Saturday, October 30, 2010

Our Plans for Home Charging

Here at the end of October, after having ordered our LEAF in early September and having test driven the LEAF several times earlier this month, we are focused on deciding exactly how we will charge the car.  The most convenient home charging will be done with a "Level 2" 240 volt EVSE (charging dock) that we'll need to connect to special supply wiring.

I'll be brief because this can get technical very quickly.

Working with our utility, SCE, I've determined that our best choice is to have a second electrical meter installed for charging our LEAF on a Time of Use plan.  This will have the advantage of low rates for night time charging ($0.11 per kWh), without running into higher tier rates if we need to charge the LEAF battery a lot.  This works well with a Time Of Use tiered rate plan for our household power use and our solar PV system's power production during Peak hours.

Right now, I'm trying to figure out how that second meter is going to be installed.  The problem is physical space on the outside wall of the house.  We need to mount a new meter panel and there isn't enough wall space to place it on.  I'm working with SCE to see if a more compact solution will work. I hope to use a small separate meter socket along with a small panel for the circuit breakers that will fit in the space available.  I'm waiting to see if that will be approved by SCE and the City.

Once we've settled the point of the electrical meter and panel, we'll be able to make a decision about whether to go with a modified quote from Nissan's EVSE partner, Aerovironment, or to use an independent electrician and choose the EVSE equipment from one of several makers.

If we can't get this decided, approved and installed by the time the LEAF is delivered, we'll use 110 volt "trickle charging", though Carol strongly prefers having a full EVSE solution in place from the day we bring the LEAF home.

What Else is Happening in the LEAF world?

  • The Nissan Drive Electric Tour is moving through California and then on to the other "Early Roll Out States" of Arizona, Washington, Oregon and Tennessee, allowing those holding reservations to test drive the LEAF for the first time.

  • Journalists are getting to visit Nissan's US headquarters in Tennessee for longer test drives and to learn more about the LEAF.
  • In late September, Nissan suspended new orders for the LEAF on its web site.  This is to allow production to catch up to the demand of the 20,000 early reservations.  So for the time being, it is not possible to reserve a new LEAF.  Hopeful buyers might be able to buy a LEAF from dealers who may have some available when buyers who have ordered change their minds before delivery.
  • The LEAF production line has begin operation in Japan. 
  • There is much excitement and anticipation to see when the first LEAF deliveries will happen here in the US.  Most people think that up to 200 cars will be delivered in December, distributed through the five early roll out states.
  • In California, those who have ordered their LEAFs are anxious to make sure that they get the $5,000 rebate available for EVs through the California Center for Sustainable Energy.  Rebate funds can only be reserved on the CCSE web site on the day the EV is delivered.  At this time, there is about $8.2 million available for these rebates, enough for rebates for about 1,600 LEAFs.  Other EVs are eligible, so time is of the essence.
Updates on my next blog post

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Where do we Stand Now?

Fourteen blog posts and a lot of background information posted.  Now I'm going to "change gears", so to speak, and talk in real time about what is happening in the EV world as we go forward.  I'll also be blogging about our own plans to get our home ready for the arrival of our LEAF and about the buying and delivery process.

On September 3, I was lucky enough to be able to order my Nissan LEAF.  After I reserved a LEAF last April, I was sent an email that said that I had a September order date.  The first people to order were given an August order date, and they all were able to order on August 31.  I was one of the first people who were able to order in September.  The notification that I could order on September 3 was a great relief, since I didn't have to wait through the month to find out when I could order.  I believe that my car will be among the first to be delivered, maybe in December, but probably in January.

My early order date makes it more likely that I'll be able to receive the California $5,000 EV rebate.  About $4 million in rebate dollars were made available through the Clean Vehicle Rebate Project administered by the California Center for Sustainable Energy  There is currently $3,210,456 remaining in the first year of funding, but an additional $5 million in funding was added for the 2010-2011 budget year.  If all of the remaining funds, minus administrative costs, were awarded to LEAF buyers, about 1,500 awards would be available.  I hope to be one of those.  (By the way, the Chevy Volt is NOT eligible for this rebate, due to emissions and battery warranty issues.)

The production Blue Ocean color, deeper than the light blue shown on the first prototypes.  Our LEAF will look like this.

Beginning on October 1, Nissan began staging a series of driving events to allow the public to test drive the LEAF.  I attended two of these events, in Santa Monica and in Anaheim.  I've now driven the LEAF three times and Carol has driven it, as well.

Though the driving events didn't allow us to get the LEAF up to highway speeds or to test its handling at higher speeds, we were able to experience its acceleration and handling at neighborhood speeds.  In general, we're very happy with the car.  The passenger compartment is roomier than our Prius, and the LEAF accelerated from rest faster and is much quieter than the Prius.  In fact, it is quieter than most luxury cars.  The front seats were comfortable for both of us, and I found the front passenger space to be more comfortable than our Prius.  The handling was nimble and the cornering was flat, due to the low center of gravity.  The instrument panel is very high-tech and colorful and it gives the car a higher level, fun feel.  The LEAF is equipped with a navigation system that will show the locations of available public charging stations and will tell the driver how far s/he can drive with the remaining battery charge.

On the negative side, the interior materials are not at luxury car standards.  The fabrics and plastics are on a par with a Prius.  This makes sense.  The list price of the LEAF is around $33,000, which is at the entry  luxury level, but it is well known that the batteries are a high cost item on an EV, and the money was spent there, rather than on a luxurious interior.  The trunk space is fairly small, smaller even than a Prius, due to the unusual rear styling.  So it may be difficult to carry one of the larger folding strollers without folding down one of the rear seatbacks.  Also, the rear floor is higher, so there may be less foot room for rear passengers.

We also got to see the other four colors in person for the first time.  Here they are:





Next blog post:  Our plans for home charging.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Electrical Charging Costs and Special Utility Time of Use Programs

Costs of Driving an EV Compared with Driving a Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) car:
Nissan says that average electrical rates in the United States are about 11 cents per kilowatt hour (kWh).  EVs can drive about 4 miles per kWh of power from their batteries. So it costs an average of 2.75 cents per mile for power, or $2.75 for 100 miles of driving.

The Toyota Prius averages 50 mpg.  At $3 per gallon, that would be $6 per 100 miles.

A great many cars on the road today average 20 mpg combined. At $3 per gallon, that would be $15 per 100 miles.

If a family drives an EV an average 12,000 miles per year, they would save $390 per year over driving a Prius, and they would save $1,470 over driving an average 20 mpg ICE car.  As gas prices rise, these savings will become more dramatic.  For homes like ours with excess solar power available, the electricity costs can be considered zero for the miles driven on excess solar power, so again, the savings would be greater.

Maintenance costs for an EV will likely be less than for an ICE.  These include oil and filter changes, belt and timing chain adjustments, and maintenance on the cooling, exhaust, transmission and ignition systems. Except for the systems for cooling the batteries and inverter, EVs usually lack these systems, so maintenance should be far less expensive.

Systems that are common between EVs and ICE cars include tires, brakes and instrumentation systems, though the brakes on an EV will wear more slowly than those on an ICE car because of the EV's regenerative braking system.

Battery replacement costs may be a major expense for EVs kept for longer than their battery warranty periods, which are 8 years for the Leaf and the Volt.  These batteries may cost thousands of dollars and more, though prices may drop a lot in the next decade.  Battery life is still an unknown for the new crop of BEVs and much will be learned on this topic over the next decade, as the performance of the batteries in the hands of consumers is revealed.

Special Utility Time of Use Rates:
Public utilities are interested in encouraging the adoption of EVs for several reasons.  Governments are incentivizing them to make EV adoption more attractive to consumers.  The utilities will be able to sell more electrical power (realize that the utilities will replace the oil companies as energy suppliers for these cars).  If EV drivers charge their cars late at night, the utilities will be able to better balance the use of their power plants.  Most power plants are not efficient to ramp up and down between high and low usage times of the day.  So it is to the utilities' advantage to have power usage increase at night, while not increasing during the daytime peak use times.  It has been calculated that we can add four million EVs in California without building any new power plants IF the EVs are charged at night.

Off-peak charging times are usually any time other than noon to 6 pm.  Some utilities offer so called Super Off-Peak rates for charging between midnight and 5 am.  High power (Level 2) charging at home can reduce overall charging time, and thereby make it easier to charge during the off-peak times.  The EVs' onboard computers and the EVSE systems provide charging timers to that you can program the charging times easily.

For these reasons, utilities are making available special Time Of Use (TOU) rate schedules.  Rates vary widely around the country, but rates as low as 4 cents per kWh are available in some areas.   In my area of Southern California, rates as low as 8 or 9 cents per kWh are available at night as compared with 15 cents for regular daytime use.  That difference could translate to a savings of $210 per year.

To be able to use these TOU rates to charge an EV during off-peak times, a homeowner needs to obtain a special electric meter that can record the times and amounts of power usage.  These TOU meters are usually  available at no extra charge from the utility, and technicians will install them for you.  Some utilities are installing so-called "Smart Meters" that are computerized and can communicate with the utility wirelessly.

In my next blog post:  Where Are We Now in the Introduction Timeline for the New EVs?

Saturday, October 2, 2010

I Need a Charging Dock? What's That?

All of the information provided by Nissan and other EV companies about charging the cars tends to minimize the cost and complexity of setting up your home to become your new EV fueling station.  The advertising tends to say something like "Just plug it in when you get home and the car will charge itself while you sleep, just like your cell phone."  Is that true?  Well, yes, but only after you have at least some work done in your garage.  How much work depends on how your home is set up electrically.

First, Some Education About Charging Levels
As simply put as possible, here are the three charging levels used to charge EVs in the USA.
Level 1: 110 volts.  The regular plugs found throughout our homes.  This is called "trickle charging" and Nissan calls it "emergency charging" because they would rather that we use Level 2.  To charge a Leaf from an empty battery to full using Level 1 takes 18 hours or more!
Level 2: 240 volts.  This is the same type of circuit that is used for electric clothes dryers.  To charge a Leaf using Level 2 takes 6 to 8 hours.
Level 3:  480 volts.  This is almost never used in residences, but is found in public charging stations.  Nissan calls this "quick charging" and a Leaf can be charged from almost empty to 80% full in about 25 minutes.  Frequent use of Level 3 charging, such as more than once per day, can degrade the life of the Leaf's main traction battery prematurely, so it is not recommended.

                                     Nissan/Aerovironment Level 2 EVSE

What do I Plug In, and Where?
The Leaf and other EVs can't use a standard extension cord.  This is because of the high voltages involved.  While folks in Europe routinely use 240 volt power, our protective government doesn't want Americans to take the risk, so they've written a standard that forces us to use expensive connectors.  The standard for Levels 1 and 2 has been agreed upon and it is called a J1772 connector.  This is a special plug that plugs directly into a receptacle on the car and the other end is attached to the power source.  For Level 1, the cord comes with the Leaf as standard equipment and one end does just plug into a 110 volt wall outlet (hopefully a ground fault interrupter (GFCI)) in our garages.  By the way, an EV with a smaller battery, such as the Chevy Volt, can get by with Level 1 charging, so there doesn't really need to be electrical work done in the home.
For Level 2, you have to buy a charging dock called an EVSE (Electric Vehicle Service Equipment).  These charging docks cost from $700 up to $2,000 and above AND most of them must be wired directly ("hard wired") to a 240 volt circuit in your garage or parking space.  This circuit must have a 40 amp circuit breaker in your main electrical power panel.  Depending on how much space and power is available in your home power panel, and whether or not you have an electric dryer or spa or air conditioning that draws a lot of power, you might need to have an entire new electrical panel or sub-panel installed and you might need to have wiring run inside electrical conduit for tens of feet.  Total costs for the upgrade can run from $1,000 to more than $5,000.  There is a federal tax credit that can refund half of the costs if the work is done in 2010, but if you are like us and you must pay Alternative Minimum Tax (AMT), you don't get that credit at all.

Who Installs an EVSE?
A licensed electrician needs to install the new circuit breaker, run the wiring and connect the EVSE to the wires.  Some EV buyers want an EVSE that is portable and can plug in at their friends' homes when they travel.  Some of these plug-in EVSEs may become available soon.  But you'll still need a special connector to attach the EVSE to in your garage.

What About Those Who Live in Condos or Apartments?
These folks will have to work with their property managers to see if it is possible to run the wiring from their power panel, mount the EVSE in their parking area, and ensure that the EV owner is getting charged for the extra electrical power used.  The EVSEs are all weatherized to allow them to be used outdoors.  But that can be a big investment, and if the EV owner is not going to stay in the residence long-term, there is little incentive for the property owner to pay for the upgrade, unless they are very green-minded.

Nissan and Aerovironment
Nissan wanted to make the home charger installation as simple for their new Leaf buyers as possible, so they contracted with a single EVSE manufacturer, a defense contractor called Aerovironment (AV).  AV is building EVSEs marked with Nissan logos and they are subcontracting with local electricians to do the installations.  Customers can order home EVSE assessments on the Nissan web site for $100, and that fee is included as a down payment if and when you pay for your EVSE installation.  Sounds simple and good, eh?

Not really.  Almost everyone I've spoken to or whose comments I've read online is disgusted with the high prices AV is charging.  They have a standard fee of $2,200 for an installation.  That applies whether a home is wired and ready for the EVSE or if the home needs 30 feet of conduit and a new circuit breaker installed.  If further work is needed, the price goes up from there.  In addition, AV's EVSE is very simple and includes no power usage meter or monitoring, and no programming or informatic connection capability.

So people are looking for alternatives.  There are a lot of companies making or planning to make Level 2 EVSEs for home use, but few are available to buy right now, and most are more expensive than AV's $720 list price for the EVSE alone (not installed).

The EV Project
Some lucky Leaf buyers in places like San Diego, Los Angeles, Washington State and Arizona have been accepted into a government funded program called "The EV Project".  They will receive free home EVSEs AND they will get the Level 3 charging capability on their Leafs for free, normally a $700 upgrade option on the car purchase price.

So Here's What I'm Doing
I had my AV home assessment done for the $100 fee and the charges come to $2,636 to install the new circuit breaker and run 60 feet of wire and conduit and to install the EVSE, complete.  I had two independent electricians give me bids on the installation part, and AV's price compared well with those two bids.  So I'm set, right?

Well, no.  My 100 amp home electrical panel is physically full of circuit breakers, partly due to my solar panel system's breakers.  So I need either a sub-panel added or a complete main panel upgrade, which will cost at least $2,000, and that's a low price for that upgrade.  AV gave me an updated EVSE quote, and it is currently open-ended, leaving them the option of re-quoting me for a panel upgrade at an as-yet unknown price.

So I need to push AV to make my quote more definite, or I need to find an alternative EVSE, and I'll probably need to have the panel upgraded.  I'm looking at spending at least $4,500 for my home charging solution.

That kind of expense really eats into a person's gasoline savings.  Hence my comment on a previous post that the potential savings in gas costs for an EV can really be offset by other costs.  The good part of having the electrical upgrades done is that they should last for years.  But if a family is planning to move any time soon, that cost is an even bigger consideration.

Next Blog Post:  Electrical Charging Costs and Special Utility Time of Use Programs