Gearing Up: Electric Vehicles

In his 2011 State of the Union address, President Obama said, “With more research and incentives, we could become the first country to have a million electric vehicles on the road by 2015.”

Many people considered this goal to be somewhat ambitious. In fact, in 2011, automobile dealers only sold 18,000 electric vehicles (EVs), while conventional auto sales reached 13 million.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration may offer a more realistic estimate of EV market growth. It projects sales of 280,000 EVs between 2011 and 2015. Hybrid cars represent just 2–3 percent of the automobiles on the road today, and pure EVs don’t even account for 1 percent.

Two factors hinder the expansion of the market.

Sticker shock is the old problem because EVs are pricey, luxury items. Two of the most popular models, the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf, go for $37,500 and $32,300, respectively.

In addition, EVs come with a built-in handicap: range anxiety. Many drivers are concerned about the possibility of running out of power on the road en route to an unfamiliar destination and not knowing where or if they can recharge.

“For 100 years, filling stations have been ubiquitous, and drivers have been used to refueling virtually at will,” said John Halliwell, senior project manager at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI). “The EV requires drivers to think in an entirely different way about how they’ll use their cars.”

Regardless of which car sales forecast one accepts, one fact is clear: With gas at $4-plus per gallon, the EV market will continue to grow, albeit at its own deliberate pace, and these vehicles, by definition, need an infrastructure—places to plug in and recharge. Enter the electrical contractor.

Getting charged up
The charging station apparatus for EVs is generically referred to as electric vehicle supply equipment (EVSE). There are basically two types: Level 1 and Level 2, and there are two points of installation: either the driver’s premises or a commercial space, such as an office or metropolitan parking lot.

Most EVs sold today already come with a Level 1 charger, essentially a glorified extension cord that plugs into a standard 120-volt (V) receptacle in the owner’s garage or carport. The limitation of this equipment is that it takes 10 hours to recharge the car and will only charge up to 1,200–1,400 watts. New models being rolled out over the next two years will have power levels for inboard charging of 6.6 kilowatts.

These EVs will require a Level 2 charging station, which involves a hardwired 240V installation with a box that provides ground-fault protection and ensures the cable does not energize until it is plugged into the vehicle and proper signaling has been established. These charging stations will be the most widely used whether in the owner’s garage or a public space.

What does the electrical contractor need to know about both levels of installation?

“Electrical contractors will probably be called on to install Level 2 charging stations most often, but there are also issues with Level 1 equipment that many homeowners may not be aware of and with which contractors can be of valuable assistance,” said Patrick Davis, vehicle technology program manager, the Department of Energy (DOE). “Level 1 should have a dedicated circuit, not a multireceptacle circuit equipped with an inexpensive general use wall socket that wasn’t made for repeated insertion, such as in EV recharging.”

Rich Byczek, global technical lead for EV and energy storage at Intertek, Glen Burnie, Md., an EV testing provider, stressed this cautionary note.

“This Level 1 recharging equipment is rated for continuous, not intermittent, use as in the case of a washer or dryer,” he said. “The electrical contractor has the opportunity to provide the value-added service of advising the homeowner of the option of installing a dedicated 120V branch circuit rather than upgrading the main service through the utility. In the case of Level 2, both a dedicated 240V circuit and utility service upgrade may be necessary.”

But Level 2 installation has emerged as the most lucrative target of opportunity for electrical contractors.

“Level 2 work will be the major source of business for contractors because the car manufacturers are now advertising their charging times in terms of 240V,” said Steve Rosenstock, manager of energy solutions at the Edison Electric Institute (EEI), Washington, D.C. “As they put in larger batteries, the owner will have to go to 240V to achieve any reasonable charge time. Even so, depending on the type of car bought and the size of the battery, Level 1 will still be a viable option. It all depends on the individual customer’s usage patterns.”

And there are other considerations concerning public space installations that the contractor should be cognizant of.

“Any electrical contractor can install a Level 2 charger and run the wiring for 240V service, but there are possible complications,” the DOE’s Davis said. “Most contractors will know the permitting issues that apply in the area. This is important because they vary from one jurisdiction to another, and it’s even more involved for multiple installations at businesses or workplaces. They have to be American Disability Act-compliant. Also to be considered is the need for guards to prevent vehicles from hitting the chargers and whether there are demand issues in case of simultaneous use, which would likely require networking the chargers to avoid excessive peak-power charges.”

Plugging in to the market
Once electrical contractors understand what they need to know about the technology and the market, how do they get in?

“Our original thinking was that we would target the cities, counties and agencies we normally work with,” said Brett Beard, vice president of Beard Electric, Santa Fe Springs, Calif. “But our experience has gone in a different direction, working as a service contractor with SPX Corp., an engineered products manufacturer whose line includes EVSE.

“We have installed 240V residential chargers and also worked with utility companies to install separate time-of-use metering for their customers, which allow them to charge their EVs off-peak at discounted rates,” Beard said.

Beard noted that the company used training programs from the Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Training Program (EVITP), designed specifically for electrical contractors.

Tom Hedges, president of Hedges Electric in San Diego, has not only hands-on experience with the EVSE market but has also served on the National Electrical Code’s Panel 12, which focuses on specifications for this equipment.

“This business can be profitable, and it isn’t rocket science by any stretch,” he said. “If a residential customer needs a panel upgrade, that’s about $2,000, and there are DOE subsidies available to the EV owner. So it’s a win-win situation.”

Coming down the turnpike
While the EV market continues to grow, contractors should understand that it is not going to result in exponential expansion overnight.

“This market depends on consumer attitudes, gas prices and a whole list of uncontrollable variables,” said Gregg Steeb, field support manager for Prime Electric, Bellevue, Wash. “But EVSE projects continue to gain strength, and car manufacturers are producing more EVs than ever and improving upon them. Contractors should do their homework to understand this market and be in a position to take advantage of the opportunity it offers.”

And realistically speaking, the homework won’t be easy.

“When you do the research, anticipate a steep learning curve,” Beard said. “The permitting process continues to create surprises and delays in ramping up for actual installations and then dealing with the many entities that crop up. But even so, the ongoing development of the EV plug-in infrastructure, an industry still in its infancy, is already providing revenues for the electrical industry.”

QUINN reports on a broad range of business and industry issues for journals in the United States and Europe. He can be reached at 203.323.9850 and

About the Author

John Paul Quinn

Freelance Writer
John Paul Quinn reports on a broad range of business and industry issues for journals in the United States and Europe. He can be reached at 203.323.9850 and .

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