Ford's Focus Electric can lower electricity bill, lengthen daily driving range
The Ford Focus Electric, being shown this week at the Detroit Auto Show (NAIAS), offers a combination of faster charging speed, scheduled charging, charging infrastructure partnerships, the partnership with SunPower, combining to drastically lower "fuel" cost and extend effective driving range beyond the EPA range rating based on the battery pack. That was a long sentence, so let's break it down feature by feature.
When Ford talks about a faster charging they're talking about the on-board charging unit compared with the on-board charger of some other electric cars. Ford went with a 6.6 kilowatt charger unlike the 3.3 kilowatt charger some other automakers chose (notably the NIssan Leaf). The higher charging rate does extend your effective daily driving range because each hour of charging at a higher rate gives you more miles of range. It does mean, however, a higher grade electrical service for the charging station because 6.6 kilowatts requires 27 amps at 240 volts (meaning a 30 or 40 amp circuit), while 3.3 kilowatts only requires only 13 amps (a 20 amp circuit). While the Nissan Leaf has a 3.3 kilowatt charger, the Ford Focus Electric is not the only electric car with a 6.6 kilowatt or better charger. This is also true for the Coda Automotive sedan (6.6 kilowatt; see Coda Automotive's excellent electric car value proposition) and the Tesla Model S (10 kilowatt).
Additionally Ford is working on partnerships with large destination shopping places around the country such as Walgreens, Cracker Barrel, Whole Foods, etc to ensure that charging stations are at these stores, so you can charge while shopping, and that the charging stations all offer a 6.6 kilowatt charging rate. This means if you stop at the grocery store for a 1/2 hour shopping trip, because your wife asked you to pick up a few things while on your way home, you gain more miles of range with the 6.6 kilowatt charger than you would with a 3.3 kilowatt charger. That's Ford's story for handling opportunity charging as you drive around, Nissan's story is to point to the CHADEMO charging port that can do an 80% recharge in under 30 minutes that is if there were many CHADEMO charging stations being installed (which there aren't).
To implement the higher charging rate Ford worked with Leviton to develop the higher charge rate charging station, and has partnered with Best Buy to handle charging station installation.
In the myFordTouch implementation on-board the Ford Focus Electric you are able to schedule the time of day to charge the car. You may hear that and wonder, "why"? It has to do with reducing the operational cost of the car by reducing what you pay for the electricity to run the car. There are times of day when the cost for electricity goes to what's technically called "dollar cost negative". This means that customers pay a negative price for electricity, or in other words they are paid to consume electricity during "dollar cost negative" periods. Electricity consumption is extremely low in the wee hours of the morning (hey, we're all asleep) but the design of huge centralized electric power plants are such that they cannot shut off at night, and instead continue generating electricity that goes unused.
What this means is that an electric car owner who ensures the charge their car during low electricity price times of day can save a lot of money. Ford described a cost comparison of several vehicles taking an 80 mile trip. A 40 mile/gallon gasoline car would require 2 gallons of gasoline, at roughly $7 cost (depending on the current gasoline price), the Nissan Leaf requires $2 worth of electricity, but because the Focus Electric can schedule charging times Ford showed a much lower cost. Unfortunately the spokesperson giving the presentation did not name a cost when a Focus Electric owner optimally schedules their charging time.
The actual cost savings would depend on actual night-time off-peak electricity rates, as well as your ability as a retail electricity consumer to get time-of-use metering rates. The electric utilities and utility commissions have been slow to provide time of use metering for electric car owners.
The myFordTouch implementation also serves as a coach helping you learn how to drive more efficiently. For example each time you brake the car pops up a little information window showing how much energy was recaptured, via regenerative braking, that time you stopped. The car also comes with a smart phone application letting the owner remotely monitor the charging process.
We've talked earlier about how electric cars are cheaper to drive (for fuel cost) than gasoline cars because electric cars are more efficient with the on-board energy and require less energy to go the same distance. In this case Ford is talking about an additional way to save money, by buying your electricity at times of day where electricity is extremely cheap.
Another reason to buy electricity at these low cost times of day is that it won't "swamp the electricity grid". Repeated studies over the years by electric utilities have shown the grid is sufficient for 10's of millions of electric cars (or more), if the cars charge at night when there is excess electricity on the grid going unused.
Ford offers an additional way to reduce electric car fuel cost with their "Drive Green For Life" partnership with SunPower. Under that partnership Ford and SunPower have partnered to develop a solar photovoltaic system sized and configured correctly to the power needs of electric cars. Because you don't pay the sun to shine on your solar panels, it means the electricity to power your car is free, right? Not quite, you do have to pay for the solar panels (which aren't free) meaning that you amortize the cost of the solar panels over the time you drive an electric car. Electricity you generate yourself is presumably cheaper than electricity bought from the utility, and as we've already seen it's cheaper than the gasoline to power an equivalent gas car. Hence you'll see significant cost savings paying for the solar panels over time, after which time you really be "driving green" on free electricity from your own solar panels.
What Ford has put together is a combination of features offering ways to reduce electric car operating costs reducing the direct expense of driving around. This does come at the cost of a higher priced car, where the Ford Focus Electric base price is $39k while the gasoline model has a variety of base prices starting at $16k. A potential buyer has to understand more about long term cost of ownership to grasp the possibility of fuel cost savings paying for the higher priced car. Roughly speaking this is a $23k price premium making it tough to save enough on fuel to pay for the premium, if you focus solely on fuel cost savings. It's well understood that prospective electric car owners often look to gain other value than fuel cost savings, because there is that priceless feeling one has driving past gasoline station after gasoline station knowing you don't have to stop there to refuel, knowing your money isn't flowing to fund OPEC, or any of the other fundamental differences between electric and gasoline drive trains.
For example the solar panel partnership between Ford and SunPower taps into a long-standing dream many of us have, an electric car driven solely by clean electricity from sunlight. We like our fusion power at a safe 93 million mile distance away. Electric cars backed up by solar panels or wind turbines is a very popular meme. Does it pay for itself in actual numbers measured by economic cost and fuel savings? While some will focus on this question, put on their green eyeshades, crank up the spreadsheets, calculating cost savings, the power of dreams like this is extremely potent.
About the reporter: After 22 years in Silicon Valley's software industry David Herron is now writing about green transportation (electric vehicles) from Silicon Valley. He also runs the popular electric vehicle discussion forum, visforvoltage.org, and is the author of the book "Node Web Development".