Full Charge Ahead

To borrow a horse-racing metaphor, electric vehicles (EVs) have barely left the starting gate in their efforts to transform our transportation system, but forecasters predict a growing market for the charging equipment needed to keep them on the road. Electrical contractors likely haven’t gotten many installation requests yet, but that only means now is a good time to learn more about a technology that could add to their revenues going forward. Installation is the easy part with this equipment—the challenge will be keeping up with a market, and product technologies, that will be evolving rapidly over the next five to 10 years.

Near-term demand
No one expects EVs to overtake standard internal-combustion models anytime soon, but the new technology certainly has piqued drivers’ interest. Chevrolet’s Volt caught the media’s eye at the Detroit Auto Show, garnering Motor Trend magazine’s coveted Car of the Year prize. Initial delivery is limited to California, Connecticut, New Jersey, New York and Texas, but Chevrolet plans to begin taking orders in all 50 states by the second quarter of this year, with national distribution by December. Nissan is facing some hurdles with the release of its Leaf—by January, the company had fulfilled less than 200 of its 20,000 orders on hand. But its $1.7 billion, dedicated Tennessee plant should be online by early 2012, roughly the same time that Ford’s all-electric Focus debuts.

All those cars will require access to charging equipment if they’re going to make it out of the garage. And, while public charging stations will be a part of the mix, most observers expect residential equipment to lead the market first. A growing number of electrical manufacturers are creating a crowded market for that business.

Several big names have established alliances with the largest EV manufacturers. For example, GE is working closely with Chevrolet to position its residential WattStation charger—scheduled for shipping as this magazine hits your mailbox—as the automaker’s preferred device. Aerovironment, which is experienced in developing solutions for industrial electric vehicles, is another major player in this sector and is Nissan’s recommended option for Leaf buyers. And in January, Ford announced an agreement with Leviton Manufacturing Co.—familiar for its extensive catalog of building-system controls—singling out that company’s new evr-green system.

Theoretically, it shouldn’t matter whose charger a consumer selects, so long as the charger has been certified to the universal Society of Automotive Engineers J1772 standard. However, optimal performance—including communications with utility submetering programs or an automaker’s proprietary energy management software—may depend on using that manufacturer’s recommended charger. According to Dave Packard, president of Auburn, Calif.-based charger maker ClipperCreek, each electric vehicle has its own “nuances.”

“It’s just not that straightforward,” he said.

Where the EC fits in
While vehicle manufacturers may help steer their customers toward a preferred charger supplier, they are less involved in getting that equipment installed. (Minnesota-based Weber Electric has pioneered such work there. See the sidebar on page 74.) Automakers want to concentrate on the business of cars, not home electrical systems, so they are turning to outside resources to help manage installations. Chevrolet, for example, is directing Volt buyers to ServiceMagic, a web-based contractor-referral service, to find local contractors that are qualified to install GE’s charger. Contractors will acquire the equipment through GE’s existing distributor network.

Ford is taking contractor selection out of the customer’s hands; it announced a partnership with Best Buy, which will subcontract installation to area contractors under its branded Geek Squad service. Those installers will purchase the Leviton-manufactured equipment from Best Buy, as well.

“We know it will be licensed electricians,” said Mike Mattei, Leviton’s commercial/industrial vice president and general manager. “Any licensed electrician will have no problem installing the chargers—the electrical side is very similar to surge-protection and GFCI products we sell today.”

And individual regions also are testing out their own installation and payment options. Project Get Ready, which is led by the Boulder, Colo.-based Rocky Mountain Institute, a developer of new energy-efficiency technologies, is tracking these efforts.

Minnesota Gets Charged Up
Minnesota contractor Weber Electric anticipated the proliferation of electric vehicles and the subsequent need for EV charging stations in 2009 and began the groundwork to position itself as a station and installation provider. Weber Electric was the first in the state to install a public EV charging station and is poised to pioneer the effort on a larger scale as electric vehicles are sold.

Weber Electric installed its first electric vehicle charging station in the First National Bank Building parking ramp in downtown St. Paul. The station provides 240/208-volt (V) Level 2 and 120V Level 1 power that will allow EV owners to charge their vehicles and use contactless credit cards to pay for service. The stations come with built-in, utility-grade metering, time-of-use pricing, and demand-response control. Weber Electric plans to install similar charging stations throughout Minneapolis/St. Paul.

Minnesota and the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul recently chose Coulomb Technologies’ ChargePoint for their public charging locations.

Weber Electric CEO Steve Weber met with Coulomb’s Brian Levin to learn about the ChargePoint technology and how it is installed.

Weber partnered with Paul Axt of Electric Charge Mobility, Bloomington, Minn., which was also partnering with Coulomb Technologies to sell charging stations.

The Coulomb ChargePoint stations can support either 120V or 240/208V charging. If there is a demand, Weber intends to install Coulomb’s residential unit, which can include wiring of smart grid technology, allowing utility companies to manage the impact of electric vehicles on the local and regional grids.

Weber Electric is in discussions with private companies about charging station installations for its staff as electric vehicles become more commonplace. It is also working with the public sector, providing proposals for city and state agencies.

These early installations may be just the beginning as Minnesotans begin forging deeper into the charging station territory with station installations at public places, as well as residences, all of which Weber Electric will be able to install.

—Claire Swedberg

“By nature and by design, many cities are trying different approaches,” said Matt Matila, RMI’s project manager for Project Get Ready.

His group works with cities to help identify roadblocks and best practices for launching and supporting regional EV networks. One model he finds particularly interesting is being developed by Houston’s electric utility, NRG. This plan, called “eVgo,” draws on the package-pricing model developed by cell-phone providers. Surprisingly, it’s intended to encourage EV adoption in the city that could be called petroleum’s hometown.

Houston is one of the cities included in Nissan’s initial launch plan for the Leaf, and eVgo plans to offer vehicle buyers a one-stop resource for both home and remote charging. The company will install an Aerovironment home charger and provide electricity for the vehicle for a flat fee of $49 per month. For $89 a month, EV owners will have unlimited use of the network of approximately 150 public chargers the company now is installing throughout the metropolitan area.

“For $89 per month, you know how much you’re going to pay for gas for the next two years,” said Dave Knox, communications director for both NRG and eVgo, explaining the package’s appeal. “It’s very much a cell phone model.”

Knox added that the program will be especially attractive to buyers of all-electric vehicles, such as the Leaf. The 240-volt Level 2 chargers eVgo is installing can add up to 25 miles of range for every hour of charging, so they can fully recharge a Leaf—with an estimated 100-mile range—in four hours. In contrast, the standard 110-volt portable connection sold with every electric vehicle can add only 6 miles of range per hour. This would be inadequate for a Leaf, but could suit owners of the Volt—with its 40-mile, electric-only range—just fine.

Inspector acceptance
While installing a charger is a relatively easy process for any licensed electrician—the units are basically a simple 240-volt outlet installed on a dedicated circuit—understanding local permit requirements can be less clear-cut. Matila’s Project Get Ready has been tracking how local authorities are treating charger installations and is seeing a range of practices across the country. In general, though, he’s finding less confusion than many had feared.

“I think the people getting home installation are finding it is less of a hassle than anticipated,” he said. In some cases, he said, inspectors are doing spot checks on every 10th installation. In other locales, officials are allowing 30-day grace periods between installation and inspection, so homeowners can start using the charger while waiting for the inspector to look it over.

Manufacturers stress the simplicity of such jobs when asked about a recommended level of local-inspector oversight.

“It’s really not that difficult. It’s three wires,” said ClipperCreek’s Packard. “Certainly a licensed contractor should be able to be self-certified, with spot inspections.”

To help streamline installations going forward, other makers are pursuing outreach efforts to familiarize local authorities with these new products. Leviton’s Mattei noted his company is conducting education sessions with local officials and taking note of any concerns they have regarding product design. For example, while most of their units are simply plugged into the installed 240V outlet, they have developed the flexibility for hardwiring the product, instead, to meet the demands of some jurisdictions requiring such an approach.

Moving forward
While alliances with manufacturers are providing charger -makers with an initial business boost, these companies recognize their offerings may well become commoditized in the next several years. Like any number of technologies introduced over the next decade, chargers likely will become harder to tell apart from each other, and also cheaper.

“Think back 10 years ago, and DVD players were $1,000 each,” said Chris Bowler, general manager of commercial and industrial marketing for GE, noting an area in which he thinks his company will pull away from the pack. “We think we can provide the best software, and we believe that will be a valuable add-on, over time.”

But GE won’t be alone in using sophisticated software to add value to what otherwise could become a commodity product. These improvements likely will happen in parallel with utility efforts to build out their own smart grid capabilities.

“What’s going to be driving the market is data,” said Dave Hurst, a senior analyst with Boulder, Colo.-based Pike Research, which follows global clean-energy markets. “Some manufacturers are differentiating on the back-end, on the data they deliver.”

For GE, this means integrating the WattStation into overall home automation design.

“At the Consumer Electronics Show, our booth was about making more sensible use of energy around the home,” Bowler said. “And that’s the plan for the WattStation as well, so you can determine how much power is being used throughout the home.”

Information about the electricity chargers are using also will be critical to local utilities. While it’s unlikely home chargers will create system-wide demand shortfalls, Packard suggests that local concentrations of EV chargers could overwhelm distribution transformers serving the area. So, units providing location and usage data back to utilities could help preserve system integrity. Plus, as utilities begin moving to time-of-use pricing plans, homeowners will value the ability to control their charging remotely.

“There’s a lot of added value to the market still to be seen,” Packard said, describing just these kinds of capabilities. “I think it’s a big future industry for all [manufacturers]. The major cost is going to be installation, so the more interest and education we have and the more streamlined we can become the better.”

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

About the Author

Chuck Ross

Freelance Writer
Chuck Ross is a freelance writer and editor who has covered building and energy technologies for a range of industry publications and websites for more than 25 years. He specializes in building and energy technologies, along with electric-utility bus...

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