In a cloud of car exhaust during a Friday rush hour, I'm humming over San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge in an all-electric, tailpipe-free Nissan Leaf. I've plotted a course for Vacaville, 88 kilometers (55 miles) north, known for its sprawling outlet mall. However, I seek not a shopping retreat but an eco-electric enclave, for this city is in the vanguard of a government-subsidized drive to build the first network of public electric-vehicle charging stations in the United States.
Throughout this year and into 2013, the top organizations in EV charging technology will be wrapping up projects backed by more than US $130 million in federal stimulus money and Department of Energy grants. And with thousands of public chargers coming on line, Vacaville's beta-scale program joins the latest, politically charged controversy over the electric car: Is public charging a necessary spark to ignite mass-scale EV adoption?
Surprisingly, many key players in the automakers' EV programs are unenthusiastic about the rollout. Many of them insist that most buyers will charge at home first, workplace second, and rarely, if ever, need a public fill-up. "We see public charging as a nice-to-have, not a need-to-have," says Aaron Singer, product manager for electric vehicles at BMW.
Yet proponents say that public charging is as critical as the cars themselves. Nissan is a prime example. "As a company, strategically, we look at public charging as an accelerator to EV adoption," says Mark Perry, Nissan's chief product planner for North America.
Without public charging, "EVs will be tethered to homes, a niche application," says Don Karner, an electrical and nuclear engineer who is cofounder and president of ECOtality, a San Francisco—based charging company. "We can do better than that."
Vacaville's pioneering effort also spotlights the challenge of birthing a nationwide EV infrastructure that might dent Big Oil and its vast network of more than 100 000 U.S. gas stations. It's a system that has trained drivers to expect, without a second thought, to fill up in 3 minutes flat and drive hundreds of kilometers before having to do it again.
I've come to Vacaville to plug in to one of the United States' first DC—sometimes called Level 3—fast chargers. This 480-volt, 50-kilowatt beast can fill my burgundy Leaf to 80 percent capacity in 30 minutes. My plan is to drive all weekend without using a drop of gasoline or spewing a whiff of tailpipe pollution. That includes my run to Vacaville's high-powered charger, strategically perched between San Francisco and Sacramento, allowing EV owners to bridge the gap between two major cities. EVs can still use a standard 120-V household plug, but charging takes up to 24 hours on that Level 1 power.
Home base for the weekend is the Parc 55 Wyndham Hotel in San Francisco's Union Square, among a handful of area hotels offering free fill-ups on Level 2 stations. These 240-V AC units are simply heavy-duty versions of the home stations used by the Leaf and other models. Delivering 3.3 kW per hour, they can fill a Leaf's 24-kilowatt-hour battery in 7 hours or the 16-kWh battery of a Volt plug-in hybrid in 3.5 hours.