A view of the world from my own unique perspective

I’ve been sitting on this idea for a few months now; I was waiting for electric cars to become a little more popular before adding this entry to my blog. However, a couple of weeks ago I saw a news story about electric cars that dealt with a similar problem, and realized that it’s time to start thinking about this issue.

In this news item, the board members of an Ottawa condominium were annoyed because a tenant had purchased an electric car and was now charging it each night, using the electrical outlet located in the parking garage next to his spot. In this building, the unit owners pay for their own hydro, but the outlets in the parking garage are not monitored and can be used freely. The condo board’s position is that each owner pays for their vehicle’s fuel, and they don’t feel that this resident should receive his “gas” for free, with the cost being absorbed by the other residents since the parking garage’s electricity is considered a “common element”.

Having read this far, I was initially on the side of the condo board. This resident was using more than his share of electricity and increasing the building’s total electricity bill. However, there was more to this article and there is also more to this nascent issue.

As electric cars continue to become more popular, it won’t be long before someone you know owns one – a friend or even your next-door neighbour. Let’s look at your neighbours first – how might electric car ownership affect your relationship with them?

At first I had visions of unscrupulous neighbours operating under the cover of darkness, clandestinely snaking an extension cord from their house to yours, in order to recharge their cars overnight. While you both slept, your neighbour was getting a warm fuzzy feeling because he was reducing his carbon footprint and doing his part to save the planet. However, after further contemplation, I realized that my fears were likely unfounded. People who buy electric cars are a special breed – they care deeply about the environment and are willing to pay a premium for a car that underperforms cars with internal-combustion engines. These are benevolent outward-looking individuals, and are not the type to stoop to petty thievery.

Now, what about your friends? As more and more of your friends hop on the emission-free bandwagon, the following scenario will likely happen to you in the not-too-distant future: You are having a few guests over to your house, perhaps to watch a movie or a sporting event, or to enjoy a meal. One of your friends asks you if he can “top up” his electric car while it sits in your driveway. How would you respond? Your friends are good, decent people and are not freeloaders – they would never ask you for free gas to top up their tank, but since electricity isn’t tangible, and since nothing physically changes hands, I suspect that they wouldn’t be as reluctant. I imagine that most would offer to give you a some money, in the same way that we would (years ago, before long-distance was cheap and cell phones became ubiquitous) offer our host some money if we needed to make a long-distance phone call. Most would, but what if your guest doesn’t?

My first reaction was similar to that of the Ottawa condo board: I’m not going to pay for you to refuel your car! What kind of twisted sense of entitlement do you possess that you consider your car’s fuel – be it gasoline or electricity – to be my burden?

This, of course, was my knee-jerk response, and after a few minutes I began to chastise myself for having such harsh, unsympathetic thoughts. Other people react, but not I – I’m different. I think, consider, evaluate and analyze. This gut reaction was likely caused by my internalized notion that gas is expensive – the current cost of filling up your car’s gas tank is about $70-110 – therefore, by extension, automobile fuel in general is expensive. I mustn’t allow my thinking to fall prey to stimulus generalization – it was time to examine this methodically and unemotionally,

What does it actually cost to top up an electric car? How much of an imposition is a request like this? Is this too much for an acquaintance – or even a friend – to ask? Is an offer of compensation necessary?

First of all, how much does electricity cost? The calculation is not as simple as it used to be, since Ontario’s Hydro One switched to time-of-use billing, but it’s still pretty straight-forward. A 24-hour day is divided into three periods – off-peak, mid-peak and peak – and we pay different rates for electricity, depending on when we use it. In the list below, the abbreviation kWh means kilowatt hour, and it represents 1,000 watts of electricity being consumed for a period of one hour. A 1000-watt hair dryer used for one hour or a 100-watt light bulb burning for ten hours will each use 1 kWh. The following electricity rates were (pardon the pun) current at the time of this writing (February 2012).

Off-peak: 6.2¢/kWh 7:00pm - 7:00am  
Mid-peak: 9.2¢/kWh 5:00pm - 7:00pm and 7:00am - 11:00am  
Peak: 10.8¢/kWh 11:00am - 5:00pm  

Next, how much electricity is required to charge an electric car? According to the Wikipedia entry on the Chevrolet Volt, its battery has a capacity of 16kWh. Therefore, a full charge would cost between $1.01 and $1.73, depending on the time of day.

A standard 120-volt AC household outlet can provide up to 15 amps or about 1800 watts (15 amps * 120 volts) of power. Let’s assume that an electric car will use every bit of power that a standard outlet can provide: 1800 watts, or  1.8 kilowatts. If an electric car is plugged in for an hour, it will use 1.8 kWh. Depending on the time of day, 1.8 kWh will cost either 11.16¢, 16.56¢ or 19.44¢.

As it turns out, your friend’s request to “top up” the electric car – even during peak usage times – will cost you less than twenty cents per hour. If your friends are over during the evening (the off-peak time) the price drops to 11¢ an hour.

Which brings us back to the article about the Ottawa condo board. Presumably, the condo residents are allowed to use the garage outlets to plug in block heaters (which use between 300 and 800 watts, depending on the model), and this electricity use is not monitored or regulated. Charging an electric car overnight will use electricity during the off-peak period. A battery capacity of 16kWh multiplied by the off-peak rate of 6.2¢/kWh equals 99.2¢ – and that’s assuming that the battery is completely drained each night. The maximum amount of power any resident could use to charge an electric car is $30 per month. Therefore the solution seems simple – bill residents with electric cars an additional $30 per month to use the outlets in the parking garage. The resident claimed that he used about $25 worth of electricity each month, and as a gesture of good faith, offered to give the condominium corporation an extra $50 per month. They refused his offer, and stated that he was not allowed to charge his car in the parking garage. This strikes me as a remarkably myopic and possibly technophobic decision – I suspect we’ll be hearing more about this issue in the future.

If the condo board doesn’t have a firm grasp of the issue and the numbers, then it’s possible that ordinary citizens may also succumb to the same knee-jerk reaction I had, and overestimate the cost of charging an electric car. Let’s ensure that this doesn’t become a tempest in a teapot. In my opinion, a friend asking his host for permission to “top- up” his electric car’s battery is a negligible request. If you have no qualms about buying a bottle of wine (or a case of beer) and some snacks for your house guests, then you’ve already spent 30-40 times what it will cost to charge their electric car’s battery – even if their visit lasts several hours. Personally, I would gladly share my electricity with my environmentally-conscious guests, and when you receive your first request, I encourage you to do the same.


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