Electricity prices could be impacted by when electric vehicles charge up - Mar 13, 2011 - Julie Wernau - Chicago Tribune - energycentral.com - Plug-in Electric Vehiclen - Generation - Technical Articles - Index - Library - GENI - Global Energy Network Institute

Electricity prices could be impacted by when electric vehicles charge up

Mar 13, 2011 - Julie Wernau - Chicago Tribune - energycentral.com

Only a few people in the Chicago area will be part of the first wave of electric vehicle owners later this year. But their charging habits have the potential to affect everyone's electricity prices.

If they plug in their cars at the wrong time of day, everyone will pay the price for the added burden on the electric grid. Moreover, there's the potential to do more environmental harm than good by forcing higher-polluting generating plants to work overtime to meet the extra demand.

"If everybody comes home and plugs in those electric vehicles at 5 o'clock at night, that's going to be a problem," Mike McMahan, vice president of smart grid and technology at Commonwealth Edison Co., said at a meeting Wednesday of the Illinois Commerce Commission.

Last fall, the ICC initiated the Plug-in Electric Vehicle Initiative, asking utilities to assess the impact of the initial deployment of plug-in vehicles on the electric grid. Wednesday's discussion, which included public utilities, environmental and consumer groups, government officials and private electricity suppliers, was intended to help the ICC determine what regulatory considerations or policies may be needed to accommodate the vehicles and to determine how best to educate consumers about the impact their charging habits could have on electricity prices.

In a sense, the ICC is trying to figure out how to encourage early adopters of electric vehicles to be smart about when they plug in their vehicles because future electric car buyers are expected to follow their lead.

"We all know once the infrastructure's on the ground, once the consumer patterns are established, it's very difficult to change that," said Madeleine Weil, a policy advocate with the Environmental Law and Policy Center.

Already, more than 150 private charging stations have been installed throughout the city, and an additional 280 public charging stations have been announced for the Chicago area.

Charging stations at homes, where 80 to 90 percent of charging is expected to occur, will be outfitted with technology that uses real-time pricing to automatically detect the cheapest time to switch on. But there's a catch: The technology is useless unless consumers sign up for it. Most residential customers pay flat rates for their electricity and don't know that real-time pricing exists.

The ICC is discussing how to educate consumers about real-time pricing that gives users the ability to tap into cheaper electricity rates when market prices for electricity are low (around 2 a.m.) and to avoid higher rates when demand for electricity is high (around 2 p.m., when it's 90 degrees and air conditioners are cranking).

"Society, in general, needs to know a lot more about electricity," said acting ICC Commissioner John T. Colgan.

The ICC is trying to work out whether electric vehicle owners would be required to change over to real-time pricing, be encouraged to sign on or, alternatively, have a separate electric meter that uses real-time pricing installed in their homes specifically for their electric vehicles.

"How do we transform the culture of energy usage in Illinois?" said Chris Thomas, policy director for Citizens Utility Board.

The ICC's next step is to create working groups that would help shape more specific regulatory policies related to electric vehicles.