Dave Thielen, a 12-year Boulder resident, turned in his BMW M3 for an all-electric car in 2012.
He no longer pays $3 or more per gallon for gasoline, and he charges his electric vehicle (EV) at home overnight, which he says was an easy habit to adapt to.
But as a consumer in a new, growing market, Thielen has little regard for the steps Boulder has taken so far to support electric cars. He has never used any of the city’s four public charging stations, which are located at the three outdoor recreation centers. He says that these chargers are misplaced.
“When you’re just driving around in town, you’re not going need it,” he says. “You’re going to need it when you’re driving some distance.”
And driving a long distance -- farther than running errands around town or a daily commute -- is something that EVs are not meant to do, yet. Thielen owns a Nissan LEAF, which has an EPA-approved driving range of about 75 miles on a fully charged battery, and that’s the next bridge this industry is trying to cross.
Running out of gas usually isn’t a problem -- but running out of electricity in an electric vehicle is. When was the last time a trip to the gas station took more planning than a grocery store run? Gas stations are so ubiquitous that drivers rarely need to do an internet search for a nearby location, and if all the pumps are being used by other drivers, a five-minute wait will solve that problem.
“If you’re a one-car family, electric won’t work yet,” he says.
Instead of at the city recreation centers, Thielen says chargers should be placed along I-25 and I-70, and especially at Denver International Airport, for travelers.
Joe Castro, the City of Boulder’s fleet manager, says that the rec center chargers are a good starting place for public EV charging. He says that citizens using the parking lots are exposed to the devices when otherwise they might not know the chargers exist. The chargers were installed at the north, south and east Boulder recreation centers, thanks to a $500,000 federal grant awarded to the city in 2011.
Boulder initially expected about 40 EV charging stations by mid-2012. But, according to Castro, only five were installed for public use, including one station at the Alfalfa’s grocery store that is dedicated to a Nissan LEAF eGo CarShare vehicle. The city’s website shows a map of all chargers available, including those installed by other companies and organizations such as Walgreens, the Nissan dealership and the Rocky Mountain Institute.
The costs to install the five public chargers, plus seven that are available only to the city’s fleet of plug-in electric and hybrid cars, ran much higher than expected. Castro says that in order to run electrical lines from the South Boulder Recreation Center to the desired charger location across the parking lot, more than 100 feet of concrete needed to be dug up and then replaced. The materials and labor for the concrete work cost more than $21,000, not including the cost of the charger itself, plus more for contracting assessments and project management.
This process jacked up the price of installations in more than one instance. For a location where the charger is located only 10 feet from the electrical panel, the shortest distance for all the city’s public chargers, the cost came down to about $11,000. The city is currently planning to install three additional chargers at the Boulder Reservoir north of town, at Chautauqua Park south of town and in a parking garage in downtown Boulder.
The city owns a fleet of alternative fuel vehicles, including 40 hybrid gasoline/electric cars and two fully electric vehicles. Castro anticipates obtaining more EVs in the coming months, including a brand new Chevy Volt to replace a hybrid Ford Escape, which broke down in 2012. The city EVs are used for travel to provide educational presentations at schools, for the parks and recreation staff and for building inspections.
Charging placement is a complicated issue for the city, as well as for travelers, companies selling EVs, and anyone considering the purchase or lease of an EV in order to reduce their carbon footprints. According to the EPA, a gallon of gasoline burned releases almost 20 pounds of greenhouse gases into earth’s atmosphere. The future of EVs may depend on how successfully the infrastructure of chargers is implemented. Choosing locations to place EV chargers is being addressed by companies such as Google, Facebook, Coca-Cola and General Electric, which have all joined the U.S. government’s EV Everywhere Workplace Charging Challenge. The question remains whether installations of public stations will initiate growth of EV driving, or if the costs associated with this infrastructure could be lost.
The nationwide pharmacy chain Walgreens began implementing its EV charging infrastructure three years ago and has since installed more than 800 chargers at locations across the country. One of the three Boulder Walgreens locations provides an EV charger for customers and employees, although a store representative stated that no employees currently own an EV.
Walgreens’ website states that a high-speed direct current (DC) charger (a 480-volt level 3 charger) can add 30 miles of driving distance to an EV in only 10 minutes. Slower chargers are also available in level 1, for 120 volts of power, and level 2 for 240 volts of power. The unit located at the Walgreens on 28th Street and Valmont in Boulder is a level 2 device and would require about an hour’s worth of charging to gain 25 miles of driving distance. A level 1 charger is ideal for overnight charging at home -- it takes about one hour to add five miles of driving range.
In 2010, there were almost 58,000 all-electric vehicles on the roads in the U.S., according to the U.S. Energy Information Association, and that number is increasing each year. In 2011, an additional 10,000 EVs drove off dealership lots, and that number increased to almost 15,000 in 2012, according to the Electric Drive Transportation Association. More than 17,000 brand new EVs were sold between January and March of 2013, and Damian Herd, a Nissan EV infrastructure manager, says that Nissan has a company-wide goal of selling at least 20,000 LEAFs by the end of the year.
Nigel Zeid, an EV consultant at Boulder Nissan, points out that the cost is significantly less than it was only a year ago, and remarks on how quickly the technology has taken off. Sales of all-electric cars increased almost 30 percent between 2011 and 2012. With the industry changing so fast, it might make more sense to lease an electric car. Zeid holds up his iPhone 5 and compares its success to the LEAF’s. Consumers appreciate the option to use a new technology and decide if they like it, but still have the flexibility to get rid of it if the next best thing shows up sooner than expected.
“We could turn around in two years and say, ‘Guess what, we’ve got a 300-mile-range car,’” he says. “Don’t hold me to two years, but you’re not looking at a long time. I’m pretty sure Nissan is not holding back technology. There are too many other car companies that want to get on the bandwagon. We’re going to give you the latest technology as soon as we get it.”
Zeid explains how inexpensive charging at home can be. In some states where the power companies employ off-peak electricity rates, it will be much cheaper to plug in an EV at 10 p.m. However, he clarifies that it is not expensive even without off-peak rates.
“If you drained that battery to nothing and plugged it in, a full charge is going to cost you about $2.50 [worth of electricity] at a level 2 charger,” he says, and compares it to paying $3.65 to drive 20 miles in a gasoline-powered vehicle.
Zeid also says that educating the public about electric cars is an important step. The renewable energy factor is a driving force for him, and he spends some of his work days driving demonstration LEAFs to elementary schools to tell kids about the transformation taking place on the roadways.
“It’s not all about selling cars,” he says. “People come and say, ‘Why shouldn’t I buy a Volt?’ And I would say, ‘I don’t care what you buy, as long as you buy something that will start to wean us off of gasoline.’”
A Chevrolet Volt can go 38 miles on a single battery charge and also has a gasoline-powered generator that can recharge the battery. A Nissan LEAF is fully electric with a battery warrantied for eight years. Both cars utilize regenerative braking -- capturing energy from braking and going downhill. Zeid says that on a test trip he did back from Estes Park, Colo., about 50 miles northwest into the mountains from Boulder, his LEAF had a fully charged battery due to regenerative braking. He picks up a newspaper and points to a picture of himself smiling, standing next to a LEAF at the Boulder dealership.
“I am now called an EV nerd in today’s paper,” he says.
Boulder citizens might appreciate Zeid’s enthusiasm for battery-powered transportation. According to Boulder County records, there were 200 electric vehicles registered in the county as of April 2013. A robust public charging infrastructure doesn’t exist yet, and most EV owners rely on home chargers. According to a Home Depot representative, a home charging station can be purchased and installed for about $1,500. Options include level 1 chargers, which use a standard household outlet with 120 volts, or level 2, 240-volt chargers which use the same type of outlet that a washing machine would plug into. Some EVs come with a portable, 120-volt level 1 charger, which for $300 can be upgraded to a level 2 charger by an EV company in California.
Paul Hildebrandt, a resident of Longmont, Colo. north of Boulder, bought a LEAF almost exactly one year ago in April 2012. He agrees with fellow LEAF owner Thielen that EV drivers don’t need and won’t use chargers located in their hometowns. He says there are zero chargers in Longmont that he has used, but he has plugged in to stations in Denver, including at the Center for Performing Arts and at a Walgreens, where he then took a bus to the University of Denver to see a presentation. The Nissan dealership offered to install a level 2 charger in his house for about $3,000, but Hildebrandt, the entrepreneur business owner of the company Zometool, opted to buy a charger from a hardware store and install it himself, saving almost $2,000. This, he says, is one reason why electric cars are taking off and will continue to in the coming years. “You can install an EV charger in an afternoon,” he says. “They’re going to grow much faster than the petroleum industry did. I’m convinced of that.”
The Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI) initiated Project Get Ready, a nationwide plan to equip the country for an influx of electrically powered vehicles in the coming years, funded entirely by donations and government grants. Project Get Ready acknowledges that different cities will need to meet different criteria in order to succeed, although some say that all-electric vehicles might not be accepted fully until the driving range issue is resolved.
“There is no range issue with HEVs [hybrid electric vehicles], PHEVs, [plug-in hybrid electric vehicles] and E-REVs [extended-range electric vehicles],” says Gregory Plett, an electrical engineering professor at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs. “When the battery has depleted its available energy, the gasoline engine takes over. You can drive as long as you like, filling up with gasoline as necessary. That's why I think they are a better near-term solution for most consumers.”
Plett said he would consider it a perk if CU-Colorado Springs installed EV charging stations for use by employees, although he doesn’t currently own an EV. The ability to charge at work could potentially help EV introduction more than roadside charging. But until the driving range is extended to a distance that consumers are willing to deal with, the transition away from gasoline-powered vehicles may be prolonged.
“Consumers are very wary about purchasing a vehicle with an apparent low driving range,” Plett says. “So my opinion is that HEVs and plug-in EVs will dominate for some time.”
Ben Holland, a former project manager at RMI, says that in many cases, EVs eliminate the need to stop at a “fueling” station. Most EV charging currently happens at home locations -- not at fueling locations like conventional gasoline stations. This introduces a convenience factor of interest to some potential EV buyers, but also creates a need for affordable home charger installations. The alternate convenience of gas stations is timely -- it only takes a few minutes to fuel a gasoline-powered vehicle, while a Nissan LEAF needs to charge for hours.
Early adopters of electric cars agree that making a statement about environmentalism is important, even though some of that electric power is sourced from coal-fired power plants. Paul Hildebrandt says his family pays Xcel Energy a little extra each month to ensure their power for the EV and their house comes from wind energy. Dave Thielen can’t help but compare his emission-free, $30,000 LEAF to his last car, the $60,000 BMW, but he still thinks that electric cars are an improved, environmentally friendly driving experience.
“It was like getting an automobile instead of a horse,” he said. “The worst automobile out there still beats having a horse and buggy.”