Tuning Up

The Grid Prepares for an EV Wave

Published In: Intelligent Utility Magazine January/February 2010


ALL VEHICLES RUN BETTER WHEN TUNED FOR MAXIMUM performance. While auto and battery makers scurry for a competitive edge to make electric vehicles (EVs) practical for everyday driving, the ultimate success in the future marketplace will largely be dependent on a well-tuned electric system: one that offers convenient, widely available, fast-charging, cheap off-peak rates and ultimately facile communication between the plug-in vehicle and the utility.

Aligning the interests of the many partners involved in this coming wave is one of the great technological challenges of this century and could very well revolutionize transportation. If a mass transition to EVs happens, it will be driven less by environmentalism and more by simple economics. According to the U.S. Bureau of Transportation Statistics, the average American drives 33 miles a day. With gas at $3 a gallon in a car getting 22 miles per gallon, the annual cost for driving every day is $1,400. With an attractive off-peak charging rate of 7 cents per kilowatt hour (the August 2009 average total for all sectors was 10.4 cents per kilowatt hour), the same car and mileage would cost $200-or $1,200 less annually.


John Clark, head of the electric vehicle management division for GridPoint, does not see an EV load issue for several years. ''The first spot that there is going to be an impact on load is going to happen in the distribution network, certain spots within certain networks where there is a density of EV deployment,'' he said, referring to the EV Project, the largest mass introduction to date. With more than 40 project partners, it will install 11,210 Level II and 260 Level III chargers beginning next summer. By fall, Nissan will introduce 4,700 Leaf all-electrics into metro markets in five states and expand charging to support five million vehicles nationwide over the next few years. Meanwhile, a slew of other EVs and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) will hit American roads, including the Chevy Volt, scheduled for late this year. Innovative utilities, universities and corporations, municipalities and retailers will expand the number of public charging stations, and individuals buying EVs will upgrade home electrical service to Level II specs.

Over the next few years, there will be enough EVs to begin to see consumer acceptance, or rejection. In the film Field of Dreams, the vox Deus booms: ''If you build it, they will come.'' It is being built. Ken Huber, manager of advanced technology for PJM Interconnection, put it this way: ''Will consumers accept them, agree to, start taking advantage of the characteristics of EVs and start purchasing them in mass? We don't know how the public is going to react, but we at PJM find it necessary to be prepared for such an event.''


Many utilities are preparing. Those with advanced metering infrastructure programs are ahead of the game. But a smart meter is not necessary. ''It's just one of many ways to get communications to the home and therefore the vehicle, but there are other ways, including broadband, to give vehicle owners the capability to participate in grid management programs,'' said Clark. ''Then I expect that certain automakers will take advantage of telematic networks, essentially wireless communications to provide smart charging capabilities.''

Vehicle-to-grid (V2G) capability to feed power in and out of EV batteries is an important concept that is drawing closer to reality. In late September, the first net metering law in the United States for EVs went into effect in Delaware. EV owners are compensated for electricity sent to the grid at the same rate they pay to charge. At the same time, the University of Delaware launched its eBox V2G vehicle, a refitted Toyota Scion, in hopes of stimulating its manufacture. ''V2G will probably occur at some point in the future, but it's a ways off. The cars that are coming off the line today or next year are not going to have bidirectional electronics, because of warranty and battery issues. I believe that in the not-too-distant future everyone will discover that the actual cycle life of the battery is actually long enough that it can support all the cycles needed for driving. At that point, people will realize that there is still economic value for storage lying on the table,'' Clark predicted.

Are we there yet? When it comes to aligning EVs with the grid we've only begun the journey.

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