When the time came to sell my gas-guzzling Prius and switch to an EV, my main question was, can it get me to Limantour Beach and back? Limantour Beach, one of the jewels of the Point Reyes National Seashore, is exactly 50 miles from my home in Berkeley. The advertised range of all of the sub-Tesla electric vehicles on the market today is around 80 miles. Unless there was a charger in the town of Pt. Reyes Station, I could get there but not back. No deal.
That all changed in January this year when news came that an EV charger opened in Pt. Reyes Station, just a moment’s walk from the Bovine Bakery with its chocolate-chocolate-cherry cookies. And it was not just any EV charging station, but a Level 3, also known as a DC Quick Charge.
As I learned in doing my pre-buy research, there are three charge levels for electric vehicles. Level 1 plugs into standard household current at 110 volts and does a trickle charge. That takes 21 hours with the Leaf, more or less the same for other similarly equipped EVs. Level 2 runs off 220 volts, also a standard household voltage but usually reserved for heavy duty appliances like electric clothes dryers and ranges. With Level 2, the Leaf charges from 0 to 100 per cent in about 4-5 hours. That’s plenty for overnight charging at home.
But a Level 2 charging station wouldn’t work for my Limantour Beach outings. I do like a leisurely lunch at the Station House Cafe and then to grab one of those amazing cookies at the Bovine, but stretching that into several hours wasn’t in the plan. Enter Level 3.
A Level 3 or Quick Charge station takes the Leaf from 0 to 80 per cent charged in less than half an hour. You can go to 100 per cent in another half hour (the rate of charge slows as you approach a full battery) but the extra 20 per cent wouldn’t be necessary for me to get adequate range.
Level 3 is a game changer for EVs. Many a time I’ve spent half an hour gassing up a car. There’s cleaning the windshield, the restroom visit, then a cup of coffee, a snack, a few minutes to stretch the legs, and 30 minutes is gone. I can imagine Level 3 charging stations arranged like a sow’s teats around a Peet’s, with EV drivers inside meeting and chatting about their cars and journeys over a java while the chargers outside hum and the charging lights blink. When the charging is done, the car and/or the charging service sends you a text message, and off you go. New batteries now being developed in Japan will take the charge time down to 12 minutes.
Level 3 is also a main reason why I bought a Leaf instead of the Fiat 500e. The electric Fiat is a lot of fun to drive. Very nimble, quick, sporty, nicely equipped, with a temperature-controlled battery system that’s state of the art. But the Fiat doesn’t have a Level 3 charging socket, and no way to retrofit one. The Leaf has it.
This past Friday, I set out in my fully home-charged Leaf for Pt. Reyes on a test drive. The onboard computer estimated my range at 81 miles. Those estimates are based on past driving behavior. Since this was a new car (an unsold 2013 model offered at a very attractive price) there wasn’t much history for the computer to work with. By the time I was five miles from home, the estimated range had dropped by ten miles. I experienced my first pangs of range anxiety. At 10 miles out, the estimated range was down 16 miles, still worrisome but the ratio was leveling out a bit.
My usual route to Pt Reyes takes me via Lucas Valley Road. This includes a twisty climb up to the crest of the Loma Alta ridge.. I wasn’t worried about the Leaf’s power to make it up the hill. The current crop of EVs are long past the golf cart days. The electric motors have awesome torque. An EV can beat almost any gas car from a stop light to the far side of the intersection and into the lane it wants. The Leaf had no problem at all with the Loma Alta hill, and its low center of gravity (thanks to the battery) practically eliminated lean-out in the corners. All that power also took its toll on the battery. By the time I got to Big Rock at the crest of the ridge, the battery was at 70 per cent of capacity.
But as I rolled down the other side, the Leaf’s motor switched into generator mode, and both the battery capacity and the estimated range went up again. And so it went, over hill and dale, up and down. I pulled up at the EV charging station in the parking lot at the corner of 4th and B Streets in Pt Reyes Station exactly an hour after departure, with 40 miles showing on the odometer and 53 per cent showing on the battery. The initial range estimate of 81 miles hadn’t been far off, after all. If I had to, I could get back home from here without recharging.
As it turned out, I almost had to do that. The Level 3 charging station — it looks sort of like a tall, slender gas pump — was vacant and available. I took hold of the cable and plugged it into the appropriate port in front of the car. I turned off the car’s charging timer, as required. Then I tried to get the charging station to start charging. No dice. The charger’s touch screen would go so far and then freeze or crash.
The charger could also be activated, theoretically, by a smartphone app. I had already downloaded the app and entered my credit card number into it. I pushed all the required buttons to start charging, but nothing happened. The charger didn’t respond.
Luckily the charger displayed a phone number to call. I dialed and a real person answered. He tried to get the charger started remotely via the company network. He had no better luck than I had. He felt that probably the charger needed to be power cycled. He directed me to a big circuit breaker box on the outside wall of the building near the charger, and had me pull the main switch lever down to off, wait a few seconds, then back up to the on position. Slowly the screen on the charger unit went through its rebooting cycle and came up again. The service tech on the phone tried go get it started again via his network. No luck. I tried again via my smartphone app. Nope. I hung up.
Just then another Leaf owner, a grizzled and sunburned local, drove up and parked in the other slot of the charging station, the one with a Level 2 charging device. I shared my woes, and he advised that such problems were common with this Level 3 unit. However, he pointed out, the headquarters of the company that owned the charging station were located just a step or two behind the charging unit. The door was locked and nobody was in, but he thought someone might be in later.
I parked my car nearby and headed to the Station House Cafe for lunch. When I came back to the charging station, an older blue Leaf was parked in the Level 3 slot but was not plugged in. As I inspected the car looking for its owner to complain of this breach of etiquette, the door to the company office opened and a man came out and identified himself as the car owner. I told him my tale of frustration. He assured me that he could help. He was Richard Sachen, the founder and CEO of the company that built and owned this charging station.
Sachen took me inside the office, a sparsely furnished space with a U-shaped set of work tables and a giant Apple monitor screen on one of them, and tried to get the charger working via network. He couldn’t get it going, either. He explained that he had an intern helping with the programming and would look into the problem. However, as a last resort, Sachen used his own RFID card on the charging unit, and then, finally, the charger responded and the juice flowed into my Leaf.
Sachen’s system (it’s called SunTrail and is part of the Greenlots chain) uses RFID cards to identify the account owner at the charging stations. The other charging chains, I soon found out, use RFID cards of their own. The cards are a bit thicker than credit cards but less than half the length. You don’t slide them into a slot, you wave them in front of a screen. They’re made to be carried on key chains.
I didn’t yet have an RFID card for SunTrail. I had applied for one online but it hadn’t come yet in the mail. Sachen personally issued me one, but explained that it wouldn’t work for a while until the central computer was updated. While my Leaf was charging on his personal account, we chatted.
Sachen’s plan is to install charging stations on major scenic routes such as Highway One. He is targeting the tourism market. He wants to make it feasible for environmentally conscious people to take their EVs on sightseeing trips. The electric energy at his Point Reyes charging station comes from 100 per cent Marin County renewable sources, he says.
Building a Level 3 charging station is not cheap. The power company at this location only supplies 220 volts. He pointed to a transformer box he had to buy, about the size of a small refrigerator, that stepped up the line voltage to the 480 that Level 3 requires. The charging unit then converts the 480 AC to the 480 DC that the car’s traction battery runs on. He also had to upgrade the pavement under and around the charging station for ADA and local code compliance. Fortunately one of the EV manufacturers (he wouldn’t say which one) helped out with a chunky subsidy toward the electrical equipment.
From Pt. Reyes, my next destination was Santa Rosa, a distance of 36 miles and well within the car’s range after recharging. My plan was to get another Level 3 charge at the Nissan dealer there. The Nissan dealer at the Hilltop Mall Auto Plaza in Richmond where I bought the car has a Level 3 charger in the back of the building where charging is free, and it is open until 8 pm. I had phoned the dealer in Santa Rosa to confirm that they also had a Level 3 charger. They had. But I forgot to ask when they closed. I arrived at the Santa Rosa Nissan dealership at ten minutes after 7 pm to find the main driveway gated and locked and all other entries blocked. Oops!
The Leaf’s navigation system shows all available local recharging stations on its map. Various smartphone apps do the same. There are three dozen of them scattered around downtown Santa Rosa. All of them are Level 2. I drove to the nearest one, in a parking lot under a freeway. Level 2 stations are hardly bigger than parking meters, and there is little in the way of signage to guide you there. After cruising around the parking lot twice, I finally spotted the station. This belonged to the Chargepoint system, the biggest of the charging chains at this time. The dealer had issued me a Chargepoint RFID when I bought the car, and I had activated it a few days earlier. I slid the card across the face of the card reader and read the message: Station Out of Order. Oops again.
The next nearest charging station was a few blocks away in a public parking garage that was half empty. I looped around inside it three times and never found the charging station, if indeed there was one. Oops again. I was rapidly getting an education in real world EV charging.
A few more blocks away in another garage I hit pay dirt. A Chargepoint station available and functioning. It recognized my RFID, the car recognized the charger, and the current flowed. Since I was going to a meeting that would last two hours or so, a Level 2 charge might get me home again afterward. I was now a 15-minute walk away from my meeting location and an hour late for the start of the event. But better late than never.
Friends gave me a ride from the meeting back to the charging station. The Leaf’s computer estimated that I had a 74 mile range for a 53 mile trip, so off I went into the darkness. Knowing that fast highway speeds would run the battery down more quickly, I set the cruise control at 55 and stayed in the right lane. I compared the nav system’s mileage to destination with the estimated range remaining on the battery. I had a 21-mile cushion to start with. When I turned on the heater, the estimated range dropped by four miles. My cushion dwindled to 16 miles by the time I hit the Richmond San-Rafael bridge. Once on familiar East Bay ground, I kicked up the speed to 65 and passed a few cars at 70. Before I got off the freeway, the “low battery” warning light came on, similar to the “low fuel” light in a gasoline engine car, but the car continued at full power. I pulled into my driveway with 11 miles left in the battery.
My home trickle charge system timer kicks in at midnight when electric rates go down. By next morning, when I had to go back to Santa Rosa, the car was only about half charged. I needed a quick charge at the dealer in Hilltop Mall. I called the service department and they assured me that the charger was available, and if they had one of their cars on it, they would free it for me. Nice people there. However, by the time I got to the dealer, another Leaf owner had grabbed the Level 3 charger ahead of me. He assured me he only needed 15 minutes more, and he was true to his word. I plugged in and charged up to 90 per cent in another 15 or 20 minutes, and I was on my way. I thought.
I had punched my destination address in Santa Rosa into the Leaf’s nav system before I began charging. The nav system talks to the battery monitoring system, and it advised me that I “might” not be able to reach my destination with the charge available. When I got on the road, the nav system took me, before I realized what it was doing, via the most fuel-economical route, which meant all the back roads and small towns in Sonoma County. I got to see parts of this picturesque area that I had never seen while blindly blasting northward on Highway 101. It also took me more than two hours to reach my destination, twice as long as usual, and I completely blew the speaking gig I was supposed to do at the conference I was attending, as well as the lunch. Another EV lesson learned.
On the way back home on Saturday afternoon, I stopped at the Santa Rosa Nissan dealer to recharge. Here the Level 3 charger was not free as at Hilltop. The Level 3 charger here belongs to the Blink network, another of the EV charging chains. It also wanted a RFID card, but was willing to let me plug in as a guest by entering a credit card number. Negotiating the hookup via the Blink smartphone app was another exercise in frustration — who designs these stupid things? — but after several tries, I got through and charging began.
While waiting, I chatted with dealer staff and got connected with a veteran salesman who reputedly was the go-to guy on Leaf recharging. What happened to Nissan’s much advertised “No Charge to Charge” campaign, I asked. He consulted the company’s memo to dealers about the deal and explained that this would begin in July. Nissan would issue Leaf owners, including those who had bought the car before July like myself, a card that would work with (almost) every EV charger chain including Blink. Charging would be free for two years. He thought the free deal would include the Level 3 Blink. He had heard, as had I, that Chargepoint was pulling out of the Nissan deal, but believed that this was resolved and Chargepoint was back in. (Sachen in Pt. Reyes had thought that his chain, SunTrail, would not participate in the Nissan deal either unless the economic terms were made more favorable.) The Santa Rosa dealer’s Level 2 chargers are free, but until July you have to pay Blink for Level 3.
The salesman agreed with me that it would have made sense to locate the recharging station in a part of the lot that could be accessed after hours. But they didn’t think of that when they built it.
The charge at Blink in Santa Rosa took the battery from 17 per cent to 90 per cent and increased the range by 78 miles. It took 32 minutes and cost $8. Doing the arithmetic, this cost per mile is almost the same as putting gas at $4 per gallon into my 2002 Prius. So, Level 3 is a game changer as far as EV range is concerned, but at current prices it’s not a money saver over gasoline cars.
Level 2 charging, if you have the time to do it, does save money. Chargepoint takes $1 per hour, which means roughly a dollar for 20 miles, or half the cost of gasoline for my old Prius. Home charging via Level 2 should be even cheaper, especially if you set the timer to begin at midnight when rates go down. The local utility here, PG&E, also offers special cheaper EV charging rates. I haven’t seen the details yet.
The dealer where I bought the car referred me to evseupgrade.com, a Berkeley-based company that takes the 110-volt charging kit that comes with the car and converts it to a 220-volt Level 2 set. I will be having that done next week and may report on results here. This option is much cheaper than the box-type home recharging stations and has the advantage that you can take it with you to recharge at a friend’s house. (It can still trickle charge with an inexpensive plug adapter). Any electrician can install a 220 volt outlet.
So, my first week in EV country has been a learning experience. The car is wonderful. It does have the typical stiff, bouncy ride of all Nissans, but I’m getting used to it. I prefer the cushier ride of Toyotas, but Toyota is missing the EV boat altogether with a long-shot low-percentage bet on hydrogen cells. With the Leaf, Nissan looks poised to replicate the runaway hit that Toyota had with the Prius a decade ago.
Driving electric is an experience like no other. With the ECO mode turned on, the Leaf is a silky smooth, civilized and refined ride. On a smooth road, the car is so silent that the manufacturer added a soft artificial whine that comes from an outside loudspeaker at low speeds to warn pedestrians that it’s approaching. There is no gear shifting, just a continuous stream of power smoothly modulating to any speed you want up to the ceiling at 85 mph. With the ECO mode turned off, this pussy cat turns into a puma. The acceleration knocks your eyeballs back in their sockets. You’ll beat most anything from zero to 30, and you’ll have no problem merging onto freeways. It cruises silently at 70, and it corners like a sports car. It isn’t a Tesla, but it’s definitely an electric driving experience.
The charging infrastructure, on the other hand, is in its infancy. Home charging is good if you own and have 220. You can recharge cheaply overnight. That leaves out a lot of apartment and condo dwellers, along with many workplaces. The public charging infrastructure is a mess. There are various competing chains, each with its own card, its own app, and its own idiosyncrasies. Not all Level 3 chargers are compatible; the Chevy Spark, for example, relies on a different Level 3 charger than the Leaf and most other EVs. None of the commercial charging chain apps list all charging stations on their maps — they may completely ignore competing stations. There is a federal website that tries to list them all at http://www.afdc.energy.gov/ but it doesn’t tell you whether a given station is currently in use, as do some of the commercial apps. The number of Level 3 charging stations, which will greatly broaden EV usefulness and market appeal, is still woefully small, and their cost is unattractive. The existing Level 2 stations may be hard to find, broken, occupied by other EVs for hours on end, or blocked by gasoline cars whose drivers are just parking. Being an early adopter of EVs is living at the bleeding edge of change.
Nissan is doing a good thing, or trying, with its offer of free charging for two years at every charging station (more or less). The success of its Leaf, and for that matter of all EV cars, depends on a radical upgrade of the public charging infrastructure. Why the State of California is not taking a more active role in this matter, instead of wasting millions on building hydrogen stations, as it just announced it intends to do, is a mystery. Undoubtedly the marketplace will eventually shake out, with the better-financed companies swallowing or killing the others, but whether the end result is more user-friendly and economical, or an inefficient pain like the QWERTY keyboard, remains to be seen.
Obviously the oil companies are not thrilled to see the EV market expand, as it has been doing rapidly. Nor were the agribusiness giants ecstatic about the growth of organics, or the liquor-and-tobacco companies thrilled by the spread of legal marijuana. Yet there may come a point where, as with organics and marijuana, after many small pioneers have laid the groundwork, the threat turns into a marketing opportunity. The gas stations of the coming decade may well have two sections, one for the petroleum porkers, another for the voltage vultures. There’s no reason why Level 3 towers can’t take the place of gas pumps, and why the stations can’t feature coffee shops and snack bars to while away the half hour, as many of them do already.
Until then, I’ll take my chances with the charger in Pt. Reyes Station. Its website says that parts are on order and repairs to the Level 3 machine will be made by June 2. Being an early adopter of EVs also brings membership in a community of other wackos and crazies, including entrepreneurs like Richard Sachen. We have a different vision of the automotive future. Decades ago, I used to bicycle from my home in Oakland to Limantour Beach and other points in the national seashore. I’m not that fit any more. But thanks to the people at Nissan who built the car and thanks to people like Sachen who built the local infrastructure, I can now drive to this nature sanctuary as silently and with as little in the way of tailpipe emissions as in my bicycling days. Maybe less.