Preparing for the Coming Wave of Electric Cars0 - Stephen Lacey -

Preparing for the Coming Wave of Electric Cars

May 14, 2010 - Stephen Lacey -

Electric vehicles are here. With almost every major car company developing a plug-in hybrid or all-electric model for the U.S. this year, the market looks poised for solid growth. But will utilities and consumers be able to handle the new challenges that electric vehicles pose to the grid?

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The first wave of vehicles in the next couple of years won't be large enough to cause much trouble. The number of electric cars on the road in the U.S. currently is in the tens of thousands. But if Obama's goal of deploying 1 million electric cars by 2015 is achieved, it could have an impact on the distribution network in areas of the country with large numbers of plug-in cars.

“Most people agree that we have enough generation capacity to meet the first wave,” says Matt Nielsen, a senior researcher with GE. “But one of the key the local points of connection for these vehicles.”

Nielsen is leading a three-year collaboration between GE and Nissan to determine how and where electric vehicles will have the most impact. Nissan is releasing its all-electric Leaf in the U.S. this year, with plans to get 10,000 of them deployed in the next 18 months. It already has a waiting list of 100,000 potential buyers.

Utilities have been eyeing the EV market for many years, knowing that someday these vehicles would grow popular enough to impact their business. Now as Nissan, Toyota, Chevy, BYD and others get ready to plug hundreds of thousands of vehicles into the grid, that day has finally arrived.

“The carmakers have outstripped the regulatory agencies' ability to think through the issues,” says Bill Reinert the national manager for Toyota's advanced technology group. He also helped design the wildly popular gas-electric Prius hybrid.

Utility commissions are only now beginning to think comprehensively about how to regulate charging companies and plan for future infrastructure needs based upon extended use of the distribution system.

Reinert thinks that the gas-electric hybrid will dominate the next-generation automobile market for the next two decades. But he also believes that plug-in hybrids and all-electric cars will play a big enough role to impact the stability of the grid. Toyota will start mass-producing its plug-in hybrid and start selling its micro-electric city car by 2012.

“It's not about whether we have the generation capacity – it's about if we have the generation capacity where we need it, when we need it,” he says.

If Toyota, Nissan and other vehicle manufacturers are going to grow the market for electric cars, it's important that the first customers – both drivers and utilities – have a smooth experience. And this is where Nielsen's team at GE comes in. The company is positioning itself to be a leader in the smart grid environment. Having intimate knowledge of how the grid will respond to EVs gives GE a competitive edge.

“We're obviously very committed to the smart-grid space and we want to be on the forefront of addressing these issues with electric vehicles,” says Nielsen.

On the utility side, increased demand for electricity will have an impact on the lifetime of equipment, he says. Pole-mounted transformers are designed to have down-time at night. But if clusters of electric vehicles are being charged overnight, the equipment doesn't get a chance to cool down. GE and Nissan will be deploying vehicles out in the field to determine how much stress the distribution network can handle.

In order to manage that stress, many utilities are developing charging programs that offer different rates for vehicle users. Understanding how those programs will impact user behavior will be critical to their success. This is again where GE technology comes in – the company partnered with Juice Technologies earlier this year to build EV chargers that work with GE's smart meters to give utilities the ability to communicate with customers and tell them when to plug in their vehicles. GE is also using its metering technology to study how to effectively charge cars with renewable electricity from both centralized and on-site projects.

On the customer side, the most obvious challenge is the lack of infrastructure available. Although companies like Ecotality, SolarCity and Better Place are building charging stations throughout the U.S., drivers still have very little support behind them.

Some early drivers will likely experience “range anxiety.” But most daily driving will be done within the range of the batteries (the Nissan Leaf's lithium ion battery has a range of 100 miles). That means customers will be charging their cars at home, potentially creating a new set of problems that utilities and car companies need to address.

A driver with an all-electric vehicle will need a 240-volt charger for rapid charging. But many homes built before the mid-80's don't have the panel capacity or wiring to accommodate that type of outlet, says Toyota's Reinert.

“All of a sudden, you end up not with a $2,500 charger, but a $15,000 electrical upgrade to your house. It's that kind of stuff that we need to think through and be smart about,” he says.

The new relationship between the car company, the auto company and the driver further complicates the matter: Who is supposed to communicate that message to the consumer? The car company or the utility? And when a company like GE gets into the mix with its smart meters and charging technologies, that makes the relationship even murkier.

These issues aren't exactly new. People have been talking about them since the 90's when it looked like electric vehicles were going to make great strides. Of course, they didn't. But this time around, with dozens of new EV and PHEV models coming to market – enabled by sophisticated communication systems unimaginable even 15 years ago – these issues are finally being addressed.

To hear more about the growing market for electric vehicles with Bill Reinert and Matt Nieslen, as well as the convergence of information technologies and energy technologies with Lux Research's Chris Hartshorn, listen to the podcast, linked above.

Inside Renewable Energy is a weekly audio news program featuring stories and interviews on all the latest developments in the renewable energy industries.