Snatching Defeat From the Jaws of EV Victory?

This blog post was originally published by Dr. Mark C. Trexler in Sustainable Business Oregon, Sept. 3, 2013.

It’s way too early to really tell what the future of “pure” electric vehicles will be. Judging by the incredibly rich value of Tesla stock, one might conclude that the future is bright indeed.

But it’s easy to find plenty of commentary to the contrary. Only time will tell for sure.

One of the biggest questions about EVs continues to be whether they are currently a local play for city-dwellers, or an all-around family vehicle that can go wherever we want to go. The latter requires the general availability of charging stations that can quickly recharge an EV.

Indeed, Oregon has benefited from a large investment in charging infrastructure around the state; dozens of Fast Chargers are now spread around Oregon and Washington. In principle, a Nissan Leaf can travel all the way up and down I-5, and I’ve taken our Nissan Leaf from Portland to Seattle. It certainly wasn’t the most convenient way to make the trip (just ask the teenagers in the car), since it turned a three-hour trip into a four hour-plus trip, with several charging stops along the way. But it was worthwhile to show myself that it was an option with the existing charging infrastructure.

When I made that trip to Seattle, Fast Chargers were free. So while the trip was costly in terms of time, I did save about $25 in gasoline.

As of this week that is no longer the case. Blink, which operates many of the chargers in the region, is testing charging fee structures, and Blink members now pay $5 per fast charging event (non-members will pay $8/fast charging event).

How does that compare to gasoline? That question is harder to answer than you might think. How many miles you get off of a single EV charge varies with speed and temperature. Over the last 13,000 miles, our Leaf has averaged 3.3 miles/kWh of electricity, so I’ll start with that number. With a battery capacity of 24 kWh, that’s a range of 79 miles. So if it costs $5 to go 79 miles, that’s 6.3 cents per mile. A standard gasoline vehicle going 30 mpg at $4 a gallon is paying 13.3 cents a mile. Using those numbers, the Blink $5 charge doesn’t seem like a bad deal.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. First, you would never run the Leaf down to zero before charging it. And when you’re traveling over long distances with infrequent charging opportunities, you basically tend to charge whenever you can. You certainly don’t want to guess wrong and end up high and dry, and you never know for sure whether the next Fast Charger might be down for repairs. That’s happened to me on other trips, and limping home with Level 2 chargers is painfully slow indeed.

So when I drove from Portland to Seattle, I stopped at all four of the Fast Charging stations that were available, and then the one in Seattle. In other words I stopped every 40 miles or so to charge. At $5 a charging event I would be paying 12.5 cents per kWh, not the 6.3 cents calculated above.

And, 12.5 cents per mile is very close to what I’d be paying if driving a regular car — which, if I took that option, would avoid an extra hour and a half on the road (never mind the teenagers!). So driving the Leaf is now not only not time-effective, it is no longer cost-effective.

The lesson here is not that Fast Chargers should always be free. But there is a fundamental challenge. As an early adopter of EV technology, I am willing to suffer a lot of inconvenience to drive my Leaf to Seattle. It seemed like the “green” thing to do, and I could argue to others that long trips are in fact manageable in a Leaf.

At $5 a charging event, however, it would be a silly choice. Pay the same amount of money for the trip, but have it take almost 50 percent longer? Paying $5 a charging event is also about 10 times as costly per kWh as when I charge the Leaf at home at night. So what does the new Blink fee structure do? It simply guarantees that I’ll never use the Leaf for long-distance travel. This outcome actually makes perfect sense: The advantage of most EVs is in local travel, not long distance travel.

No one today is really buying EVs to save money or because they’re really a “mass market” vehicle. We’re buying EVs because someone has to prime the pump sufficiently to get more EVs to market, and to incentivize better batteries and lower EV prices in the future. There’s nothing wrong with that basic fact.

But after all of the hubbub about the EV highway, and the massive investment in charging infrastructure, it seems counter-productive to undercut even the fiction of long-distance EV travel with a pricing plan that makes it just as expensive as buying gasoline. It’s totally contrary to the fiction that many EV proponents are trying to promulgate, that this technology already makes sense for the average person.

And by doing that, we risk snatching defeat from the jaws of (possible) victory in building a stronger foundation for a long-term EV future.

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