Will your Utility be ready for your Networked EV?

Will your Utility be ready for your Networked EV?

WattStation & Smart EDBy John Addison (11/30/10)

Yes, your electric utility will be ready to charge your new electric car if you live in the right city.  Your odds improve if you live in one of 18 cities, own a house that uses air conditioning, has a garage, and have new underground power lines. If you live in an apartment with no garage, especially in a non-priority city, then get ready to be a brave pioneer.

I recently invested a day listening, interviewing, and networking with forward thinking utility executives and some of the smartest people in the smart grid business at GTM Research and Greentech Media’s Networked EV conference.

Nissan has started shipping the LEAF. Chevrolet has handed car keys to early Volt customers. Forty thousand new electric vehicles will be on the U.S. highways by the end of 2011. Charging these vehicles could be the equivalent of powering another 40,000 houses. Since the sub-prime mortgage crisis has left that many houses empty, you would think that charging 40,000 cars should raise no concerns. Charging one million by 2015, however, is both a challenge and an opportunity.

Utility executives are raising concerns and conducting PR campaigns. They want to make sure that they are ready, that no neighborhood blackouts happen, and that they make money charging these electric cars. Early Prius sales were concentrated to certain communities; it will be the same story with electric cars. For example, universities and tech centers will have a concentration of EVs that will lead utilities to install smart meters, add smart grid software, and add $9,000 transformers. In many cases, public utility commissions must support these upgrades so that utilities make money charging EVs.

Even morning charging at work or public spots is fine with most utilities. Peak demand is often in the afternoon and early evening. It greatly helps that all electric cars, from LEAFs to Volts, use smart charging. Charging does not start when you plug-in. It starts based on your preferences, such as charging at lower night rates. With a couple of clicks on your smartphone app, night preferences can be overridden with your request to immediately charge.

Temporary TOU tiered pricing will be tested in cities such as San Diego to see if people are encouraged to charge off-peak. Some lucky test households will pay super off-peak rates that are only 1/6 of peak rates when charging their new plug-ins in San Diego. Money incentives and the simplicity of smart charging should lead to most charging being done off-peak.

Eighteen cities from San Diego to Seattle, from New York to Raleigh, have been preparing for the deliver of thousands of electric cars by installing 15,000 public charging stations as part of a DOE Ecotality project. Independently, thousands of home charging stations are being installed by EV drivers.

Greg Haddow with SDG&E in San Diego described how they have evaluated best locations for public charging considering geographies of early buyer interested as reported by their customers and automakers, employment centers, and strategic areas of public use. Starting this December, ten stations per week will be installed, with quantities increasing until 2,500 are installed.

Electric vehicle interest has been strong in areas of urban density, so SDG&E has engaged with many apartment and condo complexes. No two multi-unit dwellings have been the same in parking structures, renter/owner allocation of spaces, meters, panels, and power currently available to the complex. Some EV enthusiasts have been surprised to learn that their rental agreements prohibit EVs or use of parking power. Condo CCRs vary.

Electric utilities have already successfully handled bigger challenges than charging EVs.  They have added underground lines, new transformers, and distribution to handle new real estate development including hundreds of McMansions, each demanding more juice than even a Tesla. Utilities are upgrading grids and infrastructure to support megawatts of distributed solar. Electric utilities take on new industrial parks with hours of surges in demand for electricity.

PG&E with 5.1 million electricity customers was ranked the greenest utility in U.S. by Newsweek 2009 and 2010. It has developed three scenarios to support 220,000 to 850,000 plug-in vehicles by 2020 in its service area. Kevin Dasso, Senior Director of Smart Grid for PG&E, contrasted two neighborhoods where there is a concentration of those ordering Nissan LEAFs and Chevrolet Volts – Silicon Valley and Berkeley. New developments in Silicon Valley will be easier. The distribution infrastructure is already there to support larger air conditioned homes, newer underground wiring, and newer transformers.  A plug-in hybrid will not equal the demand of one large home. Berkeley homes are supported with older infrastructure, less likely to have air conditioning. One battery-electric car could create more demand than one home.

Yes, your electric utility will be ready for your new EV. If you live in an older neighborhood with energy-efficient homes, some planning and upgrading will be needed. The impact will be less than adding new developments, new industrial parks, and even high-growth of solar power. Most charging will be done off-peak, allowing utilities to run their most efficient power plants 24/7 and make better use of nighttime wind-power. The key to off-peak charging will be the incentives of TOU pricing and the fact that your networked EV is smart enough to charge when rates are lowest.

For a nation that is 95 percent dependent on petroleum for transportation, the chance to use home grown energy should be a blessing, especially in 70 percent efficient electric drive systems, instead of 15 percent efficient gasoline engine drive systems. Done right, your electric utility will make money. Most utility generation assets are underutilized at night when home charging is ideal; generation is underutilized in the morning when workplace charging ideally occurs.