrid EVs, worldwide, by 2015, only 50 percent of ABI’s forecast of 3.4 million charging stations.

“I think it’s going to take off slowly because of the chicken-and-egg nature of the industry,” said Larry Fisher, ABI’s director for NextGen technologies research, describing the initial demand for vehicle chargers. “Late this year, we’ll see our first plug-in vehicles, and initially, vehicle sales will drive the purchase of personal charging stations.”

So, early on, the biggest opportunities likely will be at the residential level. After all, one of the prime enablers of current battery technology is the observation that most of us drive less than 40 miles round trip in any given day. Vehicle driving ranges that fall somewhere between 60 and 100 miles, depending on conditions and driving styles, should allow most drivers to rely on a unit in their garage to keep them powered up for the next day’s commute.

“To get off the ground, you need one car per charger,” Fisher said. “As the industry progresses, it’s going to take a vehicle population in use to drive the public charging-station infrastructure.”

Equipment manufacturers envision a similar market progression, beginning with chargers in owners’ homes (and, of course, in the dealerships offering test drives), and then moving out to the broader community. Geographically, charging-station availability likely will follow the launch schedules of vehicle manufacturers. For example, Chevrolet’s Volt will be available only in seven markets initially—California, Connecticut, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Texas and Washington, D.C.—with models available nationwide after a 12–18 month period, according to the manufacturer’s website.

Nissan’s Leaf will be available initially in Arizona, California, Oregon, Tennessee and Washington. Dealers will be offering that car across the United States by the end of 2011. Both Toyota and Honda intend to enter the EV fray by sometime in 2012, according to news releases.


Decoding EVs
New car technology has introduced a whole new set of letters to learn. HEV, BEV, PHEV—these acronyms are sprinkled with abandon over all coverage of the new generation of vehicles. The following is a short primer on what they (usually) mean.

Hybrid electric vehicles (HEVs): Exemplified by Toyota’s Prius, these cars capture energy from braking to recharge a battery used to power vehicles at low speed. These cars are not rechargeable using plugs, at least, for now.

Battery electric vehicles (BEVs): These vehicles, such as Nissan’s Leaf, use only battery-supplied electricity and, hence, have relatively short driving ranges of 60–100 miles. Confusingly, some people also use EV to refer to these models.

Plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs): These combine an onboard gasoline supply with a battery. There are various designs to this approach, but the end result is a vehicle, such as Chevrolet’s Volt, that can travel up to 300 miles, which is why these models also may be called “extended-range vehicles” (ERVs).


What will they need?
The biggest market, to start, will be for Level 2 equipment, which fills a battery from empty in 4 to 6 hours, using 240V/30A power. Level 1 equipment, using 110V current, takes at least 8 to 12 hours to accomplish this task. GE will offer a basic residential charging station in the first quarter of 2011, along with a smart-looking commercial product called the Watt-Station, according to Mike Mahan, the company’s global product manager for electric vehicle charging stations. A residential version of the WattStation also is in the works, with planned release by the end of 2011.

Commercial Level 2 chargers will incorporate a higher level of intelligence than the home-based counterparts because they will accommodate financial transactions. Although property owners and employers may initially be installing these stations as conveniences for customers, tenants and employees, some form of metering still will be required, along with a payment interface. Some physical accommodations to the commercial environment also will be required. For example, the GE model will feature a retractable cord, with a charger head that can’t be removed from the vehicle until payment has been finalized.

Level 3 charging, which would fully recharge a battery in 30 minutes or so, is something of a Holy Grail for manufacturers and drivers alike. Mahan said GE is planning to release a product sometime next year, and Schneider Electric and other manufacturers are suggesting similar production schedules. But the technology, which is still significantly more time consuming than today’s five-minute fill-ups, faces some hefty challenges. The Society of Automotive Engineers and other standards groups still are working out safety requirements. In addition, individual chargers are anticipated to cost up to $60,000 each, raising concerns that operators would have a hard time realizing a return on their investment.

Rich Korthauer, director of Schneider Electric’s North American residential power business, noted that Level 3 equipment requires 480V service, which isn’t always readily available.

“From a design perspective, it’s absolutely feasible,” he said. “As far as timing, I think it’s going to come a little later. The investment is in the tens of thousands, and there are limits as to how many vehicles you can charge at one time.”

To market, to market
Marketers for both GE and Schneider Electric each will be emphasizing their respective building-system expertise, rather than automotive know-how (though, of course, both companies have long histories in the automotive industry). There is a practical relationship, of course, as home chargers, at least, will be tied directly into residential electrical systems. But there’s also a marketing advantage in being able to tie a 21st century technology to generations-old brand names.

“A Schneider or Square D load center is going to be in a third of the homes in the U.S.,” Korthauer said.

And, with building systems as a market-entry point, it only makes sense that electrical contractors would be the connection these manufacturers see to their eventual customers. Both GE and Schneider have extensive distributor/contractor ties that will prove very useful as they begin rolling out their new chargers.

“We’re going to build on our presence in the building industry,” Korthauer said. “We have a distribution network of more than 10,000 outlets, and we have a very strong relationship with electrical contractors throughout North America.”

GE began its outreach to electrical contractors and the product-design stage. Electrical professionals, along with other building--team members, were also in the audience of a national webinar discussing the company’s product proposals.

“We knew how important it was to get contractors involved in the design,” said Chris Bowler, general manager of commercial and industrial marketing for GE. “It was very valuable to understand issues like maintenance, accessibility and where the chargers need to be located.”

Eaton is directing its initial efforts toward the fleet market, something Mike Dixon, the company’s EV charger product line manager calls a “beachhead,” with mission-critical business issues requiring a full network of chargers, monitoring equipment and enterprise-architecture integration expertise.

“For us, it’s a natural sweet spot,” Dixon said, and potential customers, including municipalities and airports, are seeing a need, too. “I have a number of RFPs on my desk.”

Siemens, with its international emphasis, is exploring global opportunities, according to Rick Kluth, a Siemens Energy product marketing specialist. The company will be drawing on expertise from engineers at its three “Electro-mobility centers of competence” in North Carolina, Germany and China to address markets across North America, Europe and Asia.

Charging up your business
Electrical contractors seeking to add charging-station installation to their list of services might want to pursue the business on a couple levels. First, take advantage of manufacturer, distributor and industry-wide training opportunities. GE, for one, is developing a program it is calling “EV University,” and other makers likely will follow suit. Local utilities in areas set to launch EV sales could be another resource. Several websites to check include http://electricdrive.org (sponsored by the Electric Drive Transportation Association) and http://projectgetready.com (discussed in September’s issue of Electrical Contractor).

Customers may come from multiple directions—utilities, manufacturer ties, or, of course, the same place those customers might purchase their electric vehicles.

“It could go in so many directions,” ABI Research’s Fisher said, noting the multiple channels for building business with charger installations. “I’d think an interested contractor organization would be reaching out to dealerships directly.”


ROSS is a freelance writer located in Brewster, Mass. He can be reached at chuck@chuck-ross.com.