Charging Up(time)

Time is on my side.  Yes it is.  Credit: Dirk Ingo Franke

Time is on my side. Yes it is. Credit: Dirk Ingo Franke

Let’s see… we’re on Myth #5: ‘You’ll be stranded in the next blackout.’  Wanna bet me?  In an outage, I have Plans B, C, D, and E, and more:

Plan B is to do… nothing at all different, since a charge is good for days of my usage.  Not only can I skip a night’s charging, I can skip two, and a third if I feel lucky.  In my area, power outages are from lines knocked out by tree limbs; repairing these is a day or two.  I win.  There are also multiple groceries along the way, so I need no extra power to grab some old frozen food.  And my commute is average; I hear of Nissan Leaf owners who realize they, too can skip a night, once they settle into a routine and become comfortable with the pack’s capabilities.  Tesla owners obviously become comfortable with their enormous packs.

Plan C is to charge the EV at my employer’s in a prolonged blackout.  Tom Moloughney used this strategy to run his BMW ActiveE and others after Hurricane Sandy; he had installed multiple J1772s at his restaurant, which was still running after his house connection was knocked out.  My company has multiple generators present, which I hear on summer afternoons.  Not only does my employer intend to stay up most of the time, but generators offset our maximum summer usage.  This “peak shaving” reduces the demand charges levied by the utility for short, massive draws, and the generators might pay for themselves.  Since generators need to be fired up regularly as preventive maintenance, an owner of an efficient generator might as well include summer afternoons, and reduce demand charges and grid strain.  The occasional downed power line is then no big deal.

And by the way, charging electric vehicles won’t bring down the company circuits.  My motorcycle draws more than our small printer, but less than the big printer or copier, and much less than our commercial-sized coffee maker.  It’s not an apples-to-apples comparison, of course.  EV charging at Level 1 is a constant, flat load, while printers and copiers are variable, and the coffee maker has one or two big peaks per day.  Still, I don’t need a full charge per day; one hour plugged in keeps my pack sustainable.  That, then, is about the same total energy as the coffee maker.

The number of people plugging in vehicles would have to be far greater than it is now to strain the system.  Particularly since a good fraction are buying the Chevy Volt PHEV, which simply fires up its gasser if charging is unavailable.  The Toyota, Ford, and Honda PHEVs are similar; for 2014, BMW’s i3 will come in both pure EV and gasser-backup versions.

Plan D is to charge at public sites or friends’ houses in other neighborhoods.  As I mentioned, outages are due to tree limbs, and are the size of a few blocks to one square mile.  The obvious next step, then, is to go a few blocks, up to one mile- particularly if that other neighborhood has few trees, or buried power lines, or both.  I could push the bike that far if I, somehow, ran out.  Yes, there are public sites, and if I have to use a friend’s outlet, I’d toss them a quarter or two for the electricity.  Or get them a coffee.  Again, I wouldn’t need to charge the day after an outage, or the next day, either.

This strategy is valid because the high-tension wires, delivering regional power to substations, are all well-trimmed of branches.  Lower-voltage lines from the substations may be on utility poles, or buried.  Only at my medium-density neighborhood do the lines all become aboveground.  The random fall of a tree, then, doesn’t wipe out the entire system.  Even then, some locations (like my employer and others) can remain “islands” of electricity, set up for just such a case.  This was Tom Moloughney’s case, again: random areas of New Jersey did or did not lose power, when their power lines did or did not take random tree falls.  His home did, his workplace didn’t.

Plan E is to tap into a generator at a neighbor’s or coworker’s place.  Trees in my neighborhood fall often enough that more than a few have generators.  I also know more than a few coworkers have taken the plunge.  Again, I would only need an hour or two to bring me back to positive territory, and score a day or two’s riding.  Again, this is about a quarter’s worth of electricity, or more in generator fuel.

You may be thinking that Plan F is solar panels.  Unfortunately, EV charging via solar panels should be Plan A, not B or more.  Solar installers usually sell you “grid tied” systems, not “standalone” ones.  Grid-tied systems are designed to supplement utility AC power, not replace it.  For AC, the systems have inverters, which turn the panels’ DC power into something compatible with the grid.  Pretty much all appliances these days run on AC, not DC; the primary users of DC are small gadgets, possibly up to laptops, which are dwarfed by the appliances.  Without incoming AC, an inverter can’t sync its frequency.  In a power outage, you’d have to reconfigure the system, if it wasn’t a standalone to begin with.  There are still ways to rig a grid-tied system to deliver standalone power in a blackout, which I’m looking into.  Tom Moloughney has solar panels, but he also has a natural-gas generator at his house, which is how he regained home power after the Hurricane.

I’m not thinking Plan G should be my own generator, either.  I’m okay with letting the few perishables in my fridge go bad, and I don’t need to run a well pump or any medical aids.  Once you accept those conditions, the need for your own generator boils down to convenience, and I’ve lived without air conditioning before.  I know I won’t melt, so it’s hard to justify buying a generator that might only be used once or twice a year anyway.

The cost of a nice generator will now get you a few bare solar panels anyway (before inverters, roof installation, breaker hookup, etc.).  If I can hold out another year or two, solar panels should be the clear winner, since they would also run the rest of the year too.  Solar panels would actually make sense now, but I have just enough shade across the property to cut into the total output.  Prices must keep falling (or, trees) before I reach my site’s breakeven point.  These trees also make a small wind turbine impractical.  Small turbines are less efficient than large ones, yet have the same number of parts.  There’s very little justification for personal turbines, unless you happen to live on brutally-windy property.  In the near future, combined heater/generators (“cogeneration”) might make more sense at the homeowner level, justifying themselves all year instead of emergencies only.  Large sites have been installing cogeneration for years now.  As prices fall, they will make sense for smaller and smaller sites, then finally single-family homes.

Oh, and there are also Plans H and I: taking the bus to work, or my bicycle.  I had the sense to get a place close to work, not close to nothing.  That also puts me close to shopping, medical clinics, etc.  Note that I don’t count Plan J, a second motor vehicle in a multi-vehicle household, since I don’t need one and didn’t spend the extra money.

And there you go- Plans B through I/J, some better than others but all possible today.  The ones after Plan B are quite viable because lithium batteries don’t lose much charge just sitting there- low “self discharge.”  This winter I sat for weeks, without much battery loss.  Those who have convinced themselves ‘You’ll get stranded!!!’ don’t know much.  Then again, if you’re an EV enthusiast, chances are you know much more.  Like, for instance, that gas stations use electric pumps, and most couldn’t sell you fuel after Hurricane Sandy even if they had any.  Who’ll get stranded???

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4 thoughts on “Charging Up(time)

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