Thinking Tech

Move over big oil: auto makers charged up by utilities

Move over big oil: auto makers charged up by utilities

Posting in Design

Auto makers are heavily courting utilities so electric vehicle customers have a charging infrastructure, which will take years to build out. Is the century long love affair over between the auto and oil industries?

Auto makers have long been in lock step with the oil industry for a very obvious reason: making more cars expands the market for big oil. It's hard to think of a longer or more lucrative symbiosis.

Move over oil refiners. Here comes the electric utilities.

Well, not exactly. Auto makers are still  designing new gasoline and diesel engines albeit more efficient ones. The auto-oil industry love affair is in no immediate danger of a break-up.

Who'll make the charging station? credit: Impactlab.com

But lately, auto makers' roving eye has turned to electric utilities: indeed, watts are challenging octane as the transportation fuel of the future. But what have these loudly-trumpeted demonstration projects actually accomplished?

A few years ago, there were plenty of deals between auto makers and oil and industrial gases companies to demonstrate the infrastructure for hydrogen fuel cell vehicles. Most petered out and you don't see anyone driving around in hydrogen powered vehicles.

Some claim the progress between auto makers and utilities has been slow.

"What steps follow a big partnership announcement, after a utility, a vendor or an automaker says it’s done a deal to ready the power grid for an EV rollout?" blogger Josie Garthwaite asks in a Earth2tech.com post entitled "Electric Car Infrastructure Trials: Some Progress, Long Road Ahead."

Her sagacious post describes how fluid these budding relationships are. For example, it's not entirely clear if utilities or third parties will make the fast charging stations (keep in mind, oil companies don't make gas pumps). A good place to read up on fast charging station projects is the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI).

Speaking of pace, I suspect the industry that moves electrons moves at a slower pace than the industry that moves people (the use of "moves" three times in that sentence is deliberate). Then again, big loves big and the auto industry's future depends on the establishment of a safe, effective, convenient and economical charging infrastructure.

There's no doubt utilities have a big role to play in that and there's no turning back from electric vehicles. Announcements like Ford's Tuesday that it will be producing five hybrids or full electrics in Europe by 2013 are coming fast and furiously. If an auto maker does not have some type of relationship with a utility, I'd be surprised. Here are a few:

-- On Feb. 3, Ford struck a deal in with Progress Energy and the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) to conduct a demonstration project in the Carolinas showcasing a Ford Escape plug-in hybrid.

-- General Motors in January said that it plans to work with DTE Energy in Detroit "to introduce customers to electric vehicles and establish vehicle charging programs."

-- A year ago, the Nissan-Renault Alliance said it would partner with San Diego Gas & Electric to create an electric vehicle charging network. The Nissan-Renault Alliance is an 11-year-old partnership under which the two companies share technology and research and development.

I'd like to say "move over big oil" and maybe in a year or two, I'll will.

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John Dodge

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor John Dodge has written for the Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, PC Week (now eWeek), EDN, Design News, Electronic Business, Bio-IT World, Health-IT World, Lowell Sun, Haverhill Gazette and Newburyport Daily News. He is based in Massachusetts. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure