For the moment, plug-in electric cars account for an abysmally small portion of the U.S. car market. But turning that around may not require anything more complicated than a few changes to building codes.
Right now, electric vehicles (EVs) make up one half to 1.5 percent of the U.S. automobile market, depending on how the numbers are sliced and diced. They do a bit better in the high-end market specifically, reaching roughly 5.5 percent to 8.5 percent. Tesla aims its cars at the wealthier slice, and there’s a general assumption that price is a major hurdle for EVs — hence the ongoing technological efforts to bring down the cost of batteries, which make up a big portion of any EV’s price tag.
The next obvious question is infrastructure — specifically, the need for public charging stations. That in turn leads back to predictions that it will be a very long time before EVs take over, since building a nationwide public infrastructure will be expensive, and charging an EV still takes a long time.
But according to Britta Gross — a former member of General Motor’s research and development team, and now head of infrastructure development — most EV customers only spend a tiny portion of their charging time at public stations. Research into EV use by the Department of Energy shows that, when charging is available at home, 84 percent of it is done there. And GM’s Chevy Volt already uses the J1772 charging connector, which can be plugged into any average 3-socket, 120-volt or 240-volt outlet in the home or office. (J1772 is actually now the standard for every EV manufacturer in the U.S. outside of Tesla, which has an adaptor for it.)
“It needs to be a dedicated circuit and a nice robust outlet,” said Gross. “But my garage outlet works perfectly.”
The Energy Dept data also showed that for 78 percent of Americans, their daily round-trip commute to and from work is under 40 miles. Which is why GM chose to slim the Volt’s battery down to a mere 40-mile range. That makes the battery both cheaper and small enough to be recharged in 10 hours with a 120-volt outlet. (Faster with a 240-volt outlet.) The strategy being that a customer can plug in the car every night, and have it ready for another zero-gasoline and zero-carbon commute the next day — with the Volt’s gasoline engine as back-up should the battery drain completely.
Furthermore, according to the data, if charging is also available at the workplace, then the numbers shift to 65 percent of charging at home and 32 percent at work. Leaving just 3 percent elsewhere, like at a public charging station.
“[Public charging stations] are a great advertisement for these vehicles,” Gross continued. “But they’re not doing the heavy duty work. That’s being done by homes and by workplaces. So that’s where our priority goes.”
In other words, the cars are already affordable, they can be plugged into the outlets we already have, and the way we already use the cars leaves them sitting in one place for hours at a time, every day. We just need to get the outlets to those places — which will mainly mean spaces in parking lots and parking garages for office buildings, along with apartments, condominiums, and other multifamily dwellings.
According to 2011 Census data, around 70 percent of American families live in single-family detached homes. Many of them have either garages or a parking spot with easy access to an outlet. But some don’t. For the other 30 percent, who live in apartments, condominiums, and other multifamily dwellings, and park in lots and building garages, access to an outlet its far harder to come by. The same goes for the parking lots and garages where most Americans work.
“Honestly, an outlet with any other modification you’re doing to a parking lot or to a building or whatever,” Gross said, “that costs pennies to install.”
Some state laws are looking to improve the situation. The most ambitious was California’s AB 1092, which passed near the end of 2013. It requires that at least three percent of parking spaces in multi-family buildings, and 10 percent in offices and non-residential buildings, have an outlet. Colorado’s SB 126 has also passed, though it’s less ambitious: merely clearing out legal and administrative hurdles for anyone in a multi-family residence who wants to install an outlet in their parking space.
Those bills, especially California’s, could serve as starting models for efforts to eventually make outlets standard in every public and private parking space.
As for the country’s electric grid, Gross said it’s up to the challenge. “If overnight, ten million electric vehicles showed up on the grid, that load would still be less than one percent than the load on the grid today.”
Older homes and neighborhoods in areas where air conditioning isn’t standard may need transformer or circuit upgrades. But most neighborhood transformers are more than capable of taking on the added load of EVs. And most EVs being charged at home also means they’re being charged at night, when strain on the grid is minimal, but when utilities are still providing baseload power that isn’t being used.
“There’s excess capacity where utilities have all these power generating plants and there’s no load at night,” said Gross. “So they actually would love to fill that in with a load that looks like electric vehicles.”