Taking Charge of Electric Vehicles—Grid Can Bear It
By Jennifer Ginn, CSG Associate Editor
2012 is supposed to be the Year of the Electric Vehicle—the year when Americans stop asking if electric vehicles are for real, according to Pike Research.
The global marketing firm that analyzes clean energy markets, expects more than 257,000 plug-in electric vehicles will be sold worldwide in 2012. More than 66,000 of those will be sold in North America alone.
That’s a lot of new cars needing to be plugged in every night to recharge.
If electric vehicles are here to stay, the question then becomes this: Can the power grid handle so many new cars? The answer is yes, but it’s going to take a lot of planning.
A Slow Revolution
Alan Shedd, director of the residential and commercial energy programs at Touchstone Energy, said America’s adoption of electric vehicles has been relatively slow. Consider what Shedd calls the surrogate adoption rate for electric vehicles: It’s taken 10 years to get 1 million Toyota Priuses on the road. A Prius is a hybrid vehicle that uses both batteries and gas.
“Ten years is a long time to follow the trend, do the build-out and get ready for it,” Shedd said. “Let’s say we double that rate, triple that rate. I don’t see a huge, ‘Oh my God, the sky is falling’ impact that some have commented on. … If we woke up tomorrow and everybody had one, sure we’d have a problem.”
Dan Ton, program manager for the Smart Grid research and development program at the U.S. Department of Energy, said the department’s research shows that electric cars won’t buckle the power grid any time soon.
“In general, the grid has excess capacity to support a decent penetration level of electric vehicles,” Ton said. “Some problems may occur at the local level, let’s say in a neighborhood where you have five homes connected to a specific transformer. Everybody comes home at the same time and tries to charge their vehicle during the peak hours when these transformers are already at capacity with the current household usage. Adding another load with electric vehicles can cause it to overheat.
“The utility can (handle) it by replacing the transformer with a larger transformer.”
Communities also can manage the charging to times of day when electric demand is low to help alleviate that problem. “We call it smart charging,” Ton said.
Hawaii’s Push for Clean Energy
One of the country’s leaders in the push toward preparing for more electric vehicles is Hawaii, where the vehicles are a vital part of the state’s ambitious clean energy initiative, said Mark Glick, administrator of the State Energy Office. The initiative aims to reduce the amount of petroleum used in the state by 385 million gallons annually by 2030.
Glick said Hawaii has slightly more than 700 plug-in electric and more than 10,000 hybrid vehicles. That hasn’t happened by accident.
Policymakers have been passing bills and establishing programs encouraging electric vehicle adoption since the late 1990s. Electric vehicles with a special license plate can park for free at state and county facilities and drive in the high-occupancy lanes with a single occupant. Parking lots with 100 spaces or more must set aside 1 percent of them for electric vehicles, with at least one having a charger. Hawaii also offers up to a $4,500 rebate for the purchase of an electric vehicle and up to a $500 rebate for installing a charger.
Glick said Hawaiians probably have been quicker to buy electric vehicles because the island’s temperate climate helps maximize battery life.
“We have a little less driver anxiety (about batteries running out of a charge) because our average miles traveled per vehicle … are less than on the mainland,” he said. “That’s led to a little more confidence on the driver’s side. That’s why we’re focusing now on a fast-charging network.”
The state is hoping its main electric utility, through a public-private partnership, will lead installation of a large network of fast chargers, which can fully charge a vehicle in 30 minutes or less.
“I think that will be a game changer,” Glick said.
Pike Research reports that California has seen the biggest growth in the number of electric vehicles on the road than anywhere in the country. Adam Langton, staff lead on electric vehicle regulatory proceedings with the California Public Utilities Commission, said the state has more than 1,500 charging stations already. But those charging stations—as well as home chargers—have led to some big questions every state must answer.
“Are charging stations utilities or not?” Langton asked. “… If it is a utility, it’s subject to rate regulation by the public utilities commission. It has to meet certain additional requirements we put on utilities for energy efficiency, renewable energy procurement. … The California Public Utilities Commission decided charging stations, provided they are used for transportation fuel, are not subject to regulation as a utility.”
Another big question for states, Langton said, is whether utilities can own charging stations. In California, the answer was no.
“That has a big impact on how the charging market develops,” Langton said. “There were concerns that utilities could cross-subsidize the cost of charging stations, perhaps unfairly competing with the private sector.”
Langton said nobody has the complete picture yet of what electric vehicles will mean for the states or the power grid.
“We don’t know if the impact (of electric vehicles) will be big or not,” he said. “Some people have said, ‘Oh, we’re really worried about grid impact. We think it will cost a lot of money.’ We don’t know that yet. It depends upon the clustering of vehicles; it depends on the infrastructure in different regions.
Coastal areas tend to have more houses per transformer than other areas. We have to analyze this.”