Electric Vehicles

How utilities should prepare for electric cars

For many people, the rise in popularity of electric vehicles may seem like something new. What they may not realize is that the first electric car was introduced in 1832, around the same time engineers were developing the first internal combustion engine. In fact, we've already had a president who was an electric car enthusiast: Woodrow Wilson, who drove a Fine Milburn electric car around Washington, D.C. in the 1910s and 1920s.

And President Wilson wasn't alone. In those early days of automobiles, an estimated 25 percent of the cars on the road were electric. Driving an EV wasn't unusual; it was fashionable.

Even if that wasn't the case for the rest of the twentieth century, thanks in large part to Henry Ford's manufacturing genius and the availability of cheap oil from Texas, it's easy to argue that changes in consumer preferences and advancements in storage technologies have put the electric vehicle squarely back in fashion. If you don't believe me, just walk by a Tesla dealership or spot the plug-in electric hybrids on the road next time you are commuting to work.

And last year, Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz announced that the Department of Energy would be putting forward $50 million to help accelerate the research and future production of electric vehicles.

What's becoming clear is that the electric vehicle is likely here to stay this time around. There may be some debate about the environmental impact of going electric, but the trendiness of the cars and the pressure of environmental concerns has really increased the EVs popularity, especially among the affluent. And if they are here to stay, how are utilities supposed to react to a new technology pulling a lot of load off of their distribution systems? Even if the electric car is older than the electric power system, it hadn't been plugged into the electric grid in modest numbers until relatively recently.

So what does the future marriage between electric distribution and the electric car require? I have some ideas.

First off, utilities need to recognize what these vehicles are going to do to their loads. In the 1970s, the prevalence of air conditioners suddenly put new load pressures on utilities as people upped their ACs on a hot day. Are we now going to see load influxes at night when people come home and plug in their electric vehicle? This may require rethinking rate structures and reappraising new peaks, according to the Electrification Coalition, a not-for-profit group promoting electric vehicles.

Second, utilities need to embrace the EV market, beginning with their own fleet of meter readers, bucket trucks and service vehicle. This should expand to the non-commuting vehicles. A scan of the electric service vehicles already in widespread use, from golf carts to fork lifts to farming equipment, shows a number of instances where better battery storage capabilities have made their presence fairly commonplace, and that's not likely to change as these vehicles offer lower fuel and maintenance costs and quiet operation.

Thirdly, access to infrastructure is a must-have for cities that want to embrace electric vehicles. When I recently talked to a colleague in Florida at a Demand Response event about him making a visit to APPA's new offices in Crystal City, Virginia, he asked if there was a charging station at our building. I'd never considered this since I don't have an electric car but it's clear that people who are going to own electric vehicles are going to plan out trips with the expectation that they will be able to charge their cars at meetings. (For the record, we do have places to plug-in your electric cars at the base of our new building.)

All this shows that utilities should look beyond just renewables, advanced metering, and distributed generation in considering how changes in customer preference, expectations, and needs will impact them. Major changes are also coming from a product that looks like something we've had in our garages for a century but which are now going to be plugged into the grid in greater and greater amounts with each passing year.

From Sacramento to Nashville, from Rochester, Minnesota, to Kissimmee, Florida, public power communities are developing the information resources and putting in the infrastructure to support their customers who are already part of this EV resurgence. Just this month, Burbank Water and Power in California is rolling out its curbside charging program. For many utilities, there's already a critical mass of customers who are driving their electric vehicles and are happy to have a utility that is prepared.

So I applaud Secretary Moniz for trying to get ahead of this shift by boosting R&D in the electric vehicle market. Short of the next Henry Ford harnessing cheap hydrogen to bring the internal combustion engine roaring back, the electric vehicle may prove to be the way of the future — and the latest change that the utility industry must be prepared for.