The Charging Conundrum: How to Feed Electric Cars?

Here in the U.S., plug-in electric cars are now in showrooms and on the highways. What’s missing, though, is a convenient way to refuel those cars with electricity.

Nissan-LeafThe electric car is no longer just a project for smarty-pants MIT students. Here in the U.S., plug-in electric cars are now in showrooms and on the highways. What’s missing, though, is a convenient way to refuel those cars with electricity.

That’s what Russell Rankin has discovered. Rankin is an enthusiastic entrepreneur who has 13 electric vehicles charging up at the back of the Loews Hotel in Annapolis, Md. They’re not quite cars, but they’re more than golf carts — three rows of two seats, open on the sides, about 12 feet long.

“Everybody kind of calls it a golf cart on steroids,” says Rankin. “Or maybe something you’d see at Disney or something like that. It has a big bubble roof on it — it’s very futuristic looking.”

The vehicles are made by Global Electric Motorcars, owned by Chrysler. Rankin’s company, eCruisers, uses them to squire people around the city for free. Advertising on the cars pays the

After about 30 miles, the cars come back to recharge.

“Our vehicles just run off a regular household outlet,” Rankin says. “We have a regular three-pronged plug that you’d have on any household appliance.”

So that part is easy. The hard part is keeping cars charged when they’re needed.

“We still gotta play a big cat-and-mouse game all day,” he says. “How many vehicles do you have out? What is the current charge? How many electrical outlets do we have that we can charge off of, because if I’ve got 13 vehicles but I haven’t got 13 plugs, then I can’t charge them all up as they come in and go out.”

And Rankin’s vehicles sometimes run out of power away from the charging station. “We know where every outlet is in three states and the District of Columbia.”

That in a nutshell is the challenge of electric cars: You need a reliable and widespread source of electrons. That puts pressure on the electricity grid, the power plants and wires, and substations that move electricity.

Take transformers, for example — the metal cylinders high up on telephone poles. They convert high voltage to the 120 volts you use in your home.

What happens if you plug in a bunch of hungry electric cars in a neighborhood?

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Source: Christopher Joyce | NPR
Photo: Nissan USA