Last week, I discussed the important role energy policy will play in accelerating Smart Grid deployment. After all, without clear federal guidance, you can imagine it might be a bit of a head-scratcher for utility executives to know – with 100 percent certainty – where to put their money, especially with so many other unanswered Smart Grid questions.

It’s possible (and perhaps likely) that broad market adoption of Electric Vehicles (EVs) might have an even greater impact than political drivers on Smart Grid acceleration. Here’s why …

A recent report from Pike Research estimated that plug-in hybrid electric vehicles and battery electric vehicle sales could reach 3.2 million between 2010 and 2015, and that the United States could have 26 percent of that global market.  An Accenture study found that 42 percent of consumers in its five-country survey are likely to buy a hybrid vehicle or an EV within the next two years.

Without a smarter grid, the two-fold increase in electrical consumption within EV-owning households during vehicle recharging could be unmanageable, resulting in brownouts and blackouts --especially in areas with high EV penetration.  

Social dynamics within communities may also lead to neighborhood “hot spots” – adding considerable strain to portions of the grid. This is especially probable once EV owners start touting the cost benefits of EVs, which are expected to operate at one-third to one-quarter the cost per mile of gas-powered cars. Additionally, government incentives, car features, and the overall “coolness” factor of EVs are likely to fuel a transportation revolution.

Without utility price incentives to encourage “off-peak” charging, however, the grid may be dramatically strained following the evening commute (also known as “peak”).

Fortunately, with the right Smart Grid technologies in place, the U.S. grid could manage nearly three-quarters of the United States’ light-duty car fleet for an average 33-mile commute without building additional generating capacity, according to the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL).  With dynamic rates in place, cars could be smart enough to charge at “off-peak” hours when electrical rates are cheapest and generating capacity is plentiful – causing no inconvenience for the customer. 

Vehicle-to-grid (V2G) capabilities could also be harnessed to help utilities manage peak demand. Power companies could pull stored power from the cars of (willing) consumers to help offset high-demand periods. Utilities could also use car batteries for frequency regulation, which is already a billion-dollar market, to ensure electrical supply always matches demand. The potential benefits of V2G and frequency regulation for utilities are so great that some have actually called EVs the “killer app” for Smart Grid.

As EVs gain traction, utilities will have no choice but to more rapidly advance their electrical infrastructure, and most major utilities have had the foresight to start preparing today.  However, EVs aren’t just a paradigm shift in transportation – they are a revolution in administration and maintenance, as well as energy markets and grids. Business models and consumer expectations about charging are just a few of the questions confronting us today.  This revolution will require new working relationships among utilities, car and charging companies, and municipalities.

For this reason, the GridWeek organizing committee is tackling critical EV/grid challenges in its full-day EV Grid Summit to foster productive dialogue among key industry stakeholders next month.

Leaders from major car companies (GM, Volkswagen, Toyota, and Nissan) will join panelists from standards bodies (National Institute of Standards and Technology), research companies (Electric Power Research Institute), vehicle charging companies, and utilities to debate some of the most pressing issues and challenges, including:

  • Smart Grid integration:  There are many questions about the impacts EVs will have on the grid, and vice-versa.  For example, what are the pros and cons of integrating EVs with advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) and with load-shifting activities through demand response (DR)? How much new generation capacity will be needed to manage widespread EV adoption?  And what are the ramifications of integration decisions on utility rates and EV deployments?
  • Consumers and charging patterns: Consumer acceptance still raises critical questions. What should utility planners anticipate regarding consumers’ charge time expectations and charge location preferences? What is the right approach for anticipating, researching, and validating charging patterns? How and where will people prefer to charge their vehicles? Or, will people actually prefer to simply swap out their drained batteries for pre-charged batteries at facilities resembling today’s “gas station”?
  • Charging infrastructure: The debate about charging infrastructure has several points and counterpoints. Some industry experts promote at-home charging, while others believe that most charging will occur at work sites, with set charge time parameters reminiscent of fleet behaviors. What are the infrastructure demands brought on by smart charging versus speed charging and home charging versus charging in public places?  
  • Standards activity and coordination: The speed of standards development is a recurring theme in all of Smart Grid progress. Specific to EVs, what are the current standards activities and how are efforts being coordinated to assess gaps and bottlenecks that could potentially impede progress? How will we ensure global standards among car manufacturers so that we can keep manufacturing costs down?

The time is now for policymakers, state regulators, city leaders, car and battery manufacturers, and utilities to join forces to help expeditiously and cost-effectively usher in an EV future. Switching from gas-powered cars to EVs would cut our oil imports by more than half and reduce emissions in the U.S. by nearly one-third, leading our nation down the road toward energy independence, while  saving many economically burdened consumers money on their daily commute.

Our economy and national security depend on this transition. To get there, we need a smarter grid. Let’s put the pedal to the metal.

See you next month at GridWeek’s EV Grid Summit.