Can Infrastructure Support EV Demands?

No wonder electric vehicles (EVs) spark discussion among consumers, regulators, utilities and businesses.

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by Jennifer Van Burkleo, associate editor

No wonder electric vehicles (EVs) spark discussion among consumers, regulators, utilities and businesses.

Are they better for the environment? Can the grid withstand EVs’ electricity demand? Will all the logistics affect possible consumers?

Drivers already have surpassed President Obama’s goal to get 1 million EVs onto U.S. roads by 2015, according to a Department of Energy (DOE) report released in February 2011. Mitsubishi in April opened a smart grid EV research facility; and IBM announced it is teaming with Honda Motor Co. and Pacific Gas and Electric Co. (PG&E) in a project that will allow communication between EVs and the power grid.

Keeping EVs Running

The debate isn’t only about EVs, but the equipment to keep them working. Charger voltages vary depending on how much time and money consumers want to spend. Quicker charge times come with higher price tags.

Level 1 charging, at 120 volts, is comparable to running a hair dryer, said Britta Gross, director for global energy systems and infrastructure commercialization at General Motors Co. It typically takes more than eight hours to fully charge an EV using a Level 1 charger, which comes standard with an EV purchase.

Level 2 charging, at 240 volts, is similar to running an air conditioning unit, Gross said. It typically takes more than four hours to charge an EV using a Level 2 charger.

A DOE project—The EV Project—will install 15,085 charging systems in 16 strategic markets across six states: Arizona, California, Oregon, Tennessee, Texas, Washington, and the District of Columbia. The goal is to see how the infrastructure supports EVs on the roads and to determine future patterns of EVs in regions across the nation, said IEEE expert Russ Lefevre.

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These public charging stations will be placed according to consumers’ needs, said Phil Davis, senior manager of infrastructure business at Schneider Electric.

“They may pop up at retail sites or other parking areas where drivers are expected to spend enough time to make charging meaningful,” he said. “This could include employers, shopping centers and public parking. The new DC quick chargers can charge to up 80 percent or so within 30 minutes.”

The California Public Utilities Commission recently decided resellers would not be subject to the same regulations as utility companies.

Is the Information Secure?

Public charging stations introduce another issue: privacy.

Consumers commonly use credit and debit cards to pay for things. Large credit card processors have been dealing with privacy and security issues for decades.

“Security is a big and growing issue, but not unique to the EV world,” Davis said. “The entire data infrastructure of our country is a target-rich environment. Utilities share a responsibility with all the EV stakeholders to stay current on best practices, threat monitoring and system updates.”

Grid Overload?

As of press time, a gallon of gas cost more than $4 in seven states: Alaska, California, Connecticut, Hawaii, New York, Oregon and Washington, according to AAA’s Daily Fuel Gauge Report. The average cost to fill up an EV is less than $1 per gallon of gasoline equivalent, Gross said.

Some people suspect that saving the equivalent of more than $3 per gallon might lure drivers to switch to EVs. That wave of EVs plugged into the grid, critics say, could overload the grid.

Gross said the chances of that happening are very unlikely.

“If you took 10 million EVs and put them on the road, that represents less than a 1 percent increase of electricity depending on the grid,” Gross said.

EVs probably would charge overnight when electricity demand is low, she said.

“Utilities’ motto is to serve to the demands,” she said, “so they overbuild the capacity on the grids. They design and plan for them to be over utilized, so we won’t need new grids for a very long time, if ever.”

If there were a power shortage, EVs plugged into the grid could sell electricity back to the grid using smart meter technology. If several EVs charge simultaneously on the same transformer, the transformer could burn out, Lefevre said.

“Utilities see the smart grid as a likely solution to this concern,” he said. “The smart grid can sense the load on the transformer and can take actions to relieve the load by changing the vehicle charging.”

Although EVs put out zero emissions, electricity generation sources differ regionally. An EV might be best for the environment in one state, but not in all states, said Schneider Electric’s Davis.

In many respects, EVs are similar to the adoption of residential central air conditioning, he said.

“Those compressors were big draws, but the grid kept up and flourished,” Davis said. “As long as EV adoption is a gradually building trend, many areas can adapt as is, or with relatively minor upgrades to last-mile infrastructure like transformers.”

Utilities and Regulators

When companies determine whether the infrastructure can withstand the demand, then they must go to their PUCs.

Andy Roehr, managing director at PwC, said regulators have their work cut out for them because technology moves faster than law.

“It takes years for all parties to be on the same page,” Roehr said. “We are hoping the problem does not go beyond the length it takes to solve it. We have some challenges bringing everyone together on a timeline to meet everyone’s needs.”

PUC regulations could stunt EV growth. Michigan and California PUCs have introduced time-of-use (TOU) rates in effort to balance utility and consumer interests.

Utilities get more involved when TOU rates are involved, Roehr said.

In states and regions where electricity costs more, consumers might take advantage of TOU rates and charge EVs overnight.

Engaging customers before introducing new technologies reduces the number of consumers against the technological change, Roehr said. Inevitably, recycling batteries will become an issue.

“Battery disposals may force batteries into forced retirements to recycle,” he said. “You can’t take these batteries down to the junkyard—it would be very toxic. We need to build the infrastructure to charge and retire batteries in an environmentally and economically responsible way.”

Faster chargers will be introduced, and those might cause more stress to the infrastructure, Schneider Electric’s Davis said.

“Portions of the current grid would be upgraded, but there is no need for a new grid to for this purpose,” he said.

Consumer Expenses

The more electricity utilities sell, the more they profit. They use their assets better. Consumers are buying more of the same assets, so utilities are earning revenue with every EV sold, Roehr said.

“If they are investor-owned and make an infrastructure, they will make money immediately,” he said. “Deploy capital, earn capital.”

When a consumer buys an EV, he or she becomes a customer of the auto manufacturer and dealer, charging equipment manufacturer and installer, electric utility and the local and government communities.

EV drivers need accessible charging stations, but not everyone can charge at home, such as drivers who live in condos or those with only street parking. They might need to charge while they shop, eat or work. As a result, EVs tend to appeal more to people in larger states where enough charging stations are spread throughout.

Nationally there are 8,519 public charging stations, according to Southern California Edison. In California, there are 2,053 public charging stations; in Washington there are 816; and in Texas there are 730. Alaska, Delaware, Kentucky, Montana, North Dakota, Nebraska, South Dakota and Wyoming, however, have zero public charging stations, making it difficult for wide EV adoption.

Drivers who can charge at home will have significant incentives to charge EVs at night when the grid has excess capacity. Consumers might see higher electricity bills, but they also will have lower gasoline bills.

The national residential average to charge an EV is $1.50 a day—about a quarter of what drivers pay monthly for gas, GM’s Gross said.

If gasoline prices continue to rise, EVs will become a mainstream part of the vehicle mix, Davis said.

“The largest barriers today are range anxiety and cost,” he said. “However, payback is improving, and they are better suited for many applications than are gas-powered vehicles. They are pleasant to drive, very quiet and should be lower-maintenance in urban drive settings. Buyers will discover this, and appeal will grow as costs of EVs decline—and they certainly will decline.”

An EV’s largest cost component is the battery, Lefevre said.

“Pike Research, a market research firm that specializes in green technology, estimates that in 2017 a battery pack will cost $523 per kilowatt-hour,” he said. “This implies that the battery pack in current EVs can easily cost in excess of $10,000.”

Although there are high hopes for EVs, they aren’t catching on as quickly as some people had hoped. Look at GM, for instance; it stopped its Volt production for five weeks because consumers were not buying. Another problem: Most EV batteries have a 40- to 80-mile range on a single charge—not ideal for long-distance driving.

Roehr said there are other issues.

“More and more younger people are willing to pay a premium to become more environmentally friendly,” he said. “The problem is that there is not a disposable income for these younger people.”

Wide EV adoption relies on many factors ranging from price and performance to infrastructure readiness to the consumer experience—a scope that cannot be addressed by one industry.

It would be easier if PUCs, manufacturers and utilities knew who was buying what where. The problem is that customers must opt to share information.


Collaboration, Innovation Can Pave Road to Mass EV Adoption

by Joanne Edwards, Eaton Corp.

With recent spikes in fuel costs, widespread interest in reducing carbon emissions and significant investment by the industry and public sector, electric vehicles (EVs) could be on the verge of mass consumer adoption.

One needs to look only at the growing number of hybrids on the road to realize the appeal of alternative transportation. For plug-in EVs to become the choice for average drivers, there must be a reliable, safe infrastructure for residential charging and publicly accessible stations in urban, suburban and rural settings and along key transportation corridors. Only when consumers know they can charge their EVs nearly anywhere will mass adoption become a reality.

Although building the charging infrastructure is critical to ensuring EV viability, it is not the only factor. Behind every charging station is an electrical power system that demands assessment, maintenance and upgrades. A vital first step in creating a reliable EV-charging infrastructure is to initiate public-private collaborations and regional initiatives that create awareness of these emerging technologies’ societal benefits. For example, during summer 2010 when the first class of modern EVs began leaving North American production lines, Eaton teamed with Mitsubishi and electric utilities to complete a clean energy tour from one coast of Canada to the other. The goal was to test an EV’s ability to travel long distances while introducing the public and industry to the vast capabilities of EVs.

Confidence in EV technology can be built further through similar private-public collaborations and regional initiatives. Creating extensive public EV charging station networks in the U.S. will help prepare for widespread consumer adoption and provide the industry with a valuable research platform to handle the new electrical demands associated with EVs’ charging efficiently and effectively.

Nineteen regional public and private entities created a successful plan to deploy 45 EV chargers along the Interstate 376 highway corridor in the Pittsburgh region. The initiative provided a model of sustainable transportation for other regions to replicate across the nation. Implementing and studying the results of such projects can benefit the entire industry and lead to greater understanding of charging habits and how they affect local electric grids.

Public utilities and electrical research institutes across the nation are collecting and assessing data that will help implement key smart grid components including integrated renewables, such as solar-assisted charging and battery storage systems, assess the impact on reliability of a distributed resource generation, test advanced metering infrastructure and analyze the lifespan and maintenance trends of EV supply equipment.

In most of these research applications, consumers can use the chargers at no cost. Businesses and utilities will modify that soon. If so, the industry must prepare for a seamless adjustment. Eaton’s AC Level 2 and DC Quick Charger can be field upgraded with options to provide access control and to monetize the charging session, such as with a credit card swipe or through the Coulomb ChargePoint Network. Strategies such as these will help ensure an uninterrupted transition from research to a consumer-friendly model.

The increasing popularity of EVs will demand that work forces understand EV charger requirements. Proper training will be vital to ensure consumer confidence in the technology and will be important for public charging stations and home charging.

Eaton also collaborated with a veteran-owned fleet industry service, the Department of Veterans’ Affairs and a local community college when a recent regional initiative expanded beyond test cities to create a pilot training and occupational program that teaches veterans how to install and service EV-charging infrastructure, as well as earn a certificate to maintain new, advanced battery technology.

Similar training programs carried out by public utilities and electrical manufacturers can expand the nation’s network of certified installers, stimulate regional small businesses, create valuable jobs and ensure expert training for installers.

Just as the EV industry shares a goal to reduce harmful emissions and U.S. dependence on foreign oil, collaborative public-private awareness initiatives, training programs and regional projects will help mature the market, grow user confidence and provide the industry, society and environment benefits.

Joanne Edwards is vice president and general manager of residential products for Eaton Corp.’s electrical sector. She has 33 years of experience in the electrical industry. Prior to joining Eaton, Edwards was president of Veris Industries LLC, an independent business within Schneider Electric. She has a business administration honors degree from the Kent State University School of Business in Ohio. Reach her at joanneedwards@eaton.com.

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