Editor’s Note: In Part Two of “Confessions of an EV Owner,” MicrogridKnowledge.com’s Lisa Cohn finds herself coasting down hills in search of an EV charging station, after she’s sure she failed to properly charge her new VW e-Golf at home.
When I called Ayman, the VW dealership’s EV expert that morning, I got right to the point.
“I think I lost charge last night when I plugged my e-Golf in. Did my car’s battery somehow power my refrigerator overnight?”
Steady Ayman, refusing to fuel my hysteria, asked if the light on the pump at my car had turned red and the charger said that I was charging.
Yes, I responded.
Had I had turned the car off, turned off all the lights and gadgets, put it in park, and applied the parking break before charging it? Had I left something on? he asked.
“Maybe I left the car on,” I confessed. “Because it’s so quiet, I can’t tell if it’s on or off.”
Turns out, it’s impossible to leave the car on while charging it. I get a message on my dashboard that tells me to unplug the charger.
Ayman assured me the car was likely fine, and recommended that I take my e-Golf to a public charging station and see if it had charged. And he made an appointment — in about four days — for me to have a VW e-Golf expert take a look at the car.
See Part 1 of Lisa Cohn’s Confessions of an EV Owner.
And so Day Two became an adventurous journey to locate and experiment with the public charging stations near my home. I live close to downtown in Portland. According to my handy iPhone charging apps, the closest public charging stations are the BMW dealer 1.08 miles from my house, a Level 2 ChargePoint station that provides free charges, and the Fred Meyer grocery store 1.8 miles away, which is provided by Blink and is not free. In fact, I soon learned that my charging options include:
- Free charges from ChargePoint
- Charges from Blink stations for 39 cents/kWh, which is a member price lower than other rates and is adjusted to reflect local utility rates
- About 4 cents/kWh from my utility, Portland General Electric, between the hours of 10 pm and 6 am if I charge at home and opt for time-of-use rates. Time of use rates basically reward EV owners for charging during the utility’s off-peak hours.
All these options are available, I learned in an interview with Anne Smart, director of government relations and regulatory affairs for ChargePoint, due to a new Oregon law that includes provisions that protect competition among providers. I also discovered that I’m fortunate to be an EV owner in Oregon; in some regions of the country, utilities are trying to fight competition. In fact, in California, the Electric Vehicle Charging Association is fighting efforts by PG&E to limit competition and set high charging prices, says Damon Conklin, spokesman for the association.
So, here in Oregon, competition allowed for all these different options from charging companies. Better yet, my e-Golf could be programmed to charge between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m., when power is cheapest. But how did I go about charging my car in public stations?
Still worried that my car might have a problem that would cause it to discharge all of its precious battery power and stall, say, in front of the trailer of a film crew shooting the Grimm TV series, I announced my battery-saving plan for the day: I banned the use of energy-consuming heating (even though it was a chilly 55 degrees), and prohibited the use of lights and cell phone chargers.
In fact, noting that the car automatically sets the interior temperature at a comfortable 72 degrees, I began each trip by dialing the temperature gauge to 60 to preserve my battery power.
Meanwhile, I kept my eye trained on the dashboard’s range meter in ways that might brand me a dangerous driver.
When I left my driveway, my range meter estimated that I had a range of about 60 miles. Cruising up a hill on the way to the BMW dealership drained it down to 47 miles within a minute, prompting me to further endanger myself by reaching for a TUMs to calm my stomach butterflies.
Then I descended the steep hill toward the BMW dealership, braking as often as possible to recharge the battery, and was suddenly gifted a range of 77 miles.
Aha! I told myself: Maybe barreling down hills while applying the brake every few seconds is the secret to keeping my car charged!
“Mom, I’m getting carsick,” my son complained.
When we reached the BMW dealership, the location of the charging station was not obvious. That’s one important way that owning an EV differs from owning a gas-fueled car. Instead of searching for brightly lit, smelly gasoline stations by the side of the road, EV owners — at least in Portland — sometimes must pull out their binoculars and check in bushes tucked in the corners of car dealerships and libraries.
After asking for help, I drove up a two-unit charging station hidden in a corner of the lot. I already knew that one of the units was free; my app gave me that information.
Here’s what the ChargePoint app tells me:
- The location of nearby ChargePoint stations
- What type of charge is available at each unit: Level One or Level Two, for example. (Fast charge stations are also available).
- Whether the unit or units are available or occupied
When I got out of my car and was met by a few friendly BMW mechanics, I was quite puzzled. Wouldn’t BMW get priority access to these free charging stations? Would it be okay to leave my car here for a few hours to charge it, given that it’s located on the property of a private company (as opposed, to, say, a science museum, where there are also stations available)? Would there soon be waiting lines for these free stations? And how was I going to get home and back, given that it would take a few hours to charge my car?
More immediately, how should I use the station, which looked like a space-age gas pump?
Turns out, using a public charging station is pretty simple, once you get the hang of it. In this case, I used a ChargePoint card —much like a credit card — to gain access to the electricity. Then, I simply picked up the pump and inserted it in the charging port. Of course, given that I was sure that my car’s battery had powered my lights and toaster oven the night before, I asked the mechanics to assure me I was doing this correctly and it was indeed charging.
A number of obvious clues reminded me I had gotten the hang of it: A display in the middle of my dashboard popped up, telling me it would take four hours to charge the car. A light on the charge port of my car turned green. And most importantly, the BMW mechanics promised me the e-Golf was charging! And they told me I could leave my car there for as many hours as it needed to be charged.
But the best part of the experience: Rather than cruising into a gas station and becoming overwhelmed by the smell of oil and grease, I was loitering by a stand of trees chatting with two mechanics eager to learn all about my car.
The good news is, the car was charging. The bad news: What were me and my son going to do while it was charging? Should I call a gas-guzzling taxi to pick us up, then ask a family member to spew a few more greenhouse gas emissions and drive us back in a few hours?
I reminded myself that I was just getting the hang of this new technology. Soon, I was sure, I’d be part of the new age of distributed energy, and I’d be feeding electricity from my car’s battery into the utility’s grid when the utility needed power. This may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but may happen someday.
Already electric vehicles are being used in cutting-edge pilot programs. In one pilot project, PG&E has partnered with BMW to test the ability of EV owners to respond to demand response requests. That means that when the utility is facing periods of high demand, owners of BMW i3 EVs are asked to stop charging.
The goal, in part, is to test how owners of EVs like me will respond to requests to curtail their charging.
But for now, my car was charging and my son was hungry for lunch.
TO BE CONTINUED