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USA: NPR on Electric cars

It was always thus – but at last gas prices stir interest

How would an electric car work out for an off-grid household? Remarkably well assuming it could be charged up during visits to the grid. And the car battery would become an important power source back at home base.

Electric cars have to be integrated into the daily pattern of life, just like off-grid homes. A recent discussion on NPR’s SCIENCE FRIDAY, was most enlightening. “You rapidly learned how to integrate that charging in with the rest of the things you do during the day, one contributer told presenter Ira Flatow:

Flatow. When you fill up, is it regular, premium or high-voltage? When you bought your electric car or hybrid, people laughed at you as a tree-hugger, didn’t they? But with the price of gasoline approaching five bucks a gallon, who’s laughing now?

In fact, even my local parking garage now has a charging station in it. Still, electric cars have barely made a dent in the total car population. There are several big players in the electric car market now, like the Chevy Volt, the Nissan Leaf, and more EVs from lots of carmakers are on the way. But so far, the Volt and the Leaf haven’t really been flying off the lot.

A new smaller version of the Prius sold more vehicles in a couple of days than the Volt and the Leaf did all last month combined. So what would it take to get Americans to shift to electric? Is the time finally right now? How about the new Tesla Model S and the CODA? We’ll talk to somebody from the CODA later.

Do you drive an electric car? Are you thinking about it? What’s holding you back? Maybe you’re ready to give it a try

Seth Fletcher is a senior editor at Popular Science. He’s also author of the book “Bottled Lightning: Superbatteries, Electric Cars, and the New Lithium Economy.” He joins us here in New York. Welcome. Don Karner is the chief innovation officer at ECOtality. That’s a company that makes charging stations and other infrastructure for electric vehicles. He joins us from KJZZ in Tempe, Arizona.

Seth, the idea of an electric car, reading your book, is really not a new idea, is it?

FLETCHER: No. In fact, you know, at the turn of the 20th century, electric cars competed for space on the road with gas-powered cars and steam-powered cars, and eventually – well, and in fact, electric cars had an early advantage because they were much cleaner, and gas cars in those days were actually quite dangerous and dirty.

But gas cars got better, and then electric cars have been traditionally limited by the range problem, which is just the fact that you can only drive so far on a charge of the batteries, and then it takes a really long time to recharge.

And that has been the – that’s been the limiting factor for electric cars ever since, and that’s just beginning to be overcome by advances in battery technology.

FLATOW: Well, like what? What is happening to make them go farther?

FLETCHER: It’s really the advent of the lithium-ion battery that opened up the possibility of electric cars with performance that would be suitable for sort of mainstream American drivers. And it’s just an adaptation of the same battery technology that’s in our laptops and cell phones.

And this has been happening for about the past five years, moving into the automotive industry, and the first cars that really fully used these batteries were the Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt, which went on sale about, well, about six months ago now.

FLATOW: Doesn’t the Tesla have, like, 7,000 little laptop batteries in it, lithium batteries in it?

FLETCHER: Yeah – just under 6,000, and they are almost exactly the same thing that are bundled together in your laptop.

FLATOW: So you can just – what makes lithium such a good substance for a battery?

FLETCHER: It’s just the properties of the element itself. It’s the lightest metal. It’s the third element on the periodic table, and it’s also highly reactive. It doesn’t even exist in nature in its pure form because it’s so reactive. And what that means is that you can build a light chemical system that contains a lot of energy, and that’s what you want with batteries.

You want them to be small. You want them to be light. You want them to be as highly energetic as possible. And so, just the nature of the lithium atom makes it the perfect – well, you know, there are challenges with it, but it makes it about the best charge carrier we can possibly get for batteries.

FLATOW: Don Karner, I was – I drive into New York every now and then, and I was shocked to see that there was a spot in the garage that said charging station, right here in midtown Manhattan. You’re not shocked, I’ll bet.

KARNER: No, no, not at all. In fact, I’m very happy to see that. We’re about – at ECOtality, we’re about putting those charging stations in and making electric vehicles mainstream, being able to have you charge where you lead the rest of your life, where you work and where you’re entertained, where you shop, where you eat and also where you sleep overnight at your home.

FLATOW: But is America, which wants to get out, get up and go quickly, I mean, the charging stations take a half-an-hour to charge your car. Are they willing to hang out wherever they are for a half-an-hour?

KARNER: Well, I think that’s part of why we want you to be able to integrate charging your car in with the rest of your lifestyle. Rather than taking your car someplace specifically to charge, we want you to be able to charge where you lead the rest of your life. So if you go to work, and there’s a place where you can charge at work, the time that it takes is really irrelevant as long as that vehicle is charged when you’re done with work.

If you go to the store, if you go to the restaurant, that type of thing, you’re really just dropping your car off. You happen to charge it at the same place that you’re leading the rest of your life. We call that leading a Blink lifestyle. Blink is the product name for our chargers, and we really encourage people to learn how to integrate charging their electric vehicle in with the rest of the things they do in their life, much like you did with your cell phone when you first got a cell phone.

You rapidly learned how to integrate that charging in with the rest of the things you do during the day, whether you charge it at night, you charge it on your desk during the day. But everybody started out with a little anxiety about is my cell phone going to die before the end of the day, I’m going to miss a call. But very rapidly you learned how to integrate that in with your life so that you didn’t have an issue. We want…

FLATOW: You know, if you go to cold states like Alaska, Minnesota, places like that, where people have, they have warming elements in their cars for the winter, you plug your car in while – overnight. And they’re in the parking lots of some universities. Why can’t we have something like that, a little charger, wherever – right in the supermarket, you know, in the parking lot there. While you go in and shop, you plug your car in.

KARNER: Well, Ira, I think you’ll see exactly that. You’re going to see chargers deploy into commercial space: shopping centers, grocery stores, barbershops. Again, where people lead their lives, where they congregate and where there’s a concentration of electric vehicles.

Our objective is to create a business model for electric vehicle charging such that those businesses are going to want chargers in their parking lots. Workplaces will want chargers there to support their employees, universities to support their students and that an infrastructure deploys virally to support electric vehicles in the United States.

FLETCHER: You know, Iran, I just wanted to follow up on one thing you said, that it takes a half-hour to charger the car. If only it took a half-hour to charge the cars from a normal wall outlet. This is actually one challenge. And there are three primary different types of charging. There’s 110, 220 and 440. 440 volts are the fast-charging stations that can recharge a battery in about a half-hour.

Those are expensive and require more electricity. So from the 220 volt, you know, 220 outlet in your garage when you charge overnight, a car like the Leaf takes about eight hours, which is why most people are going to be charging overnight.

FLATOW: But if you only used up a few, you know, kilowatt hours, whatever we want to call them, of charge when you went to the grocery store, you could sort of top-off your battery.

FLETCHER: Yeah, you could top-off, yeah.

FLATOW: You could sort of top it off while you’re going in to, you know, buying some broccoli or something.

FLETCHER: Opportunity charging.

KARNER: And that’s precisely why you would want an infrastructure available to people so that they have that choice. Yes, they can charge overnight at home, and that is kind of the preferred place to charge your vehicle, but at times you’ll want to top-off at the grocery store using 220, level two charging.

Other times you may want to go to a fast charger and get a much faster charge, to where in 15 minutes, you might be able to get 40 miles or so of additional range on your vehicle.

FLATOW: But, you know, as Edison, who invented the American light bulb – what made him successful is not only did he have a light bulb, but he invented the whole system of delivering the electricity to that light bulb. We now have electric cars. How fast can we get the system to deliver the electricity to them? I mean, that’s going to take some sort of statewide or local effort, is it not, Don?

KARNER: Well, again, it goes back to the objective of creating a business model for charger hosts, those businesses, those people that will put chargers in. If there’s a return on their investment, then there’s a natural tendency, as electric vehicles begin to concentrate in an area, for these chargers to appear, much like any other business appears. Fast food pops up, grocery stores pop up as population builds.

At ECOtality, we’re about building that business model and creating a return on investment for the charger hosts so that when they make that investment in a charger, whether it’s dollar return, it’s people across the threshold of their brick-and-mortar business, it’s branding, advertising, that there’s value that’s returned to them because I don’t think we can count on state or federal government to roll out an infrastructure for electric vehicles.

It has to be rolled out on a viral basis because it makes good business sense.
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