Electric Cars are Coming, But Where are the Fast Chargers?

In the brave new world of electric cars, charging is perhaps the most critical element of the equation. For early adopters, almost all of it will be done from the comfort of your own garage in the wee hours of the morning, and it will take no more effort than plugging in your cell phone at night.

But when it comes to “fast charging” while on the road, the charging world gets more than a little murky.

EV Charging Primer

In the U.S., the National Electric Code (NEC) specifies that there are three levels of EV charging:

  • Level 1: Your standard 3-prong, 110 Volt/15 Amp outlet/plug combo as governed by the National Electric Manufacturers Association (NEMA) standards.
    • They put out about 1 kilowatt of electricity, give or take depending on your circuit breaker and your power company.
    • If you do the math, it could take you a full day to fill up that 24 kWh Nissan LEAF battery from your standard wall outlet.
  • Level 2: A much quicker charge than Level 1, rated up to 240 Volts and 60 Amps using a specially designed outlet/plug combo as governed by the newly minted Society for Automotive Engineers (SAE) J-1772 standard.
    • All electric cars reaching the market at the end of this year will include this plug/outlet.
    • Although the J-1772 standard can deliver 14.4 kW of electricity, most installations will be rated far lower than that — probably around 6 kilowatts.
    • With that in mind, a Nissan LEAF battery could be charged from empty to full in 4 hours, however Nissan is saying it will take 8, presumably to extend the useful life of the battery (a slower charge means longer life).
  • Level 3: The ultimate in charge technology, but nobody has yet really settled on a standard, leaving manufacturers of cars and charging equipment to come up with their own.
    • Although you’ll find many people on the internet claiming that Level 3 charging involves “such-and-such” Voltage and “so-and-so” Amperage, the fact of the matter is that this type of charging is defined as any charging above 14.4 kilowatts.
    • The SAE says they will finalize a standard within the next few years, but that doesn’t help the manufacturers that are preparing EVs for sale before then.
    • All around the globe, would-be Level 3 charge station manufacturers are angling to market their own devices.
    • Most Level 3 stations are considered “fast chargers,” but they don’t have to be. The conventional wisdom is that if an average EV battery can be charged to full in about a half hour, then it is a fast charge.

You can also use the J-1772 plug associated with Level 2 charging to deliver Level 1 charge currents. In fact, Nissan will be including a cord with a J-1772 plug on one end and a NEMA Level 1 plug on the other, which you will be able to use for emergency charging while on the road.

Most early adopter garage chargers will use a freshly installed Level 2 charging station with a dedicated circuit. Nissan says these chargers will cost an average of about $2,200 to install, but there’s a 50% federal tax credit available and many states are also offering their own incentives.

What Kind of Level 3 Charging Options are Out There Already? Will My New EV be Able to Use Them?

The vast majority of public and private charge stations that are on the books to be installed in the next few years will be of the Level 2 type, suitable for stopping at the market for a couple hours and adding on an additional 20-40 miles of range. But when you’re in a hurry and are trying to go more than 100 miles, Level 2 just won’t cut it. However, since Level 3 has no set standard at this point, potential charge station installers are resistant to invest in any of them.

Even so, given the lack of movement on the SAE’s part, the Japanese CHAdeMO (Charge Then Move) Level 3 standard seems to be what most manufacturers are coalescing around. CHAdeMO is the result of an association between Nissan, Mitsubishi, Subaru and the Tokyo Electric Power Company (TEPCO). U.S. company Aker Wade, has also recently joined the CHAdeMO bandwagon along with Coulomb Technologies, the pre-eminent manufacturer of EV charge stations in the U.S. CHAdeMO is a 3 phase, DC system that can output between 10 and 100 kilowatts of power per hour, but should average about 50. That’s good enough to get a LEAF battery almost full in a half hour.

Nissan has developed their own CHAdeMO type Level 3 stations that they plan on installing at 200 select dealers around Japan prior to the LEAF launch. Nissan says those chargers should cost no more than about $17,000, which beats the pants off of previous estimates for Level 3 chargers of between $50,000 and $150,000. At $17,000, a municipality could afford to buy dozens of them and place them strategically around the city and private investors could quickly build out their own charging empires.

Just recently, the city of Vacaville, CA, (also known as ‘voltageville’ due to the high number of charge stations there) installed the first Level 3 CHAdeMO type charger in the US. Even though the SAE has not yet settled on a standard, Nissan, Mitsubishi, utilities, and other carmakers have come up with their own standard plugs to be used for Level 3 charging. Although the Nissan LEAF won’t have a Level 3 plug as a standard option, customers will be able to have them installed at a later date.


Nick Chambers

Not your traditional car guy.