The city of Vacaville, Calif., a small town halfway between the Bay Area and Sacramento, has a little known distinction: It has more electric car charging stations per capita than any other city in the country.
That’s why the city has earned the nickname of “Voltageville.” As of a few weeks ago, Vacaville now boasts a 50-kilowatt EV quick charging station, which is about the size of a conventional gas pump. The new station packs a powerful punch of electricity. It’s capable of juicing up the 16 kilowatt-hour battery pack of the all-electric Mitsubishi i-MiEV—which has a driving range of about 75 miles— to about 80 percent capability in 30 minutes, or half-way in about 10 minutes.
“This is the first publicly accessible DC fast charger in the country. It was installed by Pacific Gas & Electric as part of a California Air Resources Board (CARB) grant to do research on fast charging, including user acceptance, grid impact and power quality,” said Efrain Ornelas, environmental technical supervisor with Pacific Gas and Electric’s Clean Air Transportation Department. “We have to gain knowledge for what’s going to happen when a bunch of these go in. What better way to do it than putting one of these in, and testing it ourselves?” The rapid charger was installed in conjunction with Mitsubishi, because PG&E has an i-MiEV in its fleet. The i-MiEV is expected to go on sale to consumers in the US in 2011.
If you’re keeping score, that makes the 45th charging stations for a city with a population just under 100,000. The proliferation of EV chargers in Vacaville can be credited to Ed Huestis, the former transportation systems manager for the city. Under his direction, Vacaville became the first city to use federal dollars to install electric car charging—and offer consumer incentives—more than 10 years ago.
Solar Energy in a Flash
The DC quick charger can be found at the city’s solar-powered EV location—a shaded parking lot where electric car drivers can charge up under the shade of a 45-kilowatt photovoltaic overhang. The solar panels produce more power than the quick charger and the location’s existing six charging stations commonly use. “This is a great spot for the quick charger because we’re not going to have a bill,” Huestis said. “It’s also a great location because we’re equidistance from the Bay Area and Sacramento.”
“Something like this is more of a range extension where you’re going to Sacramento,” Ornelas said. “You plug in for 10 minutes, and you get 30 – 35 miles of range and continue on your way.” Ninety-percent or more of electric car charging will take place at home or work using 110- or 220-volt charging over the course of hours.
Huestis uses one of the existing charging stations to fuel up his Toyota Rav4 EV. His other car runs on compressed natural gas. “ I haven’t driven a conventional gas-powered car for years. It’s doable.” The solar charging station has two stations for the Tesla Roadster, three for vehicles such as the Toyota Rav4 EV (or EV1) and one for the rare electric Ford Ranger truck.
In the Not-Too-Distant Future
The new DC fast charger was installed by Eaton, which licensed the design and technology from the Tokyo Electric Power Co. Hundreds of these charging stations are in operation in Japan, where they supply power to small electric cars from Mitsubishi, Nissan and Subaru. Each station costs approximately $50,000 plus installation to get going.
The rapid-charging technology is so new to the United States that standards have not been established. Fortunately, carmakers and utilities have agreed on the kind of connector to be used for daily charging of the Nissan Leaf, Mitsubishi i-MiEV and other pure electric cars coming to market starting later this year. Until the U.S.-based Society of Automotive Engineers agrees on standards for rapid charging, the Japanese-style connectors will be used for the first demonstration projects, like the one in Vacaville.
Nissan is expected to offer the quick charge inlet as an option on the Nissan Leaf. Until then, the Mitsubishi -MiEVs in demo fleets are the only vehicles that can utilize Vacaville’s quick charger.
Tom Dowling drove in his Rav4 EV about 50 miles from his home in Folsom to check out the DC quick charger. He has been an electric car driver and advocate for more than a decade—and maintains the largest online database of EV charging stations at evchargernews.com. “This charger is an important milestone,” Dowling said. “This is what you could have on your travel corridors. It’s quite possible in California that we’ll see two or three dozen of these. It could be the wave of the future.”