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Electric vehicles are arriving. What about the infrastructure?

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Will charging all our electric cars overload the grid? What is Best Buy doing building charging stations? And why do we need to keep an eye on EV progress in China?

What kind of infrastructure will we need for the integration of plug-in electric vehicles?

I talked to Brian Wynne, president of the Electric Drive Transportation Association, about how utilities and other players are preparing for a major EV deployment in the next few years, and why it's important to keep an eye on China.

What are the utility companies doing to get ready for electric vehicles?

We think Southern California Edison will have the largest initial deployment. They have an entire plug-in vehicle readiness program, [which includes] upgrading their grid where they think vehicles are going to cluster; and developing back-end systems so customers understand how pricing changes when they charge at different times.

Most of us think of vehicle efficiency as miles per gallon. The real benefit of electricity is that it’s about one-fifth of the price of electricity at today’s prices. It’s about two to three cents a mile driving down the road using electricity and about 12 to 14 cents a mile using petroleum. So they’re educating their consumers about this. Other utilities like Duke Energy are also making the same point. There are 3,000 utilities in the country. Not all of them are focused on this, but we want to build best practices.

How will people monitor their spending on electricity for their cars?

As people understand, plugging this car in is not different than plugging in a large refrigerator, but it depends on how and when you charge it. I for one will want to know what it costs me to fuel my vehicle. That could be separately metered by the utility, which is one option. Or the vehicle can have the technology in it to monitor the time the charging occurs or have it start charging when you get to a certain price point at off-peak hours.

Can you explain transformer loading and how this could be a problem?

The concern is if there’s a cluster of electric vehicles with fast chargers behind a single transformer that it could draw too much juice. But where that clustering is going to occur initially, the utilities are well aware of that and they’re looking at how to get ahead of the issue.

How will the vehicles challenge our grids?

The grid has an enormous amount of overcapacity. The real advantage we have in using electricity is that we’re using this national resource efficiently--all this overcapacity just sitting there underutilized. The key is to encourage people to plug in and fuel their cars when that capacity is available and to avoid taxing that grid when it’s getting toward its peak requirements.

Mike Rowand [Director of Advanced Customer Technology] from Duke Energy said they did a study, and if every one of their [4 million] customers bought a Chevy Volt tomorrow, it would increase the grid requirement only 10 percent. They don’t think it will be an issue.

Who are the different players—other than utilities--involved in the preparation?

There’s the vehicles on one end and the electricity providers on the other. You also have component manufacturers that are spinning up to meet demand—especially battery manufacturers; the folks who are building the chargers; the folks that provide technologies in the smart grid; players like BetterPlace; and some retailers like Best Buy that are looking at deploying charging stations so customers can plug in and go shop for big-screen TVs.

Then there’s municipal authorities like here in D.C. and other urban areas that want to encourage plugging in. San Francisco wants to be the first city to deploy public infrastructure for charging.

How may electric cars are you expecting?

There are no really good specific numbers. The bottom line is we will have a good variety. You have pure battery electric vehicles like the Nissan Leaf, CODA and Tesla Roadster. Then you have electric vehicles with range extenders, like the Chevy Volt. With these cars, the only thing in the drive train is an electric motor. A battery pack will power it for about 40 miles and then a little combustion engine will run a generator to put energy back in the battery. Then you have plug-in hybrids, which will be more electric motor dominant rather than combustion engine dominant.

And it’s more than light duty vehicles. You’ve got school buses, transit buses and medium-sized delivery trucks like UPS trucks.

What kind of EV preparation have you seen in other countries?

I spend a fair amount of time in China. The Chinese have adopted an extremely aggressive plan. They look at it not just as an environmental and economic imperative but as a commercial opportunity--to leapfrog the rest of the world in electric vehicles. They showed with cell phones that they can leapfrog technology, and we need to pay attention to that.

The Chinese have the largest example of mainstream deployment of electric vehicles in the world, and that’s electric bikes. They make 20 million electric bikes a year, and there are 250 million on the street. It has completely changed access to economic opportunity for millions of Chinese. We think of the Chinese as heavily policy driven, but this was a complete market phenomena. The Chinese are going to embrace this technology and be aggressive in promoting it. The commercial imperative is an important goal that we dare not take our eyes off.

You mentioned retailers and municipalities. Where else will we find charging stations?

Most will occur at home at first and then at the office because that’s where the cars will sit for the largest times. The public infrastructure becomes important as we get more ubiquitous and as we get to people who don’t have garages. It’s less expensive to put a charger in the home than it would to put it in the middle of a street. It needs to be a much more robust station if it’s out in the weather and more people are using it. For the retailers they would put them out in a prominent place and make it as easy as possible. If I can park right out front and fuel on them, I’m going to be more likely to go in and shop.

This isn’t just about plug-in vehicles. It’s also about hybrid and fuel cell vehicles--all of those take advantage of the technology called electric drive. The technology is continuing to get better. The challenge has always been energy storage, and we’re making progress there as well. Today, there are 25 hybrid models either in showrooms or about to appear in showrooms.

Click here to read my post with  CODA Automotive CEO Kevin Czinger

Images: EDTA

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Melanie D.G. Kaplan

Contributing Editor

Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and National Parks Magazine. Her website is www.melaniedgkaplan.com. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure