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Prediction: three million electric vehicles by 2015

Posting in Energy

Electric utilities need to think of electric cars as 'mobile appliances' to cope with impending global growth.

First, the good news: all-electric vehicles will be catching on fast, with several million on the road within a few years.

Now, the bad news: they'll draw a lot of juice from an already overloaded electrical grid.

A study from IDC Energy Insights predicts that plug-in electric vehicles will be hitting the market within the year, and 540,000 will be sold globally by 2012. There will be more than 2.7 million of the vehicles on roads across the globe within five years.

IDC predicts there will be 885,000 electric cars in North America and more than 780,000 in Europe by the year 2015. The report's authors warn, however, that the electric grid won't be ready for this surge. "Unfortunately, these vehicles will cause havoc on the distribution grid if they start appearing without any preparation by grid managers. The utilities that prepare today for this new reality will be the ones that will win in the long term."

Challenges utilities will face include "significant upgrades in distribution equipment, from the addition of separate metering apparatus to the installation of advanced transformers that can handle the increased load on a particular line. Utilities will also need to address the creation of novel rate structures that allow the utility to control how and when the vehicles are charged."

The utility industry "does not have the luxury of taking a wait-and-see approach to PEVs [plug-in electric vehicles]," warns report author Sam Jaffe. "It must begin to prepare for their arrival now."

He urges that utilities think of electric cars as "mobile appliances" that represent new opportunities. The catch is, utilities need to be able to shift the additional load these mobile appliances will add to nightime generation. Electric cars will "bring challenges such as the potential of transformer overload due to PEV  clustering and excessive energy borrowing when cars roam outside of their utility region. It is best for utilities to prepare for these potential pitfalls today, instead of waiting for when the trickle of PEVs becomes a flood. We believe the utilities that prepare for this new reality will be the ones that win in the long term."

The electric car's potential draw on the grid was also recently explored by SmartPlanet colleague Deborah Gage. UCLA researchers, for example, estimate that if 25 percent of all vehicles were suddenly electrified, a lot of transformers would blow. "Some utilities have reported numbers which indicate that even a single 220V EV charger may during peak consumption hours overload its transformer."

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Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure