It's Not a Gas! Electrical Vehicles are Here!

An electric car seems like such a simple, almost childlike, concept—you plug it in, charge it up, and it goes. But manufacturers and engineers leading the introduction of large numbers of hybrid and all-electric vehicles over the next several years are finding the effort to be surprisingly complex. Electrical contractors, though, could find widespread opportunities as businesses and homeowners invest in the infrastructure required to support new cars and trucks.

By the time this magazine reaches you, the heavily hyped new electric vehicle (EV) product launches may have hit showroom floors, with both Chevrolet and Nissan bringing 2011 model-year offerings to market. Chevy’s Volt and Nissan’s Leaf incorporate different technologies, but as they make their way into the nation’s garages, end-users will be the test pilots of what everyday life with an electric vehicle entails.

And there’s no shortage of buyers lining up for the experience. Chevy is garnering great attention in the leadup to the Volt’s launch, and by April 2010, Leaf preorders had exceeded Nissan’s stated 12,000-vehicle production capacity. Ford, among other manufacturers, will enter the EV market soon after, with four new models to be introduced by 2012 and plans to eventually electrify a quarter of its fleet.

Beyond being, simply, the first major-manufacturer EV offerings, the Leaf and the Volt also interest industry trackers because these automobiles represent different approaches to the technology. Industry pros call the Volt a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle (PHEV), as it features both a battery pack and a gas tank. The battery offers up to 40 miles of driving, after which a gasoline motor connected to a generator kicks in, enabling up to 300 miles of travel before drivers fill up the tank or plug in the battery for recharging. The Leaf, on the other hand, is a battery electric vehicle (BEV); it is 100 percent battery-operated, with a range of approximately 100 miles before recharging is needed.

For PHEV drivers, the ownership experience should be “almost transparent,” said Don Hillebrand, director of the Center of Transportation Research at Argonne National Laboratory, an Illinois institute that is among the leaders in new EV battery development. A standard 110-volt (V) outlet should be adequate for overnight recharging, and the gasoline engine frees drivers from the worries of “range anxiety.”

BEVs, however, with their reliance on entirely new technology, pose a raft of questions. Their batteries will be bigger and require a more robust electricity-delivery infrastructure, including higher voltage home charging equipment and accessible, community-based charging options. And, with their greater reliance on electricity, BEVs could start to strain existing electrical-generating capacity.

“That’s where you start to run into things that could shake up society as we know it,” Hillebrand said.

Some background on charging technology may put Hillebrand’s assessment in context. Engineers have established three broad categories of charging capacity as they have addressed determining electric-vehicle infrastructure needs. Level I—or “trickle”—charging can be completed in 8–14 hours, using a standard 120V, single-phase outlet protected with run-of-the-mill 15-amp (A) branch-circuit protection.
Level II charging, which most believe is the minimum acceptable for fully electric BEVs, will put a vehicle back on the road in 4–6 hours. This capacity requires an upgrade to 208/240V alternating current (AC) outlet, with 40A of branch-circuit protection, with additional safety built into the connection design. In addition to charging capabilities, Hillebrand said, utilities will want Level II devices to include some sort of intelligence to help ensure charging takes place during off-peak periods.

Level II charging will require some homeowner upgrades and provide new business opportunities for electrical contractors, but overall, it shouldn’t represent a major hurdle in EV adoption. The big challenge will come in developing away-from-home recharge options for BEV drivers, who will lack the fallback gasoline tank. This will require Level III charging, capable of topping off batteries in 10–30 minutes, a process that would draw a tremendous amount of electricity and have broad implications for overall grid operation.

“Level III charging uses the amount of power that a city block uses,” Hillebrand said.

Demand at that level could force utilities to consider adding generating capacity that would only be used intermittently, a move counter to the environmental goals electric vehicles are intended to help achieve.
Palo Alto, Calif.-based Better Place is considering a network of battery-swapping stations operated under the same model many of us use when our propane barbecue grills run low. Robotic arms would switch out discharged batteries with fully charged replacements to get drivers back on the road quickly. A demonstration station is operating in Tokyo to repower a fleet of electric taxis.

Addressing such infrastructure questions is becoming an urgent issue for cities across the United States, as they see the need to prepare for what may be a primarily urban market for EVs, at least initially. To help cities identify and meet a range of deployment challenges, Rocky Mountain Institute, a Boulder, Colo.-based environmental research and development nonprofit, has initiated Project Get Ready. Started in 2008, the effort provides a framework of must-have and nice-to-have actions city planners should take to make their communities electric-vehicle ready. Stakeholders, including representatives from utilities, battery and car manufacturers, and research organizations, are available for consultation. Weekly conference calls among participating cities—approximately 10, as of late May—help local groups share questions and successes.

“For a vehicle to be appealing, you need some sort of city plan,” said Matt Matilla, Project Get Ready project manager.

Among the challenges Mattila and his group urge cities to address are overcoming potential consumer resistance to the new technology—perhaps by providing rush-hour access to high-occupancy vehicle lanes or sponsoring test-drive events—and possible red-tape issues related to charging-station installation.

A Range of Business-Recharging Opportunities
Who would think, given the economy’s last couple years, that the auto industry would be a source of optimism for electrical contractors? But as electric vehicles (EVs) begin rolling out of showrooms by the tens of thousands in the next few months, their owners will be turning to electricians to help them transform their garage’s electrical outlets into fuel pumps.

“It’s huge,” said Matt Matilla, describing the opportunity electrical contractors could be seeing. Matilla is project manager of the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Project Get Ready, a national effort helping cities mobilize to prepare for new fleets of EVs. “And it’s a gap we haven’t really seen met yet.”

Nissan, manufacturer of the all-electric Leaf, set to debut this fall, signed an agreement in April with home-charger manufacturer Aerovironment to develop a network of local electrical contractors trained to install the chargers, which will be compatible with almost all manufacturers’ vehicles. The company now is recruiting qualified contractors to become certified installers.

“We’re looking for electrical contractors who have great customer service, with an interest in the electric-vehicle space, and who have experience in residential,” said Kristen Helsel, the company’s EV solutions director.
Interested contractors can visit to begin the application process. —C.R.

The 2011 Models!
The Nissan Leaf manufactured in Smyrna, Tenn., will go on sale in the United States later this year ( The Leaf is a battery-powered, five-passenger sedan with a range of 100 miles and a top speed of 90 miles per hour. Similarly, GM plans to introduce the Chevy Volt, which has a range of 40 miles on batteries and a gasoline-powered generator that provides an extended range of several hundred miles on a single tank of gas ( this year. Nissan’s Leaf is an example of a fully battery-powered electric vehicle (BEV) and the Chevy Volt is an example of a plug-in hybrid-electric vehicle (PHEV). Both of these cars will be comparable in price and performance to traditional gasoline powered cars of similar size and with similar features. —Dr. Thomas E. Glavinich

In-home charging-station manufacturers also are involved in Project Get Ready, including Monrovia, Calif.-based Aerovironment. The company, which also designs and manufactures unmanned aircraft for military use, developed General Motors’ EV-1 and charging systems for forklifts and other industrial electric vehicles. In April, the company announced an agreement with Nissan to provide Level II in-home charging stations for Leaf buyers and is recruiting a national network of electrical contractors to provide branded installation services.

Nissan is including the Leaf charging units in the cost of the vehicle, so the average $2,200—which might be eligible for rebates and/or tax credits—can be financed along with the car. Though the devices may present a streamlined, high-tech face, the standard Leaf charging units shouldn’t pose any real installation challenges for experienced electricians.

“It’s really just an elaborate GFCI,” said Kristen Helsel, the company’s director of electric vehicle solutions. “It just allows the power to flow safely and consistently from the grid into the car.”

And, thanks to standards developed by the Society of Automotive Engineers, Aerovironment charging stations will be usable by all electric vehicles, even hybrids, including the Volt, according to Helsel. She notes, though, that local building authorities are still working to wrap their heads around the SAE standards, along with those from the National Electrical Code and Underwriters’ Laboratories.

“This is a big paradigm shift in how we fuel automobiles,” she said. “What all communities are trying to do is figure out how they want to participate in this.”

As to Level III fast-charging stations, Helsel describes a chicken-and-egg situation, requiring adequate market penetration of electric vehicles to give station developers confidence in their projects’ potential success.

“I think Level III is the next great unconquered area,” she said. “We need the vehicles—and a lot of them—to show up. Once the vehicles start to deploy, I think it will be easier for [companies] to engage in this space.”

Despite the challenges, though, industry participants at all levels are excited to see this new technology move forward. Argonne Laboratory’s Hillebrand, for one, believes we are on the cusp of a new way of thinking about cars and how we drive them.

“The world of vehicles is actually changing for the first time in 100 years,” he said, expressing a sentiment echoed by many. “It’s exciting. They certainly have limits, but this is the first really new thing I’ve seen in 27 years in the industry. It’s certainly a changing of the guard.”

ROSS is a freelance writer located in Brewster, Mass. He can be reached at

Manufacturers Jump on the Charging-Station Wagon
To meet the demand created as battery electrics and plug-in hybrid electric cars are driven off lots, electrical manufacturers have been preparing for the consumer demand. Manufacturers have announced several new or upcoming products that will largely be sold through electrical distribution.

In July, GE introduced the GE WattStation, an easy-to-use EV Level II charger, which is designed to help accelerate the adoption of plug-in electric vehicles. As announced at a press conference, the GE WattStation will be sold through traditional electrical distribution.

“Widespread electric vehicle adoption depends on having charging stations that integrate the need for quick charging with the personal need for easy functionality,” said Steve Fludder, vice president of GE Ecomagination.
“For more than 100 years, GE has worked to optimize energy use. Given our expertise in electrical distribution, WattStation is a natural progression in our commitment to creating cutting-edge innovation for the next century,” said Dan Heintzelman, president and CEO of GE Energy Services.

Also in July, Schneider Electric announced plans to develop a comprehensive portfolio of EV charging solutions. Schneider Electric will offer a complete spectrum of EV charging infrastructure and smart-grid integration, services and management in one complete solution to help speed adoption of EVs globally. Smart-grid connectivity will play a critical role in helping utilities manage the added load EVs will bring to the electrical grid.

The EV portfolio will include Level I and Level II charging stations for residential settings, Level II Square D charging stations for commercial locations, a modular Level II charging solution for fleets, Level III Square D fast-charging stations, and infrastructure management. In addition, Schneider Electric will offer—using electrical contractors—installation and maintenance services for the charging stations.

“Schneider Electric intends to be a leader in this emerging market and play a key role in helping our customers make the most of their energy related to EV transportation,” said Allen Breeze, senior vice president, Energy Business, Schneider Electric. “With our extensive energy management expertise and strong industry relationships, Schneider Electric is in a position to deliver comprehensive EV charging solutions that are innovative, safe, reliable and efficient.”

In the charging station market since 1993, Clipper Creek offers high-power 240V AC Level II EV charging stations that are UL certified (the first in the industry) and outdoor-rated. These safety devices are required by NEC 625 to charge vehicles, such as the Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf and Prius, and they are appropriate for industrial, commercial and residential installations. 

Since electrical contractors will be the ones called on to install these products, keeping up to speed on new charging station products is important. Stay tuned to future issues of ELECTRICAL CONTRACTOR for more on these and other EV product announcements.

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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