If you’re thinking of buying a new car, you owe it to yourself and every other living thing on the planet to at least consider going electric. I bought a fully electric car six months ago and have no
Larry Magid (Gary Reyes / Mercury News)
regrets. Even though my car has a shorter range (264 miles) than most gas powered cars, I’ve had no problems keeping it charged locally or on road trips, such as the one I took this week to Reno to visit Tesla’s giant “Gigafactory” that makes the batteries that power my Model 3.
Electric cars are often faster and have a lot more pickup than most gasoline cars. They’re also quieter and are often packed with state-of-the-art technology. Most important, they have no emissions and don’t use fossil fuels. Anything that’s manufactured or requires energy has some environmental impact, but electric vehicles are much less harmful to the environment than those powered by gas or diesel fuel. There are environmental arguments for keeping whatever car you have for as long as possible, but if you need a new car, electric is not only much better for the environment but perhaps just as affordable when you factor in possible tax credits and subsidies and lower fuel and maintenance costs.
Charging getting easier
Tesla makes it easy to charge on road trips. It has more than 1,400 Supercharger stations in the U.S. Often you can add enough power to your vehicle to go on with your trip in as little as 15 minutes. I’ve never had to charge for more than 40 minutes and Superchargers are almost always near places to eat.
While no other car company yet has its own extensive charging network, there are several companies that provide public chargers that any electric car owner can use. The biggest of these networks is run by ChargePoint, a Campbell-based company whose CEO, Pasquale Romano, refers to his company as “the platform provider” that offers both the charging hardware and the online infrastructure to manage and monitor charging. ChargePoint makes home charging units that start at about $550 as well as a large network of chargers owned and operated by businesses and municipalities for the benefit of employees or the public.
Anyone who owns one of these public chargers can set their own rules and prices. Many are owned by companies and are free to use by employees and visitors. A few weeks ago I charged my car for free while I was visiting Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino and likewise at Facebook in Menlo Park, but I had to pay 23 cents a kilowatt hour (about six cents a mile) to use the ChargePoint charger at the Mitchell Park Library in Palo Alto. I know of one church that offers free charging, truly bringing a greater power to its parishioner
The ChargePoint smartphone app manages usage including unlocking the cable and billing at public chargers that charge a fee and monitoring your use of a ChargePoint home charger.
In an interview, Romano acknowledge that “Tesla is ahead in a coordinated deployment” of chargers but that the networks of third-party public chargers are growing rapidly along with both in-car and smartphone apps that enable users to easily find these chargers. Last week, ChargePoint announced an alliance with another large charging network, Electrify America, to “connect more than 30,000″ chargers from both companies, “to make it easier for drivers of any electric vehicle to find and use public chargers. Tesla’s in-car display makes it easy to find its SuperChargers, but Romano said that other car manufacturers will be offering similar technology to locate chargers on ChargePoint and other public networks.
The growth of these third-party networks should make it a lot easier for drivers of any model electric cars to confidently embark on road trips without having to worry about being stranded. When it comes to daily commutes, most people charge overnight at home and many also use Chargepoint or other shared chargers to top-off at work.
Building batteries in Nevada desert
Of course, these electric cars wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for batteries. And one of Tesla’s biggest challenges is to make enough batteries to serve what it hopes will be a surge in demand for its cars. To that end, the company invested billions in its Gigafactory in the desert near Reno and is building a similar facility in China.
I drove my Tesla Model 3 to the Gigafactory on Wednesday. On the 23-mile stretch from Reno to the facility on Electric Avenue in Sparks, I mostly saw sand and sage brush along the highway. I got there a little early and had hoped to grab a good cup of coffee ahead of my visit, but this place is fairly isolated with a scant but rapidly growing number of nearby businesses, I had to settle on a Subway sandwich shop with a Keurig machine but I bet there will soon be a Starbucks and the usual fast-food places.
The factory itself is a 1.9-million-square-foot building with 5.3 million square feet of operational space across three floors. The building is used by both Tesla and Panasonic. Tesla has 7,000 employees and Panasonic 3,000, but those numbers can go up or down, depending on production needs. Tesla Vice President Chis Lister, who manages the plant, told me that the building is only 30% complete. When it’s fully expanded, it will have a larger footprint than any other building in the world. I was given a tour of both the factory and the grounds. I incorrectly assumed the outside tour would by on foot, but – because of its massive size, I was driven around in a van and even that took a while.
Before the expansion, the factory is huge in both size and output. In November, Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted “Together with Panasonic Japan cell plants, Tesla/Panasonic partnership is producing 60% of global EV battery output!”
Batteries made of cells
Tesla makes the final batteries, but Panasonic makes the cells that provide the power. The assembled Model 3 battery is a relatively flat rectangle that stretches roughly from the backseat to the front of the car, mounted on the car’s undercarriage. It weighs about 1,000 pounds, which, according to Lister, provides a low center of gravity, which adds to the safety of the car.
The cells look like and are a bit larger than AA batteries. Depending on the car’s intended range between about 3,500 and 4,500 of these cells are sandwiched between cooling tubes and packed into a metal casing. The Panasonic cell plant is in the same massive building as the Tesla battery factory, to minimize the time and energy it takes to move the batteries between facilities. The plant has multiple levels of energy efficiency, including starting production on the top floor so the elevators need less power to bring their loads down to lower floors and, finally, out the door to a massive fleet of trucks that transport the batteries to Tesla’s car factory in Fremont.
Tesla doesn’t just make cars. It’s also in the solar energy business and it offers customers a “Power Wall” to store the energy produced by the sun so they can use it to power their homes and charge their cars at night. These Power Walls have similar battery packs as the cars, and they, too, are made at the Gigafactory. The factory also produces the electric motors, (Tesla calls them “drive units”) which are the equivalent to the engines in gasoline cars, only much smaller (about the size of a large watermelon), lighter and with far fewer moving parts and virtually no maintenance.
Even before my back-to-back visits to ChargePoint and the Gigafactory, I was sold on electric cars. But after learning a lot more about how batteries are made and how it is increasingly easy to charge them, I’m even more bullish, not just for Tesla but for all the automakers who are smart enough to wean themselves and their customers from fossil fuels toward the use of increasingly renewable electricity.
You can hear the interviews with Tesla’s VP Chris Lister and ChargePoint CEO Pasquale Romano at Larrysworld.com.
Larry Magid is a tech journalist and internet safety activist.