Electric car backers focus on conquering ‘range anxiety’

Frank Calder remembers the 38-mile drive from Karl Chevrolet in New Canaan to his home in Oxford just before Christmas last year in his new electric car – a Chevrolet Volt, the first one sold in Connecticut.

“Coming home on the Merritt Parkway, it was bumper-to-bumper,” Calder said. It was also cold and he knew both factors would diminish the car’s driving range. “By time I got to Shelton, the battery ran out.”

The car automatically switched to the backup gasoline engine, and he drove the final nine miles home that way.

The incident, though painless, is a reminder of why electric cars, as environmentally and energy friendly as they might be, can be a difficult sell. The industry even has a name for it: range anxiety.

That in a nutshell is why the General Assembly is considering a bill this session that would develop a roadmap for an electric vehicle infrastructure in the state.

“The whole notion here is to take away the fear, take away the anxiety of whether you can get from here to there and back again,” said Sen. John Fonfara, D-Hartford, co-chair of the Energy and Technology committee and a supporter of the legislation. “You need to know you can go somewhere and get a quick charge.”

The idea is that an infrastructure-a cohesive array of charging locations–would help the sales of electric vehicles, or EVs, and add jobs and revenue in related industries, all the while promoting better air quality and a more efficient use of electricity.

But this is new territory. A half-dozen mainly western states and District of Columbia participating in a $230 million federal Department of Energy backed EV infrastructure program are only about a year into the project. Last week the DOE unveiled a $5 million EV infrastructure program through its Clean Cities Initiative that will provide states with funding for public charging systems and partner with Google Maps to keep track of them.

There’s no real blueprint for how to do this, and a few thorny issues regularly come up, mainly of the chicken-and-egg variety: How much infrastructure do you build to cure range anxiety so people will buy the cars, without going overboard on a system that still has few users.

“We can’t wait too long or we’ll shortchange the grassroots demand,” said Leo Karl III, the third generation owner of the dealership that bears the family name.

Volts began trickling into the state in November. Karl has delivered 10 and has about six months worth of orders. Nissan LEAFS, with larger-range batteries, but no backup engine, are still nearly a year away from delivery here.

“I can tell you without equivocation that we will not miss this window here in Connecticut,” said Fonfara, who has scheduled a forum on EVs and infrastructure for Tuesday to solicit recommendations for the legislation. The existing bill is broadly based on last year’s final report of the Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Council created by then-Gov. M. Jodi Rell.

The bill calls for the Office of Policy and Management to develop and implement a plan that would include deployment of high-speed chargers, often referred to as level 3 chargers. It also establishes a funding mechanism and recommends waiving sales tax on EVs.

Rep. Sean Williams, R-Oakville, a member of the energy committee, was the lone vote against the bill – but not because he objected to the idea. “I don’t want to put cart before the horse,” he said.

An essential first step, he believes, is development of a time-of-use metering system that charges people lower rates for electricity in off-peak hours – mainly overnight when most people would be charging EVs. He also prefers a tax credit incentive for EV purchase. EVs presently get up to a $7,500 Federal tax credit, but nothing from the state.

The type of chargers is also is a point of disagreement. Fonfara believes that level 3 chargers, also known as DC fast chargers, which can charge a car in as little as 20 minutes, are crucial. Others argue not only are they expensive — around $50,000–but they also run on 440 volts DC, which requires special wiring and use a lot of electricity.

Level 1 chargers use a standard wall plug, but take eight hours or more.

Level 2 chargers, which take four to six hours and run on 220 volts, are emerging as the industry standard. Prices run from under $500 to nearly $4,000, depending on sophistication, though many are being provided free as part of EV ramp-up programs. They’re considered ideal for locations where people can leave cars for a while: shopping areas, train stations and commuter lots, office buildings, casinos, as well as homes.

Control Module Industries, a fleet management company in Enfield, is among dozens of companies that have jumped into the charger game in the last two years. CMI is trying to reduce the need for expensive re-wiring in homes and has developed one device that shares power with an existing dryer, stove or water heater. When the appliance is on, the charger turns off.

Charger manufacturing now takes up 44,000 square feet at CMI with plans for up to 30,000 more in the next year. Employment is up to 80 from 50, and stands to rise again.

GE’s level 2 WattStation was developed in Plainville, though is manufactured in North Carolina and will be available later this year.

EV infrastructure efforts are taking shape around the state even without legislation in place. Utility companies are gathering data to determine their roles. The interstate service plaza reconstruction project underway includes conduit for chargers.

Level 2 charging stations have popped up in New Haven, Norwalk and elsewhere. Westport is securing funding from the Connecticut Clean Energy Fund for a $330,000 solar charging system at the train station to charge 20 EVs during the day.

“The only reason that this makes sense during the day is it’s an alternative electric source,” said Stephen Smith, who runs the town’s building department. He came up with the idea and believes EV charging should stay true to it’s energy efficiency roots. The town also plans to install one downtown charging station, free for its first year.

For his part, Frank Calder said he’d like to see a charging station somewhere, like a grocery store or Costco. “I can make it down OK, but I won’t have enough juice to get back,” he said.

But sticking close to home to run errands for the last few months hasn’t exactly left him complaining. “I’ve only bought 2 gallons of gasoline,” he said. “So I’m averaging 250 miles per gallon.”