Payne: Can charging network handle coming EV flood?

Henry Payne
The Detroit News

Chevy Bolt EV sales surged past the Nissan Leaf and Tesla Model X crossover in August, putting it on track to be the best-selling electric vehicle for 2017 after the iconic Tesla Model S sedan.

Now available in Michigan and all 50 states after dealers have received certification since the Bolt went on sale in December, the Chevy’s Tesla-like, 200 plus-mile range for under $40,000 brings a broader demographic of EV buyers.

Yet, the Bolt EV’s estimated 20,000 unit sales volume for 2017 pales compared to the sales tsunami expected from Tesla Inc.’s similarly-priced Model 3 when it goes into production later this year. With over 500,000 pre-orders for the Model 3, Tesla promises production of 20,000 units a month by the end of this year. CEO Elon Musk calls the task of meeting demand “production Hell.”

The flood of new EVs on the road also presents devilish challenges to recharging infrastructure that even now is having a hard time keeping up. Consider my experience in a Tesla Model S P100D last month in Silicon Valley.

I picked up my all-wheel-drive Tesla at the airport with 239 miles of predicted range if driven to the EPA mpg cycle like an overstuffed limousine (Tesla recommends charging to 85 percent of battery capacity to extend the life of the 100 kWh of lithium ion battery pack. The batteries have a 315-mile range).

But the P100D is no limousine. After a day of spirited driving in the four-door rocket ship, I pulled into a Tesla Supercharging Station at 9:30 p.m. having traveled 90 miles but taken 157 miles off the battery, leaving an estimated 82 miles of range. I estimated a half-hour to get my miles back (an advertised 170 miles per ½ hour charging) — but I wasn’t the only one needing juice.

The 12-stall station was full of Model S sedans and Model Xs — over $1 million worth of EVs on electron teets — with a waiting line four deep. One patient owner — she commuted 140 miles a day — said it was typical for a weeknight.

A check of Tesla’s navigation display indicated the nearest Superchargers — in Palo Alto or Fremont (Tesla’s Bay-area manufacturing facility) — were a half-hour away. And this was Silicon Valley, the nation’s EV capital.

A Tesla spokesperson confirmed the high demand the next day. A map in Tesla’s Palo Alto HQ charts the highest-use Superchargers in the world, and nearby Mountain View is No. 1. While Mountain View is a prosperous bedroom community where most owners (average Model S transaction price: $100,000) have installed Level 2, 240-volt chargers at home, many are apartment-dwellers dependent on fast chargers (charging a big battery Tesla on a standard, 120-volt home socket would take four days).

Tesla is doubling its Supercharger infrastructure by the end of this year. But that increase is coming with a ten-fold increase in Model 3 production volume — a buyer demographic more likely to live in apartments.

I retreated to my son’s apartment in neighboring Sunnyvale where I charged overnight at a 240-volt, Level 2 Chargepoint station. After 10½ hours I was back to 282 miles of range at a cost of $21.

“The charging infrastructure is still quite a mountain to climb,” says Karl Brauer, an auto analyst with Kelley Blue Book.

In Metro Detroit there is currently only a Supercharger, in Ann Arbor. Other EVs like the 238-mile range Bolt EV or 150-mile, 2018 Nissan Leaf (an over-200 mile range Leaf is expected next year) must find scarce, Level 3, DC fast chargers which advertise 90 miles of charge in 1/2 hour.

But I only gained 41 miles while recharging a Bolt EV this summer — and was lucky enough to get the only stall (unlike the 12 at Tesla’s Mountain View stable) at the State Street Shell station without a wait.

“There isn’t a gas station solution where EVs can magically recharge in 5 minutes,” says Rebecca Lindland, an auto analyst for Kelley Blue Book. “EVs are a suburban solution where owners with garages can charge at home at night and then at their workplace during the day.”

Lindland sees EVs as much more problematic for urban apartment dwellers where infrastructure is unreliable. It gets more complicated outside urban areas — Michigan, for example, does not a have a DC fast charger north of Pontiac. Take a Chevy Bolt EV or Tesla on a 250-mile trip up north and expect to spend much of the weekend plugged into a 240-volt socket getting recharged for the return trip.

And woe to the buyer who can only find a standard, 120-volt wall socket in their cabin. A Bolt EV will take 51 hours to fully recharge.

“It’s why plug-in hybrids like the Chevy Volt are far more attractive than EVs,” smiles Lindland. “They are an EV where appropriate — say on a daily commute from home to work. But you can also take them to a gas station for a 5-minute refill if you need to.”

The Volt, too, is under $40,000 with up to 53 miles of EV range before a gas engine kicks in for a total 420 miles of range.

California accounts for over half of U.S. EV vehicle demand. Metro Detroit area dealers say demand has been tepid for Volts, which has been on sale since 2011. Bolt EV deliveries to area dealers began in August. Mike Savoie Chevrolet of Troy, for example, has received three with prices starting at $37,495.

If you buy one, Lindland recommends installing a 240-volt charging plug at home. Dealers estimate a cost of $500 to $2,000 depending on the age of your domicile.

Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at hpayne@detroitnews.com or Twitter @HenryEPayne.