eTec is the wholly-owned and largest subsidiary of Ecotality (ETLY.OB) and recently received a $99 million matched DOE grant to deploy and study EV charging infrastructure using Nissan LEAF vehicles.
I had the chance to speak with eTec’s CEO Don Karner about the coming electric car charging infrastructure revolution.
Tell us about your recent DOE grant and what it means?
The grant is to evaluate charge infrastructure and to try and develop a model for the effects of deployment of charge infrastructure in support of grid-connected vehicles.
It’s not a vehicle demonstration, and its not an infrastructure demonstration per se. The idea is to develop a mature charge infrastructure in five different geographic areas, diverse areas that have different demographics, different geography, different customs and value systems, different employers and to look at deploying infrastructure both at people’s residences after they buy a vehicle and in commercial locations which could be employers, parking structures or retail locations. Also deploying them in true street side public applications, city-owned parking that’s open to the public.
Then to look at utilization of that charging infrastructure such as which chargers are being used, and which ones are not. Why is one charger used more than another or one location more effective than another? How are people willing to extend the mission capability of the vehicle by using charging away from home?
Obviously if all you have is home charging then basically you have a limited radius within which you can operate the vehicle. The infrastructure outside the home both commercial and public is to allow you to extend the range of the vehicle and its usefulness. And with the idea of range extension we’ll also be deploying some level 3 fast charge infrastructure in commercial locations.
Doing that on a grid is the concept initially going in so you’re never more than a certain distance from a fast charger. Now that will be modified somewhat by use. There may be some areas that have a heavier use so you’ll have denser locations or multiple chargers at that single location.
The infrastructure will be initially deployed using a roadmap developed by involving stakeholders in the areas; employers and city government to help us determine locations.
We have partners on board that have the ability to come up with specific locations. For example, a company called CB Richard Ellis which is a major commercial real estate manager so they have millions and millions of square feet being managed for clients and millions of square feet that they own and lease out. So in every one of these cities they have a number of buildings with parking garages and they have retail outlets with parking lots that if the stakeholders say we ought to have to chargers in this area, they might be a source for us to locate the chargers.
We have BP that operates the AM-PM chain of gas stations, one of the things we wanted to try was does it make sense to put some fast charging in traditional fueling stations?
We’ll deploy the infrastructure then we’ll look at how it’s being utilized and also look at how we can provide better information to the vehicle operators are about where chargers are, what their availability is, and in order to develop a balance between information and actual hardware. Obviously if you’re completely ignorant about where chargers are you want to have a lot of them out there so that if you’re driving down the road you see them. But if you have electronic information that told you where chargers were and what their availability is and aids to help you do trip planning, are those going to make it easier for you to extend the range of the vehicle and therefore get you to use the vehicle more or is it just that you still need lots of chargers out there.
So these are all different aspects of the study and evaluation that we’d like to do over a 24 month period while all the data is being collected.
So we deploy charge infrastructure, deploy vehicles, get the system operating and we need a significant enough density of vehicles and infrastructure that’s really representative of what a fully developed electric vehicle economy might look like. So even though it’s a thousand vehicles in each city we still have to mindful of keeping it fairly tight because there are big cities. Then we collect data, store it in a database at the Idaho national lab and then we have various partners like Ohio State University and University of California Davis, the Idaho lab personnel plus all the other scientists in the nation’s science laboratory system to help us look at that data evaluate it look at successes and failures because many times you learn more from something that didn’t work than something that did. At the end, come out with guidance for the next 50 or the next 500 cities as to how they should most effectively deploy infrastructure.
Are you only using the Nissan LEAF vehicles in this study?
The vehicle side will be LEAF vehicles. The chargers that are being deployed are compliant with the SAE J1772 standards so they’re available to any vehicle.
But you will only be studying the behavior of those people driving LEAFs?
That’s initially where we are at right now. That may change over time and its certainly one of the things that the DOE made some stimulus awards to other car companies. None of them were in the cities that we’re operating in, but there may be some interest on DOE’s part to gather data in the cities where those vehicles are being deployed or to make vehicle available for purchase in the cities where the infrastructure is. You’ve got a built in infrastructure it makes sense to use that as a market for all electric vehicle whether it’s a Volt or a Ford transit.
Is your company a hardware producing company or are you coordinating the hardware of others? I’m wondering how your company fits into this.
We build both the level 2 and level 3 hardware. And we were very involved in the late 90s and early 2000s in deployment of EVs in response to the zero emission mandate in California. So we installed all of Chrysler’s infrastructure nationwide for the Epic minivan. We installed a lot of infrastructure for Ford, but not so much for GM. They typically worked through utilities to make that happen. We were buying others EVSEs in those days. We did make the 90 kw fast charger for the Chrysler minivan. Then when the auto EVs went away we had already been working with airport ground support equipment and material handling lift trucks on fast charging and we continued to do that over those 8 or 9 years. So we are in a number of airports through North America supporting both the airports and the airlines with material handling chargers across the country. We’ve got like 5000 chargers deployed throughout North America in industrial applications. We also have a line of chargers for neighborhood vehicles and things like that.
Now with the auto EVS coming back into play were rolling back into fast chargers to support the auto road applications and the level 2 EVSE to support both home and commercial and public charging.
So level 2 is the 240V?
240 V, 40 amp breaker supplying nominal 32 amps to the vehicle. That’s just the AC pass-though stuff. AC charging is typically level 2 and we believe that’s what’s necessary even with PHEVs a lot of folks are advocating just plugging them into convenience outlets, but we think there’s a lot of advantage to having level two charging for those as well. That’s the infrastructure that’s going to roll out. It’s going to be out there so you might as well make the vehicles compatible with it.
Aren’t there several companies out there making level 2 chargers?
Clipper Creek has been in it for some time. They were there in the late 90s as well, in fact we sold a lot of Clipper Creek equipment back then, it was called EVI. The same principles that were part of EVI have now formed Clipper Creek and the box is very similar to what is was in the 90s. Its basically just a smart contactor that checks to make sure everything is safe and then turns on AC to the vehicles.
Now there’s Coulomb and they have a public charging solution for street side parking. In fact they are part of our program for cities that want to do street side parking and collect revenue. Coulomb has a very neat revenue system.
How about level 3 chargers, there are claims about 10 or 30 minute fast charges, and EEStor says they can recharge 52 kwh in 5 minutes. Is all of this stuff realistically possible on today’s grid. Is your equipment able to do that and what are the special demands that such equipment would have?
Well, we’re capable of doing almost anything with respect to fast charging. But you put your finger on it, what’s practical? What’s practical is probably in the 40 to 50 kw range as a power level. And 200 amps as a current level, because you have to get the current onto the vehicle, and once you go above 200 amps, the cord and the connector get very large and some people talk about water cooling and it gets to be a very complicated device. So that translates to if you take the LEAF and you say it has a 30 kwh pack, if you’re charging at 40 kw if you came in at let’s say 40% state of charge and you want to go to 80% state of charge, you have to put in 12 kwh. I’ve got a 40 kw charger so its going to be about a third of an hour or twenty minutes. That’s a very reasonable power range. Can you charge harder? Absolutely, but then you start looking at whether you have the power available at a retail location where somebody wants to come and charge. Let’s say it’s a Starbucks and you want to come in and get a latte, do you really need to turn the vehicle around in 5 minutes? And if so, is Starbucks willing to double the electrical service that they have to supply that power? That hasn’t been our experience in the past. If that’s where everybody goes and it turns out absolute speed is of the utmost importance, then the market will adapt. What we’re looking at with the LEAF is in that 40 kw range and that fits very nicely in strip centers and other commercial locations. You can fit 40 kw into their existing electrical service and you don’t have to spend a lot of money expanding the electrical service.
Does the 40 kw charger run on 200 amps?
It would output a maximum of 200 amps. So if you had a battery pack that was let’s say 400V, to get to 40kw you only need 100 amps. So your cord and connector that connect to the vehicle would be limited to 200 amps. Let’s say you pull up to the vehicle that only has a 150 volt battery. I’m only going to be able to charge that at 200 amps so Im going to be limited to 30 kw. I may have more power capability in my charger but I’m limited by my cord and connector.
Most of the EVs, in fact all of them, all are in the range of 300 to 400 volts. To get the 40 kw you only need the battery to be above 200 Volts to stay below the 200 amps and virtually everyone is doing that.
I don’t think that 200 maps is very restrictive based on what coming to market.
Don’t most residential homes have 200 amp service?
It just depends on where you are in the country. We’re in Phoenix and yes 200 amps is pretty much the standard. A lot of homes out here actually go to 400 amps because there’s a lot of air conditioning load in Phoenix. So typically we don’t have any problem out here, plus all of the houses are relatively new.
If you go to a beach community in California, you may find only a 60 amp service on a little bungalow that doesn’t have air conditioning, for example. If you go to the northeast, an old brownstone there may only have a 50 or 60 amp service.
One of the challenges is to retrofit America with EVSE. In new construction many localities are going to the point where you have to put a 240V 40 amp service in the garage. Once you’ve done that actually installing the EVSE is a fifty dollar job. It’s no big deal. If you do it when the house is new, it’s easy. It’s the retrofit that’s expensive. We’ve got a lot of houses that will have to be retrofitted in America.
How about commercial places like parking garages, strip malls, and gas stations, do these places have a lot of current available?
Usually they’ve got plenty of electric service, the challenge there is typically you want the charger somewhere out in the parking lot and that power is not in the parking lot so you end up doing a lot of concrete and asphalt cutting and trenching with conduit but the electric service is there. If you do it as you build new facilities its very cheap because you’re trenching to put in light poles anyway.
When does your 2 year study actually start?
Nissan will be launching their vehicle in the fourth quarter of next year so well spend the next year basically working with stakeholders locating chargers and getting chargers installed in the commercial space. Then as the vehicles roll out we’ll be installing the chargers in residential places or if it is a fleet vehicle, the overnight location for that fleet vehicle.
Then we anticipate about 6 months of time to populate the vehicles and then we’ll operate in a data collection mode after that.
What are the 5 cities?
Seattle, Portland, San Diego, Phoenix and Tucson and also the interstate corridor between those two cities. In Tennessee there are three cities that form a triangle; Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Nashville.
No plans for NY?
Not as part of this project. Nissan will be looking at rolling the LEAF into NY but we won’t be studying infrastructure there.
Your company is national?
Yes. We cover all of North America.
What is the relationship with Ecotality?
Ecotality is our parent company and we are a wholly-owned subsidiary. Ecotality is a publicly traded company.
Do they do other things besides EV infrastructure?
Yes they have some other companies that do some fuel cell work and batteries and electronics assembly.
Is eTec a big portion?
We’re the biggest division of them.
Do you anticipate that the infrastructure rollout will take 10 years or more?
We’d like to think that coming out of this we’ll have some models in the commercial space that will show people there’s an economic benefit to them to install chargers whether it be an employer that receives employee benefits or a retailer that generates customer loyalty by having chargers. Or chargers that are installed with a subscription and revenue system like Coulomb’s.
This gives us the opportunity to demonstrate a number of value chains that can associate with the chargers. The hope is that when we come out of the project we’ll have demonstrated various way that people can make these chargers economically viable. And we’ll get some viral expansion with OEMS coming into areas to sell vehicles and retailers will decide to put in chargers to make money, and this thing starts to grow by itself.
So do you expect a strong national infrastructure in under ten years?
Yes. I think if we’re going to have a successful rollout of battery electric vehicles we have to have infrastructure to support it. If we’re going to roll out PHEVs and were going to receive benefit from them, again having a strong infrastructure is going to be important. If you have a 20 mile PHEV and you drive 18 miles to work, you’re going to want to be able to plug in at work so you run home on electric.
This infrastructure allows the vehicles to be used in more expansive missions to allow more of what people need to do on a daily basis, and so it’s going to expand the market for those too.
How much does a Level 3 charger cost?
The biggest part of the cost tends to be the installation, but generally in power electronics like that you can look anywhere from 50 cents to a dollar a watt. So you’re looking at 20 to $40,000. It’s on the order of what it costs to install a gasoline pump.
It seems like level 3 chargers are going to be a relatively small contribution to the overall charging infrastructure?
One would think so, that’s what you’d like to have happen. You’d like people to mostly charge at home and at night, that’s the prime objective. The usable available infrastructure is there to help them extend the usability of their vehicles.
The level 3 chargers provide an insurance policy, so if you decide you need to go farther you can stop for 10 minutes, get a hit, get another 20 or 30 miles and then you can do what you need to do and get home.
You could imagine its not like a gas pump, if you have one level 3 charger and everyone is pulling up with EV’s the lines would be miles long if it takes a half an hour to recharge.
Right, and that goes back to information, people need to know availability, because you’ll have several chargers within a relative short radius. If we’re seeing chargers continually busy during peak tines it’s a signal of success, but tells us we probably need to put in more chargers