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Electric Car Infrastructure Charges Ahead

April 14, 2011
Electric Vehicles: Are They Real This Time?

Electric vehicles (EVs) are really coming this time. They're just going to need some place to plug in.

Luckily, San Francisco-based ECOtality and ABB are linking up to develop and build the infrastructure and distribution system needed to routinely charge the millions of EVs from dozens of carmakers expected to be zipping along U.S. streets and highways soon.

Despite many false starts in past decades, EVs will succeed this time due to several primary factors, according to Jonathan Read, ECOtality's president and CEO. These factors include:

  • Better lithium-based battery technologies
  • High consumer demand for EVs due to $4-per-gallon and soon to be $5-per-gallon gas prices nationwide
  • Greater awareness of national security and environmental issues perpetuated by fossil fuels
  • Agreement by all major EV firms in 2010 to comply with the SAE J1772 standard for 240 V/32 A plugs for charging stations
  • Common plugs that enable construction of universal Level 1 and 2 EVSE charging stations.

Read presented "Electric Vehicles: Are They Real This Time?" on the second day of ABB Automation and Power World 2011 this week in Orlando. ABB recently invested in and now owns about 20% of ECOtality.

"They put in the components that make our charging stations work." ECOtality's Jonathon Read explained how ABB components and technology are helping to make possible the coming age of electrical vehicles.

Read explained there will likely be three levels of charging methods: traditional 110 V plugs in homes that will take 8 hours to charge an EV; 220 V/40 A plugs in homes and businesses that will take 3.3 hours to charge an EV; and new retail-based, fast-charging DC stations that take 10-30 minutes. Japanese EV builders already have settled on the CHAdeMO standard for fast-charging DC stations, but an international standard is still being developed and debated.

However, because a residential home typically draws 2.2 to 5 kW, and EVs consume 3.3-6.6 kW at 240 V/32 A, Read acknowledges that the U.S. will have to add massive amounts of capacity to its electrical grid. To provide the charging capacity needed, Read added that ECOtality is already talking to and working with 60 utilities as part of its EV Micro-Climates program to help make utilities and municipalities "plug-in ready" by deploying EV charging stations, while also making sure they fit in with local parking ordinances and traffic laws.

"We're working with some local communities, such as San Diego, to decide where charging stations will go, how to do parking and ticketing, how to add charging stations to homes and businesses," added Read.

The charging station that ECOtality plans to install is called Blink, an interactive, 240 Vac/32 A unit that will communicate data to both its users and the local utility. It's also expected to be part of a home area network (HAN) and a home energy management solution (HEMS).

Meanwhile, the fast-charging, three-phase DC versions of Blink will likely be located at retailers such as Best Buy and will even include 42 in. interactive screens, which also will display everything from charging and transactional data to movie trailers to other content.

"The core of what we do is networking, so these charging stations will allow users to control the time and level of how they charge, which will let them get better rates and also enable the utilities to run more consistently," explained Read. The partners report that these efforts will be aided by ECOtality's partnership with ABB and its other recent acquisition of Ventyx, which offers electrical operations and IT management solutions.

In fact, ECOtality also is one of 50 partner companies that are part of the U.S. Dept. of Energy's EV Project, which is spending $245.6 million to help build 14,000 charging stations in 18 cities nationwide. "We have a huge head start in building this charging infrastructure, and ABB is a good strategic fit for this because they are the best at grid management and distribution. They will put in the components that make our charging stations work."

Energy Smarts

SustainablePlant Editor in Chief Paul Studebaker takes the smart fortwo electric drive for a test-spin at ABB Automation & Power World in Orlando, Florida. The vehicle is a fully electric car and features the same Mercedes-Benz engineering, design, comfort and performance of all smart fortwos. Its 30 kW drive motor is powered by a 16.5 kWh lithium-ion battery that can be charged on a 110 V or 220 V outlet and takes an estimated 3.5 hours on a 220 V outlet to charge from 20% to 80% of capacity. The car is designed to have an 84-mile range on a full battery and is capable of reaching highway speeds.

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