Sunday, May 29, 2011

Workplace Charging: The Electric Car's Best Friend

MINI-E #250 Sipping On Some Electrons While I'm Working
There has been a lot of talk about the necessity of public charging stations and the lack thereof. There are some that think we cannot expect people to buy electric cars unless there's a complex network of public charging points on every block, in order to compete with the multitude of gas stations that seem to be on the corner of every main intersection.

I've written on various websites that I just don't think that's necessary. I think a nice sprinkling of public charge points here and there will do just fine for now, until EV's really gain traction and we see sales of electric cars in the tens of thousands every month. I also think that the private sector(at least the smart ones) will jump on the opportunity to capture customers that drive EV's and install a charger or two in their parking lot. Let's face it, if an EV driver is looking for a quick bite to eat and they know that McDonald's has public chargers and Burger King doesn't, I bet they will stop at a McDonald's if there is one in the area. Even if they don't really "need" to charge, why not get a 1/2 hour boost or so while you grab a quick bite to eat. Also, if you do happen to need to charge, you know you can do so there, so they get a customer that they wouldn't have if they didn't have the chargers.

I know level 3 DC quick charge will be useful for long-trip highway driving, but we don't even have a standard and I think we are a ways away from seeing it available in any great numbers so I'm not going to really focus on it. For the most, I really think level 2 public charging is more important for the psyche of potential EV buyers, to give them peace of mind so they don't think they will be stranded with no place to charge than I think it will really be needed. It's mainly this reason that I am in favor of installing them, just not as many as I think some others feel is necessary and I hate to see public funds wasted by over-installing them in clusters where they will be underutilized.

Which brings me to the topic of the day, workplace charging. About six months into the MINI-E program, BMW offered the pioneers a second EVSE if we wanted one and had a use for it. I accepted the offer and installed it at my restaurant as did Cliff Saunders, a MINI-E pioneer that lives in New York who also owns a restaurant. I know what you are going to say "Not everyone owns their own restaurant and can install an EVSE there" and you would be right with that. However many of the other MINI-E pioneers were able to convince their employers to let them either install a 220v EVSE or simply charge at 110v. Charging at 220v is optimal, but even charging at 110v for a typical work day can add about 25-30 miles or range to your EV. That may be enough to give those with a long commute the extra cushion they need to feel comfortable and not stress out about making the return trip home after work.

I firmly believe workplace charging is by far the most important secondary charge point after home charging. Let's face it, today's electric cars with roughly 100 miles ranges aren't meant to drive 300 miles on holiday. They are however perfect commuter cars and can drastically reduce your fuel and maintenance costs for this driving. Commuting to work in an EV has been perfect for me and many others that I communicate with. Talking to your boss and explaining why you drive electric and how little the electricity will actually cost him/her will go a long way in helping them to decide to let you plug in at work. Always offer to pay for  the electricity though, it's not fair to ask your company to pay for it unless they currently pay for your gasoline. There are obstacles, and many times it would cost too much to bring electricity to where you park and in that case you may be out of luck, but many times it is available and both you and your employer will benefit if you work together to come up with a way to allow you to charge while you work. You get the added security of a longer range and they get a happier employee, cleaner air and if they want to, I'm sure they can get some local press coverage about how they are encouraging green transportation for their employees and that's good PR for sure.

I wonder if the EVSE companies like AreoVironment, Clipper Creek, Columb and GE are approaching large companies that employ hundreds of workers at multiple locations. If not, they should be. My wife works at ADP and they have offices all over our area, with huge parking lots at every office and hundreds of cars parked at all of them. A big company like ADP could easily afford to install a bank of chargers at all of their locations, and could get an enormous amount of great public relations press coverage while inspiring their workforce to drive electric. They could even take it a step further and install solar carports that have the public chargers installed there. Big companies like ADP are always encouraging their workforce to represent the company in a professional manner and "do the right thing" here's a chance for them to lead by example.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

After More Than 57,000 Miles, a 100 Mile Trip is Still No Problem

The other day I needed to go to a meeting at an office that I had never been to before. As always, I checked Google maps to see how far it was for two reasons: how much time will I need to drive there, and can the MINI-E make it or do I need to take my Toyota Tacoma that day. It's not often when I need to take the truck because I'll need to drive further than the MINI-E range will allow, but it does happen once every couple months or so.

When I checked Google maps it was exactly 50 miles away, and about one third of it was highway driving. My initial reaction was that I wouldn't take the chance, it's cutting the range too close and why risk having a problem. A big part of my reasoning because it has been unseasonably cool and rainy here in NJ and the difference of driving in 50 degree temperatures in the rain from 70 degree temperatures might be 10 miles of range or so.

Anyway, I then checked the weather channel and learned that the day I was to go to the meeting we were supposed to have a perfect day, clear and in the mid 70's. So then I started thinking about it, and it didn't take me long to come to the decision to take the MINI-E and take my chances. The plan was to drive there as slow as I could do safely, meaning 55mph on the highway, and the speed limit on the secondary roads using regen as much as possible, even trying not to use the mechanical brakes at all.

As my journey progressed it didn't take me too long to realize I wasn't going to have any problem. In fact, I arrived there, 50 miles later with 60% SOC. I had only used 40% to drive 50 miles! I did drive as efficiently as possible, and drove slower than I normally would, but this guaranteed me that I would make the 100 mile journey and I could even drive any way I wanted to on the return trip without worrying about being extraordinarily efficient.

So I the trip home I drove 70mph on the highway and didn't concentrate on using the regenerative brakes as much as I possibly could. I arrived back at the restaurant with 15% charge remaining which would be good for at least another 25 miles and if I really wanted to push it probably even 30.  I then plugged in and in under three house I was fully charged and ready for more another 100 miles if necessary.

When you add the 62 miles I drove to and from work that day, I drove the MINI-E 162 miles, not bad for a electric car with roughly a 100 mile single charge range. Anyway, the good news is that after more than 57,000 miles and over 1,100 charging cycles, the car still has the same range it had when it was brand new. This is significant because there are a lot of concerns about battery degradation in electric cars. It's going to start to happen at some point, I know that, but it is a bit surprising to me that I have been able to drive and charge the car as much as I have without noticing any decrease in range or battery capacity. This is good news for all electric cars in my opinion. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

How Much Electricity Will An Electric Car Use?

With all the talk about electric cars lately, one thing that I keep hearing is people wondering how much electricity will an EV need? Are they simply ditching the gas pump only to pay just as much in their electric bill? I made a post on this subject last year and I think it's important enough to re-post it again for anyone that hadn't seen it last year. With gasoline prices north of the $4 mark now and electric cars in the news, I have had a lot of new followers lately and I still get emails from people that ask me just how much does it cost to charge the MINI-E; so here it is, again....

One of the questions that people frequently ask me about the MINI-E is "How much electricity does it use?" Sometimes they'll just say "I love the car, but I wouldn't want to see your electric bill!"

When I tell them the car costs between $3.00 and $6.00 in electricity to go 100-120 miles they usually smile and say "Wow, that's great". The reason the range is between $3.00 and $6.00 is because there is such a difference in electricity rates throughout the country. The MINI-E has a 35 kWh battery pack but only 80% of the pack is usable which means it has 28kWh of available power. That 28kWh can move the car between 90 and 120 miles depending on how efficiently you drive. It is less in the winter months because the heater uses a lot of energy, but for most of the year these numbers are correct as an average.

The national average cost for electricity is $.12 per kWh which means it would cost the average person $3.36 to fully charge a depleted battery on the MINI-E. However rates do vary. I pay $.11 per kWh at my restaurant in Montclair, lower than the national average, but it costs me $.18 per kWh at my home in Chester, only 30 miles from Montclair. So if I "fill up" at work it costs me $3.08 but at home it costs me $5.04! Obviously I take advantage of the lower rates and charge at work as much as possible. So basically for what it costs for a gallon of gas today, you can drive an electric car like the MINI-E or Nissan LEAF about 100 miles.

Since I have a solar PV array at my home, I sell the electricity back to the utility at the rate they sell it to me ($.18/kWh) so every kilowatt-hour that charge at work saves me $.07. The average person drives about 15,000 miles per year. If they had a MINI-E they would need to use about 4,200kWh to drive 15,000 miles. If you use the national average, you would pay $504 for fuel for the entire year. If you use my rate at my restaurant, it's $462, at my home it's $756. So figure anywhere between a $40/month and $65/month increase in your electric bill if you had a MINI-E and drove it the average of 15,000 miles per year.

One of the great things about electric cars is that you can easily reduce your electric bill by $40 to $60 per month just by being more efficient and therefore completely eliminate your transportation fuel cost! You can't use less gasoline unless you drive less, but you can reduce your electricity usage and still drive as much as you always have. Simple measures like a programmable thermostat and the use of compact florescent light bulbs can make a big difference. In fact, five 100 watt light bulbs left on continuously for a year use the same amount of energy as it takes to power the MINI-E 15,000 miles! Here's how: five 100 watt light bulbs use 500 watts per hour. In 24 hours they use 12,000 watts or 12kWh. In 365 days they use 4,380kWh. What does the MINI-E use to go 15,000 miles? Remember above I calculated it to be 4,200kWh? So five 100 watt light bulbs use 180 more kWh than it takes to power 3,200lb MINI-E for 15,000 miles!

If you take a good look at your home electricity use, I'm sure you can reduce your usage enough to drastically offset the cost of electricity to power an electric car, if not completely eliminate it. Then, every penny of the money you would have spent on gasoline can go right into your pocket!

Sunday, May 15, 2011

Right or Left Pedal? Where Do You Want Your Regen?

One of the great features of electric cars is the regenerative braking. It really enhances the driving experience as well as extending your driving range as it captures the energy that would normally be wasted when you need to slow down. With conventional braking, the energy produced simply turns into heat and is wasted, whereas the regenerative braking systems in electric cars turns the energy into electricity and puts it back into your battery.

This is something that most people would never even think of and really have no use for when driving an internal combustion engine vehicle. You've got all the energy you need squishing around in your gas tank waiting to be set on fire so it can release that energy and propel the vehicle. However electric cars need to be as energy efficient as possible since they can only store a limited amount of electricity without becoming prohibitively expensive and heavy, since the more batteries you carry the more the car will cost and the more it will weigh, and decrease the vehicles efficiency.

Most people I know are a bit apprehensive when they first drive a car with regen. If the regen is activated by the left(or normal brake) pedal then you probably won't too notice much of a difference. However if you drive an EV with right (accelerator) pedal regen than your initial impression is probably that it definitely feels wrong, especially if it has strong regen like the MINI-E does. After driving your whole life in a car that doesn't have it, it really seems unnatural.

However after driving with it for only a short while, I came to really love it. Now, when I drive a car that doesn't have regen, I feel like somethings missing. I have driven cars with both right and left pedal regen and I definitely prefer to have it actuated by the right pedal. I can really do about 90% of my driving with one foot and it makes the driving experience a bit more sporty in my opinion. Slowing down for a curve in the road or to keep a safe distance from the car in front of you only requires you to gradually back off the accelerator. If you need to slow down more quickly, then just back off the accelerator completely and the regen fully engages and slows you down pretty quickly while sending some juice back to the battery pack. Of course if it's a situation that requires you to stop really abruptly, you always have the mechanical brakes to step on and quickly come to a halt.

Most people I know that have EV's say they prefer right pedal regen, and BMW believes that having it on the right pedal is the way to go also, as the MINI-E and the soon to be released ActiveE both have their regen on the right pedal. There are some people out there that have stated their opinions to the contrary though and say they want EV's to be as much like their gas powered cars as possible, and want all the braking, regenerative included, on the left pedal.

I believe that most people, if given the opportunity to drive an EV with right pedal regen would choose it over left and most of the people calling for it on the left pedal simply haven't driven a car for any period of time with right pedal regen, because if they did, they would prefer it that way.  Anyone care to chime in on this debate?

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Have You Seen BMW's "Wherever You Want To Go" Film Series on The Future of Mobility?

I know I mentioned this film series a while back, but I'd like to remind those that might not have taken a look yet to do so. In the picture above you see me and fellow MINI-E pioneers Todd Crook & Peder Norby. We were enlisted to participate in the series of four short films and to talk about our experiences driving the electric MINI-E's and to offer our thoughts on the future of mobility.

The film series may not be entirely what you would expect. BMW didn't use this as a glorified advertisement for their brand. In fact, I don't think BMW is even mentioned! The purpose of the films were to open a discussion and make people think about where personal mobility is going.

Todd, Peder and I are really the only people in the films that aren't famous public figures so we were all really honored to participate and offer our thoughts alongside people like Buzz Aldrin(astronaut),  Marissa Mayer(VP of products for Google) and Wai Cheng (Director MIT automotive labs) just to name a few.

Anyway, If you haven't already, check out the film series. There are four short films (under ten minutes each) and they offer some interesting thoughts on where the future may take us. You can see them on BMW's Activate The Future website.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Infrastructure Issues? Did MINI-E #250 cause a Transformer Meltdown?

When I arrived at work a few days ago, I plugged in as usual, just to top off my charge and be ready for the next 100 miles or so. However after about a half hour, I noticed some of the power in the restaurant went out. Not all of the power, just about a third of it. I have seen this before, so I knew exactly what happened. I had lost one leg of the buildings three phase electric supply. I quickly walked outside to the utility pole to take a look and just as I imagined, one of the transformers had a wire that was disconnected and was arcing with sparks falling from it.

I quickly called PSE&G, and they arrived about a half hour later and quickly repaired the wire and the restaurant was back to normal and my car resumed charging. Since the wire was arcing and sparks were falling, the Montclair fire department was on scene and made sure nobody walked under the area. 

Now here's the problem: This happened about six months ago and at that time my car was also charging when the problem occurred. The PSE&G technician that repaired the line asked me "What do you guys have in the restaurant, I've never seen a the same transformer wire meltdown like this twice in six months" He than said the wire was all charred and looked like it had been in a fire. He suggested I call my electrician to better "balance the load" at the restaurant or this problem will continue to happen. I get what he's saying, perhaps the load isn't balanced well and I should analyze it and properly spread the load evenly among the three phases. However, I built the building eleven years ago and never had a problem, now this has happened twice in the past year that I have been charging #250 there, so I am inclined to think while there was an existing balance issue, charging the car at 12 kWh is definitely the draw that pushed it over the limit.

One of the things I have said I love about the MINI-E is it's ability to charge so quickly. It can charge up to 50amps at 12kWh and completely charge the 35kWh pack in about three hours. Compare that to the Nissan LEAF which only has a 24 kWh pack, and still takes eight hours to charge because it can only charge at 3.3kWh. This means it can only accept about 1/3 of the electricity that my MINI-E which isn't great when you want to charge up quickly, but definitely easier on your utility company. I definitely think this reason is why most of the major auto manufacturers are setting the charge rate of their EV's at 3.3kWh (LEAF & Volt) or 6.6kWh (Focus, Coda) instead of higher. Future BMW EV's (ActiveE & i3) will be limited to 7.7kWh which is probably a good decision, as balancing fast charging against not wanting their customers to blow up their transformers needs to be considered. Tesla on the other hand is going to continue to allow charging up to 16.8 kWh and uses the same AC Propulsion technology that allows the MINI-E to charge at such a high rate. They don't seem to be concerned about supply issues, only time will tell if they are correct. I know this, if after plucking down $60,000 or so to buy a new Model S, you find out that you keep overwhelming your utility supply and cannot charge your car, you aren't going to be very happy.

There will be growing pains. As electric cars become more and more prevalent, expect to hear about electricity supply problems from time to time. The one good thing about relatively slow adoption of electric cars is that it will allow the utilities to identify weaknesses and problem areas, and upgrade what need to be upgraded before there are millions of EV's driving around everywhere and not enough supply to charge them.