Superstorm Sandy highlights Achilles' heel of electric cars

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Published November 05, 2012

| FoxNews.com

The debate about the value of electric cars just got another jolt.

In the aftermath of superstorm Sandy, unprepared electic vehicle owners in the Northeast were out of luck. With power grids and public charging stations down there was, and in some places still is no way to get energy into their cars.

According to automotive analyst Thilo Koslowski, the storm has revealed the one major vulnerability with electric cars: that a backup infrastructure is almost non-existent.

“If the outages continue, this will negatively impact consumer interest,” he told FoxNews.com. “We will need to address the issue of electricity shortages if we want to have a growing share of EVs.”

Technology analyst Rob Enderle agrees that the infrastructure problem with EVs is being called into question in the wake of the storm. Early funding for the EV infrastructure has focused on building charging stations at malls and offices, not on disaster-proofing them. If the grid goes dark, he says, there’s no back-up battery storage to keep your EV running.

ChargePoint, which runs one of the largest public charge station networks in the area affected by Sandy did not respond to requests from FoxNews.com to discuss it's contingency plans.

“EVs need infrastructure and low cost batteries to survive -- and they have neither,” he says. “We need some strong advancements in energy storage or generation to truly make electric competitive.”

The automakers themselves are looking for answers, as well.

“As more pure EVs hit the market, consumers will demand solutions to these types of dilemmas and the industry will have to respond,” says Jana Hartline, an environmental manager at Toyota.

Of course, home owners can turn to a backup generator, but even the most powerful units typically provide only 110-volt power instead of the 220-volts needed for a speedy charge.

According to Sarah Pines, a spokesperson for American Honda Corporation, a backup generator can charge an EV with 110-volts, but it will take about 10-15 hours. While that may be an option in an emergency, the environmental benefit is lost since high-end generators often use a four-cylinder gasoline or natural gas-powered engine that’s pretty much the same as the ones used in conventional cars.

Koslowski says the small backup generator approach to charging an EV is also questionable because gasoline stations rely on electricity for the pumps to work, so if the EV owner can't obtain the fuel for their generator, there is no way to charge their car. But built-in natural gas systems don’t have this issue, giving a potential edge to EVs in widespread emergencies.

That said, several companies are working on big picture solutions.

Enderle says some automakers are already adding faster charging systems to their cars. The 2013 Ford Focus Electric, for example, can re-charge in about 3-4 hours on a 220-volt outlet compared to twice that for the Nissan Leaf, allowing it to at least be charged up in a shorter window before a storm hits.

Koslowski mentions an unusual benefit in this scenario. After the Japan earthquake and tsunami in 2011, a few home-owners in Tōhoku used their EV battery to power home appliances. Owners in this situation need to make a choice between going to Starbucks or making their coffee at home, but the potential for the car to act as a backup power supply exists.

Another bright spot on the horizon comes from Tesla which recently built six solar-powered supercharging stations in California that are compatible with its own cars. According to company, the stations generate more power from solar energy over a year than Tesla owners consume, feeding the excess into the grid, although also relying on it during times of heavy usage.

But the DOMOCELL test project in Spain is addressing the problem head-on. An intelligent management system developed by Neoris can monitor the grid in real-time, analyze usage patterns for EV owners, and then intelligently adjust the overall usage patterns at charge stations. In a disaster, a system like this could make sure the infrastructure is still available for at least a minimal EV charge, which would be especially useful if the charging stations also had back-up electric storage on site.fun

“The technology surrounding EVs is said to have failed and enthusiasm wanes from consumers, but in reality it’s just easier to fill up on gas. There has to be infrastructure, incentives and benefits to change the mindset of an entire society,” says Manuel España, a telecom director at Neoris.

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