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The Truth about Recharging Electric Vehicles

You’ll be able to plug in anywhere, but without a special connector, you’ll wait forever to recharge.
July 13, 2010

One of the key selling points used by supporters of battery-powered electric vehicles, as opposed to say, hydrogen fuel cell vehicles, is that the infrastructure for delivering electricity already exists. This argument is a little misleading, though. Sure, there are outlets all over the place (although not along the street for apartment dwellers–but let’s leave that aside for now). But if you want to use the full range of your electric car, it could take over a day to recharge using a standard 110-volt power outlet.

The point was driven home Monday in an article in The Wall Street Journal, which described Nissan’s efforts to break through bureaucracy to make it easier for homeowners to get special electric vehicle charging stations installed. Nissan, which is coming out with an electric vehicle this year called the Leaf, is concerned that customers will be put off from buying the car by the 20 hours required to recharge it from a standard outlet to get its full 100-mile range. Currently, it can take weeks for cities to issue the necessary permits for a fast charger that can cut recharging time to eight hours, the article said, and the price for the special charger, including installation, will range from about $1,200 (with a tax credit) to several thousand dollars if a electric panel upgrade is needed.

Tesla Motors, the small automaker that went public last month to much fanfare, advertises a less than four-hour charging time for its Roadster, even though the car has a much longer range than the Leaf–245 miles per charge. But that’s with a special “Home Connector” that costs about $2,000. Also, depending on the amperage of the circuit, charging could take up to six hours. Using a standard outlet for a full charge will require 37 to 48 hours, depending on whether it’s connected to a 15 or 20 amp circuit. The good news is Tesla will sell a kit ($1,500) with a wide variety of adapters that will allow enterprising car owners to plug into a motel’s air conditioner outlet (14.5 hours for a full charge), a dryer outlet (10 hours) or, if one is handy, an outlet for an electrical welder or RV (six hours).

The Chevrolet Volt, a plug-in hybrid coming out this year, only takes 10 hours to fully recharge with a standard outlet, but that’s because it only has an electric range of 40 miles.

Most people actually won’t need to use more than 40 miles of electric range in a day–that’s less than the average daily drive in the United States. But potential electric car buyers may flinch knowing that they’ll have to keep their car plugged in every moment it’s not being driven in order to access the full range–or go through the hassle and expense of installing a special charger. This won’t stop early adopters, but it could put off mainstream acceptance. So it could take even longer for them to catch on than hybrid vehicles, which after a decade still account for less than 3 percent of new car sales in the United States. Cities that want to promote electric vehicles should work with dealers to make installing fast-chargers both fast and cheap.

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