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ELECTRIC CARS: Finding an outlet can take some finesse - REPORTED BY Robin Levinson

January 27, 2012


Blair Powell zooms around the city in his Volkswagen Jetta. But he has an advantage over most of his fellow drivers: he never has to stop for gas.

Powell drives a converted Jetta, meaning its regular gas-guzzling motor has been replaced with an electric one. Like laptops or cellphones, Powell’s electric car runs on lithium batteries.

Depending on the model, electric cars can last anywhere from 60–150 kilometres before a recharge becomes necessary. Right now, Powell simply plugs his car into a standard outlet overnight in his home garage.

“You can always charge your car with any electric outlet," says Powell. "Anyone who’s got an electric plug in their house or wherever, you can plug your car in there."

But if the battery is empty, it can take almost 20 hours to charge. To help reduce that wait, Powell is installing a charging station in his garage. Charging stations usually run on twice the voltage of a standard electrical outlet, and can charge a car battery in half the time.

“It’s a convenience. It’s kind of like a gas station,” Powell says.

Ricardo Borba is the first person in Canada to own a Nissan Leaf, which was released in September. He charges his car every night at his home charging station, and keeps a portable charger in his car at all times.

“The portable charger is more for opportunistic charging,” says Borba. “It’s not the one you’re going to be using on a regular basis.”

Long trips are especially challenging for electric car drivers, who must plan pit stops in advance. Allan Poulsen has been driving a converted Ford Ranger since 2002. He says that he’s never run out of battery power, but that’s because he plans ahead.

“I’ve had some range anxiety. I’ve never been stuck anywhere though,” Poulsen says. “If I wasn’t able to get home, it was because I was planning that. I was planning to charge at another location.”

Borba meticulously planned his first road trip from Kanata to Ogdensburg, N.Y. But when temperatures dropped to -7 degrees Celsius, he noticed his battery running alarmingly low.

“I figured at that pace, I would get to my destination with only four bars left, and require at least four hours of trickle charging to get me back home. So, it was tough decision to make, but I had to turn back and try another day,” Borba writes on his blog.

As it stands, there are almost no public charging stations in Ottawa.

Powell works for Adobe, the only company in Ottawa with a dedicated charging station for employees, and he charges while he’s at work. If you’re headed skiing for the weekend, the Wakefield Mill Inn also has a charging station open to the public.

For the most part, drivers must negotiate personally with employers, garages and local businesses to use their outlets.

“In general you have to be inventive and friendly and network with people who have power,” says Darryl McMahon, the president of the Electric Vehicle Council of Ottawa.

The Electric Vehicle Council is a good place to meet with other electric car drivers and start networking. They meet once a month at the Museum of Civilization.


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