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Why Can't California Subsidize 120-Volt Workplace Charging?

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Electric vehicle parking by Flickr user aaron_anderer, used under Creative Commons license

Electric vehicle parking by Flickr user aaron_anderer, used under Creative Commons license

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Most people with electric cars presently charge at home.

And why not? It's where you live, and where your electric car spends the most time stationary. It makes sense to charge there when you're doing things like eating or sleeping.

But some drivers want or need to charge at work, where they spend a lot of time as well. 

And in California today, too few workplaces offer basic 120-Volt charging--in part because state subsidies for electric-car charging facilities ignore it altogether, focusing solely on dedicated 240-Volt Level 2 stations instead.

Far less rewiring

Basic 120-Volt charging is the minimum required to charge an electric car. It's slower than 240-Volt Level 2 charging, but it also largely eliminates the need for rewiring.

At home, it's easy to come by. If you have a garage, there's probably an outlet in there somewhere--making electric car charging a breeze, even if you never take the next step of installing a Level 2 charging station.

While some businesses and workplaces install Level 2 charging stations for employees and customers to use, the cost can seem off-putting.

So 120-Volt charging should be far easier. You just need an outlet somewhere, little different from those inside that power computers, water coolers, and desk fans. It's quick, it's easy, and it's inexpensive.

During an eight- or nine-hour workday, 120-Volt charging can deliver perhaps 25 miles of additional range. it's not a full recharge, but a meaningful amount nevertheless.

Most employees who drive electric cars will be happy to pay a couple of dollars each day for convenient charging at work--many many spend more that than on coffee in the morning.

MORE: Need Electric-Car Charging At Work? Here's How To Get It

So why don't more workplaces offer simple 120-Volt charging?

The whole issue plays vividly on Marc Geller's Plugs and Cars blog.

New boss, no more charging

He describes a San Francisco police officer who owns a Leaf now has to stop to recharge on the way home from work each day.

He was initially allowed to charge at a 120-Volt outlet outside the station house, but a new super officer stopped the practice, and he's now no longer allowed to plug in at work.

The police department wants to install an allocation of Level 2 chargers, but the state's Energy Commission's program requires such stations to be usable by the public.

So an obvious solution would be for the precinct to instal a few cheap, simple 120V outlets in its parking lot.

No subsidies

But, California doesn't subsidize Level 1 charging the way it does Level 2, so the financial incentive for any business to sprout a load of simple 120V charging points is reduced.

Most businesses will follow the subsidies, meaning they'll only provide the quicker, but more expensive Level 2 stations--and fewer of them.

Fewer stations could mean less incentive for other employees to go electric--potentially put off by lack of charging options at work.

And regulations that include Level 1 charging in the grant program might also specify the mandatory use of J-1772 connectors, so the charging-station program was subsidizing outlets for the landscaping crew.

Still, the cost of 120V charging remains much lower than that of Level 2 stations. It's also grid-friendly and, Geller notes, it avoids the Level 2 stations' need for remote energy monitoring, two-way communication, and additional wiring and trenching to connect the station to a 240-Volt power source.

Unless more businesses realize the lower cost of 120V charging--and California's Energy Commission offers incentives to install them for employees--home charging may remain the best option for electric vehicle drivers.

That, or they'll have to charge elsewhere, every day, after work--just like Geller's cop.

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