When I embarked on the Volt press launch, I made a public promise to keep my impressions of the car itself separate from concerns about its overall viability. My review of the Volt is coming on Monday, but a new issue is already raising its head to confront GM’s extended-range electric car. The Volt’s home charger costs $490 on top of the Volt’s $41,000 (pre-tax credit) price, and costs another $1,500 to install. But, according to BNet’s Jim Motavelli, money isn’t the only obstacle to obtaining the home charger that’s necessary to tap the Volt’s 40 miles of electric range. EV advocate and Volt Customer Advisory Board member Chelsea Sexton, of “Who Killed The Electric Car? fame, is one of the first Americans to live with the Volt, and despite enjoying the backing of GM, she’s run into a problem that she and other EV advocates worry will blunt enthusiasm for home-charged EVs like the Volt: she needs a “time of use” meter.
Motavelli explains the conundrum
California puts its electricity users in pricing categories based on their usage patterns. Since Sexton uses a “stunningly low” amount of electricity, she’s on the lowest tier. But the addition of the Volt would push her into a higher bracket, making it likely that EV charging “would be more expensive than putting gas in my Saturn.” With the time-of-use meter, the EV is billed separately and doesn’t count as part of her home use.
But California’s public utilities commission requires all of its customers’ electric meters to be grouped together, and that meant running a one-inch thick metal conduit along the face of her building. The other option is to punch through three neighbors’ walls. “I can just see the homeowners’ association going for that,” she said.
GM and its allied EV advocates never miss an opportunity to tout the low cost of electricity, but in California, rates increase with use. Without a separate meter to break out Volt charges, Sexton would likely end up paying considerably more for electricity, further damaging the Volt’s already-tenuous value proposition. And in order to install a compliant time-of-use meter, many customers may be facing major logistical issues and even more unexpected costs. Sexton herself seems committed to the EV cause, and is willing to sacrifice for it. But she clearly worries about how this charger installation issue will affect the mass market that GM clearly wants to target with its Volt. Sexton tells Motavelli
There’s nothing about my installation that they shouldn’t have seen coming. We could have been resolving this a month ago. And the point is that it happened to me, someone who understands the process as well as anyone, who has access to all the right people, who’s been party to hundreds of installations. So the average person is likely to get incredibly frustrated, and may end up walking away –- unless they’re so enthusiastic that they’ll put up with it.
And Motavelli points out that the problem isn’t limited to Sexton or the Volt, citing the example of Richard Lowenthal, CEO of the home-charger firm Coloumb Industries. Despite his obvious clout and interest in promoting home EV charging, Lowenthal admitted to Motavelli that his MINI E home charger took months to install. Motavelli concludes
I am convinced that none of the relevant parties, including car companies, utilities, state and local officials, have fully thought through the installation of charging infrastructure, including contingency plans for problems like Sexton’s. I’ve become frustrated by the vagueness emanating from parties issuing assurances that all will go smoothly. Frankly, it won’t. And here’s exhibit A.
Sexton is looking into her options, and making an appointment with the neighborhood association. Meanwhile, her garage is staying locked. And the Volt is supposed to be delivered next week.
With misunderstandings and debates over the Volt’s technical details and efficiency measurement already rampant, it’s clear that a mass-market rollout for the Volt is going to face a number of unforeseen challenges, and this charger issue is just another log on the fire. And it points to a larger issue: namely, that people who don’t own their own homes will face numerous challenges installinga home charger, particularly if they’re part of the urban loft-dwelling crowd who might be expected to form the vanguard for EV ownership. Regardless of what the Volt, Leaf, Coda and other EV hopefuls are like as cars, they face the inevitable challenges of changing how consumers interact with their automobiles. And that’s not something that can be fixed simply with education and PR.