Firsthand lessons on public charging for EVs

Washington, D.C., is well-situated for day trips with mountains, forests, beach and bay all a short drive away. On a recent weekend, I was lucky enough to tool around in style. BMW lent me their new electric car – the i3 – and asked that I race it around the DC metro region. (Or perhaps that’s just how I heard them.)

The car handles beautifully the way you’d expect a BMW to, and proves there’s no performance tradeoff by going with an electric vehicle (EV). For most drivers, EVs like the i3 can accommodate daily driving needs. The average American only travels 30 miles per day. In particular, EVs are well suited for commuting because a driver can charge at home or the workplace. But day-tripping with an EV can take more planning and I learned firsthand that a robust public charging network is essential if EVs are to make more headway in the marketplace.

At C2ES, we often cite the importance of public charging stations to extend the range of EVs and give drivers confidence that an EV is a practical replacement for their conventional car. To allow EV drivers to travel as they would with a gasoline car, quick charging stations are needed along major roadways. Multiple, slower charging stations (referred to as Level 2) should be at key destinations to provide redundancy in case stations are in use or down for maintenance. Those are some of the conclusions of our new paper assessing the public charging infrastructure in Washington state and the same can be said of Washington, D.C.

My trips were limited by two factors. First, I had no access to home charging since I park on the street, so I couldn’t start my trip with a full charge. Second, the i3 can travel 80-100 miles on a single charge, so I would need to charge during my trip. Since no provider has installed quick chargers that support the i3, I had to rely on Level 2 charging stations, which provide about 20 miles of range per hour of charging.

I relied on ChargePoint’s smartphone app for a map of all area charging stations, even those not on ChargePoint’s network. I easily found a hiking spot with charging nearby and headed to Prince William Forest Park. (Request to Catoctin Mountain Park: Please install a charging station.) The 75-mile trip was a straight shot down Interstate 95. The park did not have a charging station, although the ranger told me he’d love to see one there and said he’d try to push for it.

Since I needed to charge for about an hour to get home, I used ChargePoint’s app to find a spot along the way at the Kohl’s in Woodbridge, Virginia. Many retail locations are installing charging stations to attract EV drivers and spur new business. Although the charging experience was great – I did some shopping and grabbed a bite to eat — I have to admit I was nervous as I arrived at Kohl’s with only about 10 miles of range left. If the station had been occupied or unavailable, I might have been stuck.

On my second trip of the weekend, I headed to Annapolis to check out the U.S. Naval Academy (worth going if you haven’t been). Once again, ChargePoint’s app helped me find a charging station at a public garage, right near the Maryland State House. About an hour into the charge, I received an email from the charging station telling me there was a ground fault! The charging stopped and I headed back to the car to see what was going on. There was no other station in the garage for me to use, but luckily, one hour of juice was all I needed.

My experience with the i3 offers some real-life lessons about what’s needed for EVs in the near term. The cars are great, and they can accommodate the daily driving needs of most people. A lack of public charging infrastructure, however, limits how far EV drivers can travel. The availability of charging at key destinations and along major roadways is essential to a successful EV market.