The Science of Sustainability

Growing Pains for California's Electric Car Charging Network

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Bishop Ranch, San Ramon Fast Charger

Bishop Ranch, San Ramon Fast Charger

Imagine pulling up to a gas station and finding out that the pumps aren’t working or that you have to be a subscriber to fill up.  Those are just a couple of the challenges that drivers of electric cars face as public charging stations slowly roll out. Alison van Diggelen, herself an early adopter, explores the growing pains of building an electric car charging network and the fledgling new industry rising up to meet the challenge.


Range Anxiety – A Short Leash

Alison van Diggelen gets a fast charge with Ecotality's Blink network, Intuit Campus, Menlo Park

Electric vehicles are a popular and growing trend in California. But it can take hours to charge them, and there are only a handful of fast chargers in the whole state. I recently visited one of California’s  fast chargers at a Silicon Valley software company’s parking lot in Menlo Park, eager to get a charge for my all-electric Nissan Leaf. I’d traveled over 35 miles (that’s 70 round trip) from my home charger, and range anxiety had kicked in.

Eventually, I did make it home, but only after bypassing another fast charger that required I swipe a membership card which I don’t have.  I used an app on my phone to find the charger.

John O'Dell, Senior Editor at says for electric cars to catch on it's vital to have a reliable charging network.

“Public charging infrastructure is critical to the widespread acceptance of plug-in and particularly battery electric vehicles. Because without public chargers you basically have a fairly short leash on your vehicle and you are not going to be willing to drive it long distances.” 

Although most driving and charging takes place within 40 miles of home, the lack of freedom to go much further has become a roadblock to purchasing electric cars for many Americans.

Loosening the Leash

Terry O’Day, with New Jersey-based energy company NRG, is hoping to loosen the leash on electric cars.    I caught up with him at a charger at a San Francisco parking garage. As part of a settlement over claims stemming from California’s energy crisis, NRG will install 200 fast-chargers and wiring for 10,000 standard chargers statewide by 2016.   NRG is calling its fast chargers, “Freedom stations.”

“You’re not tethered to a radius…this is much more like a gasoline fueling infrastructure where you can fast fill anywhere you need to go,” says O’Day.

Terry O'Day heads NRG's California charger roll out

Fast chargers can give fifty miles of driving range in fifteen minutes.  But because there are only a few, drivers usually opt for a standard charger, which can take more than three hours to get the same driving range.

Fast Charger Challenges

“We are looking for a well distributed network, like a cell phone network. It’s a small “d” democratic network that provides freedom to move within a region,” says O’Day.

Still, a multitude of challenges face NRG and other charging companies, like Bay Area-based ChargePoint and Ecotality. Fast chargers produce very high voltage. They require complicated permitting. And they cost upward of $40,000 each.

Right now, the financials don’t add up says NRG’s Terry O’Day.

“The public charging infrastructure is extraordinarily expensive and there aren’t enough cars right now so there isn’t an effective business model to make the investment work,” he says.

So how many companies does it take to install a comprehensive network of electric vehicle chargers?

“It’s not as simple as changing a light bulb,” says Ravi Brar, CEO of Ecotality, in San Francisco.  “It takes some effort, cooperation and coordination. It’s a sea change… a revolution in transportation. The biggest challenge might be that there are a hundred little challenges.”

But to date, there hasn’t been much coordination.   There are two different standards for fast chargers: one US-European, one Japanese. It’s much like the format war between VHS and Betamax. One of them will likely lose.

Japanese CHAdeMO fast charger and standard port on a Nissan Leaf



And to complicate matters, Tesla Motors, a leading electric car company, is building a proprietary network of fast chargers, which won’t work with either standard.

Pat Romano, CEO of ChargePoint in Silicon Valley, describes the current state of electric car charging as “somewhat of a mess,” but he’s optimistic the fast charger standards will get sorted out in time.

The Second Inning

Romano takes a long view and uses a baseball analogy, describing 2009 as the “first inning,” when modern chargers were first going in and electric cars were just being announced by car makers. Today, he says we are solidly in the second inning.

To date, about 50,000 plug-in cars have been sold in the U.S.  About one third of those sales were made in California, thanks to pioneering state rules that include rebates and carpool privileges for drivers of electric cars.

There are over 1000 public chargers in California today.  Romano predicts a tipping point by the end of 2014, when he expects to see hundreds of thousands of electric cars on the road and lots more chargers.

“When we hit about the 5th or 6th inning the mass market is really taking it up,” says Romano.

For early adopters like Terry O’Day, of NRG, it’s not surprising the demand is growing for electric vehicles.

“It’s quick off the line, unexpectedly fast, it’s quiet. You feel like you’re part of a revolution when you’re in the seat of an EV,” he says.

Like many enthusiasts, he believes more chargers will help boost electric car sales. Under the NRG mandate, fast chargers alone are set to quadruple in California in the next year. And just as all eyes were on California as the state launched its Cap-and-Trade program, the world will be watching to see if this public charger roll out helps jump start electric car sales in 2013.


More resources on Electric Driving and Charging

Clean Car Diaries – over 25 stories from the Quest team on driving electric cars

Alternative Fuels Data Center – Dept. of Energy Resource for EV Charging, locations and incentives

Driving Electric – Online community for plug-in drivers

San Francisco BayLEAFs – Facebook community for Nissan Leaf drivers

Map of Charger Locations – Locations and reviews of all charger types, public and private, nationwide


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Category: Climate, Engineering, Environment, News

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About the Author ()

Alison van Diggelen is founder and host of Fresh Dialogues, an interview series featuring green thought leaders in Silicon Valley and beyond. A former columnist for the San Jose Mercury News and contributor to KQED’s Climate Watch, Alison now writes for the Huffington Post and moderates events for the Commonwealth Club and the Computer History Museum in Silicon Valley. She has lectured and moderated presentations on sustainability and entrepreneurship at the University of Edinburgh and UC Santa Cruz, Silicon Valley Extension. In 2001, the Women's Fund of Silicon Valley nominated Alison for a "Woman of Achievement Award" in communication. She has been an interview guest on KTVU, Silicon Valley Business, KGO radio and BBC radio. Alison hails from Bonnie Scotland and has a master's degree from the University of Cambridge.
  • Mike H

    It's good to know that CA will soon see a fast charge infrastructure take shape – albeit through a lawsuit settlement. I drive a Nissan Leaf in Central FL. The Orlando area would be a strategic region for Fast Charge Infrastructure. I'll be able to travel from where I live on the Space Coast to Tampa when that becomes a reality. Waiting to blink.

  • Marc Fontana

    Those of us EV drivers in Silicon Valley have access to an increasing number of public charging stations. I've discovered some that aren't documented on any networks. I tried my chargepoint card on one I found at a corporate site and my card worked, yet this location was not visible using any of the charge station locators !?! Perhaps because it is new. My point is that while we need to promote more public charging, we also must make sure those that are installed are entered into the charge station locator tools. As far as Fast DC charging, I personally don't find them to be critical for typical daily driving. In fact I have never needed to use one.

  • Jerry

    I think people have got it backwards. We need swappable battery standards so that you pull into a battery station, into a drive-through stall, and without getting out of your car, a robotic battery changer swaps out your depleted battery for a fresh one in less than thirty seconds and you're good for another 200 miles. Fini!

    • Richard

      What a stupid idea. You will trade your nearly new battery pack $50k or so) for an unknow and potentially scap one!
      great! No way Jose!

  • coach

    I wish I coud have the chance to live in CA just for that kind of good news. Here is France, those stations are too rare, limited to car sharing and car rental companies.
    I wonder how much does it take to fill in the battery completely ?
    1 Hours, 10 hours ?