at the Oregon Country Fair
Back in 2011-2014, you might have noticed a display at the entrance to the OCF called Wheels of Revolution. Back then, driving an Electric Vehicle to the fair was an unusual occurrence. Now, more and more people are driving EVs all over the place, so the Energy Park decided to stop putting the WoR display out front. But EV sales only amount to 6% of all car sales at this point and serious opposition to EV adoption still exists. For one thing, it is estimated that oil companies make a profit totaling nearing $1.7 Billion every single day. That's plenty of incentive to delay vehicle electrification even if only for a few years. So, we have set up this site (and, a booth in the Energy Park when the fair is running) to help answer some of the lingering questions about EV adoption and all the related issues. For more information on any of these topics please contact your local chapter of the Electric Vehicle Association. Or come into my booth and chat with me.
Why Electrify Transportation?
Switching over to an electrified mode of transportation is the most effective thing most people can do to reduce their carbon footprint. But combating Climate Change isn't really the most important reason for the switch. The Russian oil embargo has brought home how badly we are dependent on oil companies and foreign countries for the basic necessities of life. Our National Security demands that we find more local sources of energy.
Also, fossil fuels are finite resources. We have dug up about all the easy ones we can find and, going forward, pulling more and more out of the ground is going to get harder and more expensive and be more dangerous to people and the environment. Plus, all that carbon was pulled out of the atmosphere over a period of billions of years. The more we put back into the atmosphere, the more we return the earth to a condition that was hostile to most of the species alive today (including us). This isn't about Climate Change, in the end, we are talking extinction prevention. And, since we're going to run out of those fuels some day, we're going to have to figure out how to live without them eventually. Why not start now?
Why switch to electricity?
Electricity is an intermediate form of energy. There is no such thing as an electricity mine, electricity must be generated from some original source. But electricity is very controllable and safe. A vehicle using electricity can be built more simply and controlled more easily than any other form of energy. This results in fewer moving parts to wear out and a better driving experience for the riders. Reduced maintenance costs are a big reason owners like these cars. Safety is also a big issue, while a battery can burn, it doesn't explode and an EV crash is not going to involve a huge fireball immediately engulfing the vehicle. Electricity can be scaled up to run trains, trucks, buses and large machinery and scaled down to run the tiniest devices imaginable. We already see a huge increase in electric bicycles, scooters, skate boards and single wheel devices.
Electric Vehicle Basics
EVs come in several flavors. If they run purely on electricity stored in a battery, they are called a Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV). If you take a BEV and add an Internal Combustion Engine (ICE) attached to a generator to recharge the battery, then you have a Plug-In Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV). An ordinary hybrid vehicle that gets all of its power from fossil fuels is not considered an EV.
The electric motors used in EVs will also be either DC or AC motors. DC motors are simpler and they can use the power directly from the battery. AC motors have finer control and can provide regenerative braking, a system where the motor becomes an alternator during the braking process, saving wear on the brake system and recapturing energy back into the battery. The drawback for an AC system is that you must have some form of inverter to transform the DC power from the battery into the AC power that the motor requires.
For modern EVs there are usually two batteries in the vehicle. The main traction battery is generally fairly large and stores the power to drive the vehicle forward. It normally produces very high voltages. The service battery is a normal 12 volt battery that runs the dashboard just like in any ICE vehicle. The only difference is that the service battery doesn't have to turn over and start a big engine so instead of being a “starter” battery, it is generally a deep cycle style battery. The service battery is charged from the traction battery by a device called a DC to DC converter.
AC motors also have a very large power range compared to an ICE with the highest torque delivered at 0 RPM. They can also run just as well in both directions. As a result, most EVs don't have a transmission. Generally, they simply have a reduction gear between the motor and the wheels, greatly reducing complexity and points of potential failure.
Notice that in all the preceding, I refer to vehicles not cars. That's because all of this could refer to a unicycle, a bicycle, a motorcycle, a standard automobile or a truck, or a bus, or a semi-truck, or a train, or a ship or even an airplane.
Electric Vehicle Charging
Fueling an EV is different than fueling an ICE vehicle. They need to be plugged in to some sort of electrical supply. The higher the voltage of that supply, the shorter the period of charging will be. Most modern electric automobiles carry an onboard battery charger capable of using 120v (level 1) or 240v (level 2) sources. The average electric car gets about 4 miles of charge from an hour at level 1 and 20-30 miles from an hour of level 2. That's pretty slow but, remember, if you can plug these in at your home over night, it means you don't have to go anyplace special to fuel up your car and it's topped up and ready to go each morning.
Higher charging rates require a DC Fast Charger (DCFC) operating at 480 – 1000 volts. These are more equivalent to a gas station experience where you plug your car in and you're ready to continue relatively quickly. You don't have to stand by your car while it's fueling like you do in a gas station so, even though it takes a little longer (25 – 60 minutes) you can do more with your time.
The device used for a level 1 or level 2 charge is called Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment (EVSE). It is, essentially, a smart extension cord that won't turn on unless it's plugged into a vehicle. That way no one can electrocute themselves with one. The EVSE plugs into a standard wall outlet or 240v dryer outlet. The plug end for the vehicle has been standardized and all vehicles use the same one.
For DCFC systems that is not the case. There are three different standard plugs and dozens of different companies that each has its own manner of activation and payment. The plug standards are called Tesla (developed by the Tesla company and used only on their vehicles), CHAdeMO (used mostly by early Japanese and Korean cars) and CCS or Combo (used by American and European manufacturers). The fact that we are currently building out three non-compatable charging infrastructures (with more on the way) is one area of great concern for the future of EV adoption.
In 2022 Elon Musk announced that the Tesla charging system was going to accept non-Teslas. Some Tesla to CCS adapters are expected to become available because of this. Then he announced that the Tesla high speed charging system was being renamed the North American Charging Standard (NCAS) and that he suggested that all EVs should switch over to it. This was basically a declaration of war with the CCS people. Meanwhile, everyone seems to be abandoning the old CHAdeMO standard even KIA and Nissan. This is a real shame because CHAdeMO was the only one of these standards that was open source and available to shade tree mechanics to implement on conversions. It was also the only one of these standards that was set up to allow an EV to send power back out to a house as a back up battery.
Update as of June 2023: Ford, GM, Aptera and Rivian have now annouced that they will be adopting the NACS for future vehicles. This may well end the question of which of these standards is going to win out.
In the end, this is all going to have to stop and a single system will need to dominate the market. The sooner that happens, the sooner we can concentrate on the real problem of building out the network to cover the country.
For a look at the current charging infrastructure available in your area visit Plugshare.com
A brief word about hydrogen fuel cells might be appropriate here. The first thing to realize is that a fuel cell is a type of battery that is recharged differently from other batteries. We are still talking about an Electric Vehicle. Fuel cells are a promising technology but they always seem to be about 20 years from being ready for mass adoption while normal battery technology is not only ready today but improving by leaps and bounds every year. The other important thing to know here is that hydrogen, like electricity is an intermediate form of energy. There are no pure hydrogen mines, hydrogen must be manufactured by cracking it off from other elements, which means it can be produced in a climate friendly way or not. Currently, most pure hydrogen is produced in a process that creates lots of CO2.
Also, while the modern world already is covered by a wide-spread electrical grid that delivers electricity to most places in the world, there is no hydrogen grid. That would have to be built up from scratch.
Perhaps the best use of hydrogen then is as a medium for storing surplus renewable power. It is well known that the sun doesn't always shine and the wind doesn't always blow and that water behind hydro-electric dams have high and low flow periods. How then to store power when we are generating more than we need so that we can have enough when we run short? Generating hydrogen at specific locations and storing it until needed might prove to be a viable solution. An experimental project in Douglas County Washington State might prove to be the answer.
So how can you switch over to driving electric?
Fortunately, there is a large list of BEVs and PHEVs available today and more show up every day. It is also reasonable for anyone with a motor-head mentality to convert any existing vehicle to electric. I recommend going to your local car dealership and getting a test drive in a BEV just to see how much fun they are to drive. We have discovered that this is the big AH-HA! moment for most people who think of EVs as over-sized golf carts. The salesmen will try to steer you to something else because they don't want to sell EVs as a rule. The lower maintenance required by EVs cuts into their bottom line.
Here's a recent list of EVs for sale in the US. Many of these models are only available in states that have adopted California's Zero Emission Vehicle (ZEV) law but they are out there if you look.
(When The Inflation Reduction Act was signed on August 16, 2022 almost all of the incentives disappeared. For the most recent list please refer to the IRS)
In addition, there are Plug-in Hybrids that allow you to drive on electricity in town and fossil fuels for the long hauls.
There is also a healthy used market for EVs going on. The resale price of older EVs tends to drop rapidly, not because there is anything wrong with the cars but, because, unlike their ICE competitors, EVs are improving dramatically year by year. This tends not to be the case once a car has over 200 miles of driving range but, if you're just looking for a commuter car to go around town or take a student back and forth to school, an older Leaf is a great way to do it.
How does politics come into this, and how can I get involved?
Even if you're not planning to go electric right away, there are a number of things you can do today to make things easier for yourself later on.
Each state has its own maze of laws concerning EVs. Some states are actively promoting the adoption of EVs, some are actively working against them and some, amazingly, are doing both. Washington State, for example, waves part of the sales tax on EV purchases but then turns around and fines the EV driver by adding $225 to their tab fees each year to punish them for not buying gasoline. Weird things like this will only improve with pressure from voters. As long as only 6% of drivers are involved in these issues, there aren't enough voices to fix the problems.
Back in 2006, the Federal government decided to offer tax credits for EV purchases to offset the tax benefits that oil companies enjoy that artificially lower the price of fossil fuels. But, even though the tax credits to oil companies never run out, the tax credit for EVs only applies to vehicles assembled in the US using materials mined by US friendly companies. These requirements have excluded most of the Electric Vehicles available for purchase today. The tax credit has to be extended for all manufacturers as long as the oil company subsidies are in place, just to even the playing field.
The DCFC infrastructure needs to be built out more quickly than it is. The plug wars need to stop and the methods of payment need to be standardized. Also, there needs to be some penalty if a company does not keep its stations in good repair. Loss of revenue doesn't seem to be sufficient motivation. Only state level legislation will fix these issues.
Car dealerships make most of their money doing maintenance and repairs, not on sales. But since EVs don't require as much of either, dealerships are generally opposed to selling them. With a few exceptions, if you go to a dealership today, they will try to steer you away from their electric models. Many companies avoid making their electric models available in all regions unless compelled by law. As a result, some EV companies avoid having dealerships and try to sell directly online. But various states have prohibited cars from being sold without dealerships. This is just more craziness that has to stop.
People who own their own homes can charge their vehicles overnight but what about people who live in apartments? What about people who rent? We need to change building codes to require circuitry that allows EVSE to be installed in parking structures, especially those used by apartment dwellers. We need to make sure Home Owners Association don't have rules making it impossible to set up a charging station at your home. We also need some charging infrastructure wherever cars are parked for long periods.
All of these things you can help with today by paying attention and supporting various lobbying efforts. Joining your local chapter of the Electric Vehicle Association (EVA) is a good place to start. Some good local examples are:
The Seattle Electric Vehicle Association (SEVA)
The Emerald Valley Electric Vehicle Association (EVEVA)
More odd ideas
Once there are millions of EVs in the hands of everyday people, and once those vehicles are plugged in to power units when they are not being used, we could start to see a technology known as Vehicle to Grid (V2G). This allows a power company to pull power from vehicles that are just sitting there to handle spikes in demand. In essence, the vehicles that are just sitting there, not being driven, become an enormous battery that will allow a utility to meet spikes in demand without starting up (or even building) unnecessary auxiliary power plants.
In the same sense, your EV can become a backup power system for your home (V2H) when power goes out. It could be set up to supply enough power to keep a couple essential appliances running for a day or two until power is restored during a blackout or storm. If the power outage persists, you can drive your car someplace and charge it up and then bring it back to your house and plug it in for another few days.
Just imagine how much quieter your neighborhood would be without the sound of combustion engines going by. Just imagine...
Written April 2023 by Paul Kahle, SEVA member and EV driver since 2011