A friend has been curious about electric vehicles for some time, but like many people, has been waiting for a desirable combination of range, features, and price. Recent developments are pushing him closer to making a purchase decision, so he’s interested in learning more about how they work–in particular how they recharge.
As much as electric vehicles (EVs) resemble traditional gasoline-powered vehicles, how EVs recharge is probably the least familiar. I’ve been asked to provide an introduction to EV recharging options. As this will be useful to anyone wondering about the care and feeding of an EV, I’ve put together this blog post to share this information widely and help demystify the topic.
The information I gathered to write this article is publicly available on the Internet, with much of the material sourced from Wikipedia and web searches for relevant images.
In outline, this post will describe how plug-in electric vehicles are recharged, outline the choices for EV recharging, list which EVs can use each, and show how you can find recharging opportunities while out and about.
How do you recharge an electric vehicle?
If you can think of a type of gasoline-powered vehicle, you can probably find its electric equivalent today. There are electric trains, buses, trucks, cars, motorcycles, and bicycles. Even boats and airplanes powered only by electricity are available for sale to consumers.
Most of us are familiar with gasoline-fueled vehicles that have a tank that is filled with liquid fuel. This fuel is consumed during the vehicle’s operation until the tank is empty. Rather than let the vehicle become unusable, most of us refill the tank before it is empty at a convenient gas station.
How this works for plug-in electric vehicles is similar. If it helps, think about the common battery-powered devices you’re already familiar with, such as laptops, cell phones, or electric toothbrushes: use it until the battery is too low, then plug it in to recharge it until it is usable again.
Of course you shouldn’t drive away while the vehicle is still plugged in, the same way you shouldn’t drive away from a gas station while the gas nozzle is still in your gas tank.
For your battery-powered appliances, plugging into any wall outlet will let you recharge. For EVs, you can either plug into a wall outlet, or a machine called a charging station or EVSE (Electric Vehicle Supply Equipment), which is just a fancy name for a machine that is designed to recharge EVs.
A familiar battery-powered appliance
An electric car
An electric motorcycle
|Use your battery-powered device||Drive your electric vehicle||Ride your electric motorcycle|
|Use it until the battery charge is low or empty||Drive it until its battery charge is low or empty||Ride it until its battery charge is low or empty|
|Find a nearby electrical outlet||Find a nearby charging station, or let your vehicle’s GPS find one for you||Find a nearby charging station with a handy app or web site like PlugShare|
|Recharge the battery||Recharge the battery||Recharge the battery|
|Continue using your device||Continue driving your electric car||Continue riding your electric motorcycle|
EVs come in different types, that affect how they can be recharged:
|Abbr.||Unabbreviated||Meaning||Methods of Recharging or Refueling||Example Vehicles|
|BEV||Battery Electric Vehicle||An electric vehicle that stores its energy in on-board rechargeable batteries. These batteries are the only source of power for propelling the vehicle.||
|PEV||Plug-in Electric Vehicle||A vehicle that has rechargeable batteries that can be recharged from an external source. The vehicle is propelled either by the electrical energy stored in the batteries, or other sources of energy, such as an internal combustion engine (ICE) or fuel cell, or both.||
|PHEV||Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle||A hybrid electric vehicle whose rechargeable batteries can also be recharged from an external source instead of only by using the ICE as a generator.||
|HEV||Hybrid Electric Vehicle||This kind of vehicle only uses gasoline as a fuel, but diverts some or all of the energy from the ICE and from regenerative braking to recharge the on-board batteries that assist in propelling the vehicle.||
EV recharging choices
Except for the Tesla Model S, some electric motorcycles (Zero FX), and electric bicycles, EV batteries are typically not removable for charging or easily swappable with fully charged batteries. This means that a power source must be connected to the vehicle so that energy can be returned to the batteries. In the United States, plug-in EVs typically come with one or more sockets that each fit a standardized plug, or come with one or more adapters so that the vehicle can be connected to such equipment. In the United States, these power sources come in three categories, known as levels, which are proportional to the voltage of the electricity that they supply to the electric vehicle. See also http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Electric_car#US_Charging_Standards.
(assuming a vehicle with battery pack that offers an 80-mile range)
Level 1 = 120 volt AC wall outlets, with charging times exceeding 8 hours
Level 2 = 240 volt AC charging stations, with charging times exceeding 4 hours
Level 3 = 50-500 volt DC charging stations, including Tesla Superchargers, with charging times on the order of 1 hour
Level 1 refers to the conventional wall outlets that supply 120 volts of alternating current (120VAC). Some EVs, such as electric bicycles, the Current Motor Super Scooter, and Zero Motorcycles (pictured below) either come with a cable that can be plugged directly into the wall outlet, or a garden-variety extension cable can be used. Other EVs like the Nissan LEAF (pictured below) come with a portable EVSE that takes the form of a box that has two plugs–one that goes into the wall outlet and the other that connects to an appropriate socket on the vehicle.
A word of caution: before plugging your vehicle or your portable EVSE into a wall outlet, please make sure that the EVSE’s current draw does not overload the circuit.
Another word of caution: before plugging your vehicle or your portable EVSE into somebody else’s wall outlet, please ask for permission first. Some EV drivers report hostile or uncooperative reactions from businesses such as gasoline stations, even if you offer a token amount of money in exchange for the cents of electricity that you need to be on your way.
Some examples of Level 1 EVSE
|A Zero S is seen plugged directly into a standard 120V wall outlet||Nissan LEAF portable EVSE with 120VAC plug on one end and J1772 connector on the other; the J1772 connector plugs into a port in the front of the LEAF|
Level 2 refers to 240V AC power supplies that are typically machines dedicated for the purpose of recharging electric vehicles and can be installed in homes and parking lots. Prices for home units are below $1,000 and dropping. Some electric utilities such as PSE even offer subsidies for purchases of home Level 2 EVSE.
When they were first introduced a few years ago, these EVSE were free to use, but in the last year or so have started charging fees per unit of energy drawn or per unit of time spent connected. EVSEs that charge a fee usually also require the customer to use an RFID-equipped membership card that itself costs a nominal fee to acquire. Some EV dealerships offer customers the use of their EVSE without charge. Some EV dealerships are generous enough to make their EVSE free for any EV owner to use, customer or not.
Some examples of Level 2 EVSE
|Seen here is a Brammo Empulse R recharging at Level 2 in Ashland, Oregon. The cable from the EVSE is plugged directly into the J1772 socket on the top of the motorcycle; to the right is seen a Level 3 charging station that is not in use. Both EVSE are manufactured by AeroVironment and in this case are part of the West Coast Green Highway, which serves Washington and Oregon.||The open charging door in the front of a Nissan LEAF is seen here with two charging ports visible and the Level 2 charging port in use; the other charging port is for Level 3 charging|
Level 3 refers to 480V DC power supplies that are also machines dedicated for EV recharging, but are typically too expensive for home use (costing tens of thousands of dollars to purchase and install) and are thus usually only found in EV dealerships and parking lots. In the United States, these usually support the CHAdeMO protocol, which is supported by adding optional equipment to the Nissan LEAF, Mitsubishi i-MiEV, the Tesla Model S, and Zero Motorcycles. The Tesla Supercharger network is the other DC fast charging solution available in the United States. It is currently proprietary to Tesla Motors and only its vehicles are supported by this network, but that may change in the future.
Some examples of Level 3 EVSE
|Seen here is a Mitsubishi i-MiEV charging from a Blink Level 3 EVSE||Seen here is a Nissan LEAF with its charge door open and charging from a Level 3 EVSE (manufactured by AeroVironment for Nissan) via its CHAdeMO plug (the orange plug is for Level 2 charging)||Seen here is a Tesla Model S charging from a Tesla Supercharger, a DC fast charging system that currently no other brand of vehicle is compatible with or may charge from|
How do I find these charging stations?
Once you have an electric vehicle, where can you recharge it if you’re running low on charge and can’t make it to your next destination? If your EV comes with a GPS, it will likely include a feature that will display the locations of nearby charging stations on the map. It might also be able to offer you turn-by-turn instructions for how to reach the nearest charging station.
If your EV does not come with a GPS, you can use PlugShare on your PC or smartphone to display available EVSEs on the map. PlugShare lets you review and upload photos of charging stations, but if you encounter one not already on the map, you can register for an account on PlugShare and add it so that other EV owners may make use of it. Reviewing an EVSE is helpful for other users because it lets you report whether a charging station is in working order or not, which can alert other EV owners to rely on it or to avoid it.