The Facts On Electric Vehicles

Electric vehicles have been an extremely hot topic lately and no stranger to the Energy Blog. When the first public curbside electric vehicle charging station rolled out in Washington DC, we covered it. And when Secretary Chu got a first-hand look at the electric car Nissan Leaf during a recent visit to Japan, he covered it here on the Energy Blog.

We’re not the only ones talking about Electric Vehicles. From awards, to reviews, to high praise, and tough criticism – it seems everyone has an opinion. That’s why we decided to sit down with our resident expert Pat Davis, the Director of Vehicle Technologies Program at the U.S. Department of Energy, to get the facts on electric vehicles and plug-in hybrids. Take an exclusive look at some of the answers to today’s most frequently asked electric vehicle questions.

Question: It seems like there’s a lot of interest around electric vehicles lately. Why?

Pat Davis: Well, there are a number of forces coming together at the same time. We think it’s a combination of improving technology, new capability to manufacture critical components that we didn’t have before, new product offerings, new policy incentives are available that weren’t there before, and in addition to that just a heightened sense of our dependency on petroleum. In the area of improved technology, batteries are two to three times better than what they were just a few years ago, say in the 90’s when we had our last run at electric vehicles and the costs for those improved batteries are coming down quick. And in the next five years, we’re confident that cost is going to come down even more dramatically.

Then manufacturing, under the Recovery Act we’re placing manufacturing facilities for batteries, battery components, and electric drive components. $2 billion of Federal funding going towards that, and with participant cost share a total of $4 billion to establish that manufacturing capability. As far as new products, along with the Chevy Volt and the Nissan Leaf out this month, fifteen new product announcements have been made for the next two years, so a bunch of new products are entering the market.

And then policy incentives, there’s a $7500 tax credit if you’re going to buy an electric vehicle or plug-in hybrid vehicle. And then finally we shouldn’t forget about events like the recent Gulf oil spill, and if you’ve been at the pump lately, costs are edging up to about $3/gallon again — I think this should really highlight to all of us that we’re highly dependent on petroleum, and electric vehicles are one piece of the puzzle we can use to address that dependency.

Q: So from a consumer standpoint, where most people are looking at $3 a gallon and $40-$50 a fill up, what is the economic equivalent for an electric vehicle?

Pat Davis: So this varies greatly of course, but based on the fuel economy ratings for the Leaf and the Volt, the average annual electricity use would range from about 2,100 kWh in a year to 3,400 kWh. And if you assume 10 cents a kWh, that would have a cost in the range of just over $200 to about $340 a year. Now that’s for travelling 10,000 miles a year, which is about average. A similar sized gasoline powered vehicle would use over $1100 in gasoline for that same distance. So that’s three to five times more expensive in fuel costs than an electric vehicle would be.

Now, I should point out that average electrical use is highly dependent on a few things. What kind of vehicle it is you’re talking about, or how big or small it is, what’s the temperature you’re usually driving in, conditions you’re driving in, how you drive personally, if you’re more aggressive or not, and how you maintain those vehicles. And so to understand these issues, through the Recovery Act, the Department of Energy is supporting the largest coordinated demonstration of electric vehicles that’s ever been done here in the US. It is involving about 13,000 vehicles and more than 20,000 electric charging points. And the goal of this program is to collect the data of the drivers using these vehicles to see how often people charge, how long of a trip they take, and what are their charging patterns; it’s this kind of data that will help us to make wise decisions when building out infrastructure in the future.

Q: The Chevy Volt is deemed a “hybrid” plug-in since it uses gasoline as well as electricity. If that’s the case then how does a car like this ultimately help us with an addiction to oil?

Pat Davis: Okay so, General Motors refers to the Chevy Volt as an extended range electric vehicle, which you might be able to think of as a type of “plug-in hybrids”, but both have an electric drive train that are supplemented by a gasoline engine. So the Volt is capable of full performance driving in all-electric mode for up to 40 miles, and once the battery is depleted, then the engine turns on and generates electricity to power the vehicle. It’s still running on electricity, it’s just being generated from the engine. Although the vehicle is designed to run on electric power most of the time, the engine alleviates what we call range anxiety; meaning that if you need to go more than 40 miles the Volt has that extended range on gasoline and can go up to 340 additional miles all electric. And just like today’s vehicles, let’s say you’re driving across the country; you just refuel with gasoline and keep on going. So the bottom line is the Volt provides most of the benefit of an all-electric vehicle without the range limitation. And that’s because most of us don’t drive more than 40 miles a day. So if you were to charge the Volt every day, most people would use very little gasoline. But when you need to take that long trip, the plug-in hybrid can satisfy that need.

Q: What safety risks come with installing a charging station in a house? Is it worse if there’s rain or it’s exposed to water?

Pat Davis: The safety risks are really very low. Installing a charging station really isn’t any riskier than installing an electric clothes dryer. So for instance both require a 240-volt circuit which would be installed by an electrician, both would be certified by Underwriters Laboratory (known as UL), and otherwise charging your vehicle is going to be very safe. Whether you’re indoors or outdoors, even in adverse weather conditions. You could be standing in the rain, standing in a puddle and charging your vehicle, and still be okay.

Q: So process wise how what does it take to install a charging station in my house? How long does it take?

Pat Davis: Initially, the permitting process for installing a charging station in a house is going to vary quite a bit, and it’s going to depend on where you live. Today it can take anywhere from 24 hours to several weeks to get a building permit. You want to have it installed by certified personnel, typically an electrician, and you’re going to need a building permit to do that. The same goes for a circuit for an electric clothes dryer. However, our Department of Energy Vehicles Technologies program is working with local jurisdictions to reduce this time needed for permitting. We want it to be under 48 hours as a standard. But for the time being, your local dealership where you purchase the vehicle should be able to assist you in the area you live.

Q: What’s the general price range for home charging stations? Does it vary by market and availability?

Pat Davis: It varies a lot, unfortunately. The charging equipment itself, people are projecting it’s going to cost less than $500 for the charger that actually sits on the wall. The thing that’s not as predictable is, what will it cost to get electricity to that point? Is the breaker box right next to it? Or on the other side of the house, or is it in the basement, is it a finished basement, etc. Secondly, some people have electric boxes that are basically maxed out. So you’d have to bring in additional power from the street, and that’s obviously a cost item. So cost varies anywhere from just a little over $500 up to several thousand dollars.

Q: How many miles can you go on one charge with an all-electric vehicle, and what if I want to take that on long trips?

Pat Davis: Most of the all-electric vehicles coming out today have a range of about 100 miles. That’s kind of considered the minimum range. To enable longer trips, projects supported by the Recovery Act are installing fast chargers along corridors. So say you were driving from Washington up I-95 to New York or down to Florida, you would be able to stop at one of these fast-charging stations and get an 80% charge in about a half hour. So, still not as quick as if you’re fueling gasoline for sure, and although it’s probably not the preferred way to drive from Washington to Florida, it will be possible. Really, if you’re going to use an electric vehicle for a lot of longer trips, personally, for now I’d say you’re better off with a plug-in hybrid or an extended range electric vehicle which can rely on gasoline after the battery is depleted. But for short-trips, errands, and daily commutes, an all-electric may be just fine.

Q: Is that 30-minute time frame for a fast charge something that will go down as technology improves?

Pat Davis: Right now, I don’t think anyone’s looking at faster charging than the current fast charge systems, which is 480 volts and 100 amps. Today, that’s basically the limit of how fast you can put power into a vehicle. So we don’t really know of any way, today, that we can reduce that time. It’s more about the battery technology and the storage technology than it is about power distribution or the ability to make fast chargers. So while these batteries are good and they’re getting better, they have to be warranted through 100,000 miles, and very, very fast charging does stress a battery. So we’re going to have to learn more about batteries before we do it any faster than current fast charging allows.

Q: How many charging stations are out there right now? Are there enough to support a fleet of electric vehicles?

Pat Davis: Well, today, there are very few public charging stations out there, as of the middle of December in 2010. And that’s really okay because at this point most people are going to be charging their vehicles locally, typically at home. And a plug-in hybrid you’re not dependent on public charging. However, to increase infrastructure, a number of businesses and municipalities are installing public charging stations in public parking lots, garages, etc. And as I mentioned before our own Vehicles Technologies program through the Recovery Act is placing 20,000 chargers, quite a large number of them as public charging stations, and as these charging stations are opened they’re going to be posted on our Alternative Fuels Data Center online. There’s also a mobile version so you can get it on your smart phone.

Q: It seems that a lot of these vehicles are on the expensive side, some up to about $40,000. Do you anticipate these prices going down?

Pat Davis: Today, electric drive vehicles to tend to cost more than conventional vehicles. As we mentioned there is a $7,500 tax credit available to help reduce that original cost. In addition, you are going to save significantly on fueling costs as we talked about. And information on these tax incentives can be found on our Alternative Fuels Data Center. So currently, they’re more expensive than their counterparts mainly because of the batteries and the electric drive components. We’re supporting a number of manufacturing facilities under ARRA; costs are coming down greatly with batteries, and costs are coming down with power electronics. So we’re going to see that cost differential between electric vehicles and conventional vehicles shrink over the next few years, and it’s going to shrink pretty dramatically. Although today’s plug-in electric battery with a 40-mile range is going to cost by itself about $10,000 today, we expect that to drop significantly over the next five years.

Q: How about the usage of lithium? Lithium is a core component of the batteries found in electric vehicles. But isn’t it a finite resource, and aren’t there environmental risks involved in disposal?

Pat Davis: Lithium is a finite resource. But unlike petroleum, it can be recycled over and over again. Petroleum you get out of the ground, you burn it once, and it’s gone. With lithium ion batteries, at the end of their useful life, they can be easily recycled to make new ones. These lithium ion batteries won’t be disposed of in landfills. In fact, most people don’t realize that today the lead acid battery in your car is probably the most highly recycled consumer product on the market, it’s recycled at a rate of over 99%. Certainly, lithium ion batteries, which have a lot of value associated with them, are going to be recycled so that they can be made into new batteries.