Leaving Gas Behind

So what would it take to go totally electric? We have our EV, our Leaf, but we still have our gas Camry for those longer road trips. Going “totally electric” means no longing owning, leasing or needing to rent a gas car.

Most of our driving is around town for which the Leaf is great.  For us to sell the Camry we’d need to be able to drive to Halifax, PEI, and Kitchener-Waterloo with the same or better convenience, cost and speed that the Camry provides.  Yes, we’d want to go other places too but chances are if those are doable then so is any other place we’d want to drive.

The Car

To do the job an electric car must have a range of at 300-400 km.  That would allow us to drive for 3-4 hours at the speed limit on any major highway.  For us that’s plenty since we tend to want to stop for stretch/coffee/washroom breaks that often.  The car also needs to able to recharge quickly, 15-30 minutes tops.  Our current stops take about 10-20 minutes so I’m allowing a little leeway here.

What electric car could do this?  Nothing in my price range today but it’s coming.

Recently, GM took the wraps off the production ready version of their new electric car, the GM Bolt. This fully electric car has a 320 km range, is expected to ship in early 2017 and is slated to sell for US$37,000 before incentives.  The Bolt uses a fast charge connector called CCS which has a top charge rate of 40-60 kilowatts (kW).  That’s pretty fast but you’d probably still need to charge for an hour to do another 3 hours of highway driving.

The next generation Nissan Leaf is expected to be ready in late 2017. It will have at least the range of the Bolt and use the CHAdeMO fast charge connector which has a top charge rate of 60 kW.  Assuming the Leaf still sells for it’s current price of about Cdn$35,000 it will compete well with the Bolt but, just like the Bolt, is unlikely to have a fast enough charge rate to get us back on the highway after 1/2 hour.

Tesla Motors is a new (12 year old) car manufacturer which only makes electric cars. Their current flagship is the US$85,000+ Model S which has proven very popular with the luxury car crowd.  It has a range of over 400 km and using a Tesla supercharger (120 kW) can be recharged enough in 30 minutes to go another 270 km.  Not bad but but way too expensive for us.

The car in which I’m most interested is the one coming next from Tesla: the Model 3. Tesla’s “affordable car” is expected to have a price tag of US$35,000, a range of 300-400 km and access to Tesla’s supercharger network.  The Tesla supercharger network is a big advantage since it can charge at twice the top speed of the other chargers. Tesla is planning a big unveiling of the Model 3 this March so I’m expecting to learn more details then.  The Model 3 is expected to start shipping in early 2018.

The Chargers

Most public chargers in North America are Level 2 chargers (see explanation of charger levels in an earlier post).  They are “destination” chargers because at just 6-20 kW they are intended to be used only at the end of your trip.  They are almost everywhere but just way too slow when you’re in the middle of a highway trip.

There are about 70 Level 3 chargers in Canada.  These chargers have the CHAdeMO connector used by our Leaf and a few also provide the CCS connector to be used by the GM Bolt.  About 35 are in Quebec, a couple in Nova Scotia and four more near Toronto. At 40-60 kW these are much faster than the Level 2 chargers.  Unfortunately there are some large stretches of highway between Montreal – Toronto and Fredericton – Quebec City with none installed and none announced.

The Tesla supercharger, at 120 kW, is the only charger currently able to meet our need for speed.  Not only are they super fast but because of Tesla’s planning they are also strategically located.  Tesla has already installed over 500 supercharger stations each of which has at least six superchargers.  Those already installed in eastern Canada are placed such that you supercharge from Quebec City to Toronto to Detroit.  Tesla also announced plans to install stations at Quebec City, Rivière-du-Loup and Woodstock by the end of 2016.  That means by the time the Model 3 comes along we’ll be able to supercharge all the way from Fredericton to Kitchener-Waterloo.

So the supercharger network will soon take care of the longest drive we’re likely to take. What about the Maritimes?  Most trips we’re likely to make in the Maritimes are not going to take six hours of driving.  We tend to visit Halifax (4.5 hour drive) and PEI (3.5 hours).  A 15-30 minute stop at one of the existing Level 2 or Level 3 chargers, both of which a Model 3 can also use, would be sufficient to get all of the way. That said, supercharger stations at some of the more central locations such as Moncton and Truro would be nice. Hey, while we’re wishing let’s put one at Port Hastings too so we can more easily visit Cape Breton too.

The Cost

As I mentioned in a previous post (“Are we Saving Money Yet?”) there are many aspects to the cost and cost savings of an electric car other than the fuel.  That said, I find it difficult to picture spending more than Cdn$40,000 on a car, any car, which is just for personal transport.  The one factor that could change that limit would be government incentives.  Many countries and some Canadian provinces already offer incentives to encourage the grow of a technology which can fight climate change.  Given that the federal government now recognizes climate change there is some hope they may follow suit soon.

Level 3 charging is commonly priced at $10 per hour and prorated for a partial hour. Use of Tesla superchargers is free to owners of one of Tesla’s luxury cars such as the Model S.  It is widely expected that supercharging will come at a price for the Model 3 owners but Tesla has yet to announce it.  I’m expecting that Tesla will price supercharging similarly to Level 3 charging.   That means at highway stops we’ll pay for power at double the household electricity rate.  A premium to household electricity rate for sure but still way cheaper than gas.

The When

Crystal ball time.  I’m predicting by June 2018 the car, the charging infrastructure, and the costs will all align such that we can move completely off gas.  Any wagers?

 

Next post:  In the driver’s seat

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Finding a Charge

We do most of our Leaf charging at home.  There’s no need to use any other charger when we’re just driving around town.  When we drive further afield I make sure I know the location of the chargers on our route.  There are a lot of public chargers in Canada but not near as many chargers as there are gas stations.  I wish!  If fact, if there was a fast charger at each gas station tomorrow then our (gas) Camry would be on Kijiji the day after.  But for now I need to carefully plan where and when we’ll charge while travelling.  So how do we find chargers?

Plugshare

www.plugshare.com contains a detailed map of electric vehicle (EV) chargers.  Both the website and the smartphone app are pretty awesome – you can find public chargers almost anywhere in the world. It’s “open sourced” which means that everyone contributes to keeping it up to date, kind of like www.wikipedia.org.  I’ve only added one charger to the Plugshare map myself but there are over a hundred chargers in the Maritimes and the number keeps growing.

In addition to helping you find chargers, Plugshare also tells you all about each charger:  level (see charger levels/types in my last post), availability, cost, special details for using it, how many chargers are at that location, and which are currently working.  Each time a Plugshare user stops at a public charger they post an update on plugshare: when they started charging, how long they’ll be there, and, at the end, whether they had any problems.  This is strictly voluntary but many EV drivers are very supportive of this process.  It means that when the tables are turned then they’ll be able to find a charger because of others doing the same thing.

EV charging service providers also have their own online services to help you find, use and, in some cases, pay for their chargers.  I registered with one such vendor, VERnetwork (www.reseauver.com), which has a handful of chargers in the Maritimes including two chargers in downtown Saint John.  Useful but the best place to start is Plugshare.

Power is Everywhere

Plugshare is great but don’t forget that every regular household electrical outlet can be a place to charge.  Our Leaf, just like every EV, has a cable which allows it to charge from a regular outlet.  Of course, if the up side is that these outlets are everywhere then the downside is that charging from one is very slow.  That said, here are some examples of when we used them to charge and were quite happy to do so.

Halifax Trip

When we drove the Leaf to Halifax last summer I knew from Plugshare that there were level 2 chargers all along the way but very few in Halifax-Dartmouth.  Instead we plugged into the outside outlets at the homes of family and friends while we were visiting.  Yes, we asked first!  I also ensured that the hotel we booked had an outside outlet we could use.  Hotels are increasingly keen to be seen as supporting clean tech such as electric cars.  They were very happy to make an outlet available from which we charged each night. In the end we drove around in Halifax-Dartmouth for three days and only charged from regular outlets with the exception of a couple of hours of level 2 charging at the library.

Return Trip from Saint John

Last week we went to Saint John for an overnight stay.  The one way trip to Saint John is near the outer limit of the Leaf’s single charge range but it’s normally quite straightforward.  I’ve done it several times but never in winter.  The temperature was hovering around 0C so I knew that there would be less power in the battery than in the summer.  No problem.  We’d just take it easy – driving slower extends range.

On the way to Saint John it was tight but we made it fine on one charge.  The return trip was a different matter.  As we crested Petersville Hill at the midpoint of the trip a twigging doubt flowered into the full realization that we didn’t have enough power in the battery to make it all of the way home.

We kept going and pondered the possibilities.  There are no public chargers between Saint John and New Maryland so that was not going to happen.  Go as far as we can and call CAA for a tow? Nope. We pulled into a gas station / restaurant, plugged into an outside outlet and went inside to have a leisurely lunch.  After about an hour we unplugged and drove the rest of the way home.  There is power everywhere!  If that station had had a level 2 charger we would have been gone in 15 minutes. Level 3 charger?  3 minutes.

Afterwards, at home, I realized that I had not allowed for the effect of parking the Leaf outside during a cold -10C night.  The Leaf normally overnights in our garage. The next time we stay in Saint John I’ll park the Leaf in a more sheltered spot like the underground parking at Market Square. Problem solved!

Growing into the Future

Plugshare is great.  I rely on it heavily when planning out of town trips in the Leaf.  Still, the best laid plans can fall through so it’s good to know the ubiquitous 110 volt outlet can be used in a pinch.

That said, it’s not hard to picture the demise of Plugshare when public chargers become as common as or more common than gas stations.  Ikea, St Hubert, Marriott hotels, Best Western hotels, Amsterdam Inn, and MacDonald’s are just a few examples of the companies which are installing EV chargers to attract customers. We even have a local Irving gas station which has two EV chargers installed.

Over the next couple of years the next generation of electric cars will appear with their 300+ km range and, I expect, the growth in public chargers will accelerate.  It will be interesting to see how people’s perspective on the act of going somewhere just to get fuel for their car changes when there’s “fuel” everywhere you park.

Next – Countdown to no-gas or When to sell the (gas) Camry?

 

 

Looking ahead

Many people will not buy an electric car if it means they also need a gas car for long trips. So far in this blog I have focused on what we have experienced in our own electric car – a 2014 Leaf. For this post I’m going to take a brief detour to describe the changes coming in the next couple of years which will allow almost everyone to replace their gas car with an electric one.

State of the Art

The current state of the art in street legal pure electric cars is the Tesla Model S.  A buyer can choose from various package levels to have a 460 km range and up to 500 horsepower.  Like any electric car you can charge it at home but when you’re on a road trip a Tesla supercharger will give the Model S a 240 km charge in just 30 minutes.  The Model S only recently started production (in 2012) but already outperforms gas car premium brands which have been building and tweaking their cars for decades.  The only problem with the Model S, for me anyway, is the price:  $100,000 – $150,000. Yikes!

Better Batteries for Affordable Range

The most expensive component of an electric car is the traction battery.  Car manufacturers and their partners are investing billions to improve battery technology.  The objective is to drive the cost down while improving capacity and charging speed so that electric cars can compete with gas cars on price and range. Improvements in alternative battery technologies, such as sodium-ion, are being announced on an increasingly frequent basis.  Those improvements are good but in the short term the most significant impact will be made based on economies of scale.

For example, Tesla, the manufacturer of the world’s best electric car, is currently building a huge $5 billion factory in Nevada to reduce the cost of batteries simply by increasing the volume of production. The plant is expected to start battery production in late 2016.  Tesla plans to start producing a new less expensive model, the “Model 3”, by the end of 2017.  The Model 3 is an electric car with a 320+ km range and affordable $35,000 US price tag.  Expect to see at least two other models, the new Chevrolet Bolt and the 2017/8 Nissan Leaf, compete with that range and price point.

“Affordable?” you say.  That’s still $35,000 US!  True, and the exchange rate between Canadian and US dollars kind of sucks for us right now.  Hopefully that won’t last.  On the positive side, some provinces already have attractive incentives for buying an electric car (e.g. $8,500 rebate in Ontario). Incentive programs are likely to spread to other provinces now that the federal government is finally committed to help address climate change.

More Chargers

To be able to tackle a long trip in an electric car you need to have a long range battery but you also need to be able to find fast chargers along your route. Not just chargers but a fast chargers. Chargers come in different flavours:

  • Normal / Regular / Level 2  (3 – 20 kw) Most public chargers are this type. Takes over 3 hours to fully charge the Leaf when it’s close to empty.
  • Trickle (1.2 kw)  A typical household 110 volt outlet.  Takes over 15 hours to fully charge the Leaf battery from almost empty.
  • Fast / Level 3  (32 kw)  About 50 in Canada so far.  Takes less than 30 minutes to charge the Leaf from almost empty to 80%.
  • Super (120 kw)  Tesla’s premium charging system.  About 15 in Canada so far.  A 30 minute super charge gives a Tesla Model S sedan enough power to go 270 km.

Having access to fast charging or super charging along the way will obviously make a big difference on lengthy trips. For example, when we drive the Camry from Fredericton to Halifax we often make a 15 minute coffee & gas stop in Sackville NB.  In 2018 we’ll be able to do the same trip in the same time using any of the electric cars mentioned above as long as there is a fast/super charger in Sackville NB.

We need a lot more fast chargers to support long distance trips in Canada.  The good news is that governments at all levels have finally recognized the need for this infrastructure so the pace of charger deployment should start to pick up.  Ontario has recently announced $20 million for new charging stations.  Quebec and BC lead the way with the most fast chargers in Canada thanks to supportive provincial policies.  In fact, in Quebec the St Hubert restaurant chain alone has already installed chargers at over 60 restaurants – 10 of which are fast chargers!  You can see how many public chargers are currently installed by visiting plugshare.com.

All together

Lots of other improvements are coming but I believe those in battery technology and the deployment of fast chargers will be the most significant in getting more electric cars on the road.

Next post – Finding Chargers