Chargepoint Rapid Charging

Coulomb Technologies and Aker Wade Power Technologies announced this week an agreement to develop public charging stations capable of charging an electric vehicle in 30 minutes or less. The so-called Level 3 charging stations, which look a lot like gas pumps, feed power from dedicated 480-volt, 125-amp circuits. The companies said the charging stations will be available for purchase by fall 2010 for about $40,000, plus about $20,000 for installation.

Allowing electric car drivers to fully recharge in 30 minutes via a 480-volt station could alleviate “range anxiety”—the concern that a pure electric car could run out of energy and its driver could be stranded for hours until the vehicle is adequately recharged. Charging an electric car using a 240-volt source could take four to eight hours, while a standard 120-volt outlet requires twice as much time.

Uncertain Future

Major auto companies introducing pure electric cars in the next year or two are divided on the feasibility of rapid charging. The Nissan Leaf and Mitsubishi i-MiEV will come with rapid charging connectors. Ford has not announced the kind of connectors it will use for the Ford Focus EV, but Greg Frenette, Ford manager of battery electric vehicle applications, is skeptical about Level 3 charging.

“With coming improvements in lithium ion [battery] technology, charge times will be reduced to as little as fifteen minutes. This is the point where consumers will abandon gasoline for electricity.”

Bret Aker, CEO
Aker Wade Power Technologies

In September 2009, Frenette told HybridCars.com, “You can’t just charge batteries at any level without some sort of impact on safety, battery life, reliability and durability. I’m not one that believes there’s a viable solution—given where battery chemistries and technologies are today—that says you can charge these batteries in two or three minutes and send them on their way.”

The move by California-based Coulomb Technologies to introduce fast charging equipment could reduce a risky reliance on selling 220-volt and 110-volt chargers that are cheaper to install at homes or businesses. Electricity is nearly ubiquitous, and businesses of all kinds could install charging stations to lure EV-driving customers seeking a so-called “opportunity charge.” As the number of electric cars on US roads expands, the emergence of an open system of free or low-cost charging stations could make it difficult for companies—such as Coulomb and Better Place—to succeed with fee-based proprietary charging networks.

Gas-Pump Metaphor

In a press release, Aker Wade Power Technologies CEO Bret Aker said, “With coming improvements in lithium ion [battery] technology, charge times will be reduced to as little as fifteen minutes. This is the point where consumers will abandon gasoline for electricity.” Aker Wade has sold more than 8,000 rapid-chargers for industrial uses, such as airport vehicles and fork lifts.

But is the gas station pump the wrong metaphor for consumers? Perhaps electric car owners are seeking a new paradigm that grants more freedom to control where they get energy for their vehicles.

Pike Research, a clean tech analyst firm, forecasts 1 million car charging installations by 2015—but most of them will be private. According to John Gartner, an analyst at Pike, early buyers of electric cars—which will be expensive—will be affluent and will see public charging as less convenient than pulling into the garage or driveway for a fill-up. “A high percentage of early adopters are likely to have home residential access to charging,” Gartner told HybridCars.com. “They will probably pay for the installation themselves just for the convenience of home charging.”

There are plans for rapid-charging highway corridors—like between San Francisco and Los Angeles—but the economics and physics don’t make sense, according to Gartner. Electric vehicle range is reduced at highway speeds, therefore requiring rapid-chargers every 80 miles or so. The high installation cost and the relatively low number of potential customers is “a hard economic sell,” said Gartner.

Pike also forecasts that gas-electric plug-in hybrids—such as the Chevy Volt and Plug-in Prius—will be adopted much faster by consumers than pure electric cars with more limited range. Plug-in hybrids combine electric and gas power to provide a driving range that matches or exceeds conventional vehicles. “Plug-in hybrids get you there,” said Gartner. “Eighty percent of the problem solved. You have the gasoline engine as your backup.”