Electric Vehicles – Getting The Plug-Ins Plugged In
It’s an exciting vision, really – a whole new generation of clean, energy-efficient plug-in electric vehicles capable of running for long periods from a single charge at home overnight. Then when parked at the office, school, or curbside, they could instantly and easily plug in for a recharge or someday even provide excess power to the electrical grid.
Cost savings, environmental pressures on reducing emissions, and energy security issues related to petroleum consumption all favor electric transportation. Automobile makers are seeing some success with electric drive systems – they’ve matured and proven hybrid-electric technologies and experienced good market growth, and are now developing plug-in vehicles. Consumers like the notion of electric vehicles too, and more will likely buy them as they continue to become more available, efficient and affordable.
It’s quite possible that plug-in electronic vehicles will become the preferred mode of personal transportation in the next decade.
But there is one major obstacle to the development, deployment and adoption of electrical vehicles on a large scale – the electrical utility grid as it exists today simply can’t support large numbers of vehicles.
Modernizing the grid
There are a lot of things people take for granted with the electrical power system. When a homeowner turns on the light switch, he expects the power to be there. But adding plug-in cars to the equation introduces new dynamics to the electrical network’s operations.
Is there enough capacity in the neighborhood electrical cable and transformer to charge several cars at the same time and meet all the other local needs? Are there fees and taxes that are different than what would be normally applied to electricity for a residence? What if the vehicle is connected to a public charging location away from home and the charges must be calculated and be charged to a home account? How will the system decide if a car can charge during peak periods, such as a hot summer afternoon?
That’s asking an awful lot of an electrical grid system that today often doesn’t even know when a consumer has lost power until he phones the utility to tell someone. There is infrastructure that most consumers don’t think about that needs to be modified to support convenient and reliable electric car charging — things as basic as plugging a car in anywhere, anytime, with easy-to-use equipment and easy-to-understand costs and payment options.
Over the last six months, this has become a common topic of discussion with power companies around the world. The coming plug-in vehicle phenomenon is one that utilities take very seriously because it will require careful long-range planning and investments in new technologies and capabilities. Utilities need to take into account current power supply and delivery capacity and the emerging demands from a new class of electricity using “appliances” – plug-in cars. In addition, future requirements for power storage, energy efficiency, and renewable energy add complexity to the operating mix.
Electrical grids that can manage all these considerations and deliver the service required to support electric cars will need to be more dynamic, responsive, adaptive, efficient and intelligent. And creating them will require partnerships that include energy companies, power suppliers, equipment makers, academia, governments, information technology companies, and carmakers.
While such lash-ups of diverse partners may seem unusual, they can and must develop and use industry standards. And, by working together through coalitions that are beginning to form now, complete solutions to this challenge can be accelerated.
Take the EDISON Project in Denmark. Local Copenhagen utility DONG Energy is working with regional energy company of Oestkraft, the Technical University of Denmark, Siemens, Eurisco and the Danish Energy Association, and my company to develop a system that will marry wind power and electric vehicle charging. To the extent allowed by consumer preferences, vehicles will be charged when wind is generating excess power. Conversely, the vehicle charging will be slowed or delayed when the wind stops and energy production is diminished.
Denmark is already a leader in wind power – it accounts for 20 percent of the country’s energy mix, and their goal is to double it. This scenario will let eco-minded consumers charge their cars with renewable energy while allowing the utility to better absorb and manage wind-generated power.
There are other signs of early progress as well. Utilities and car companies are beginning to work together. Standards bodies are making some headway. The U.S. government has earmarked some economic stimulus money to support electric transportation roll-outs.
But there is a lot of behind-the-scenes work needed for utilities to really deliver what they are being asked for — electricity available wherever it is needed for recharging. That aim impacts the people who operate the distribution network day in and day out, how they switch the power system configuration for maintenance, how they plan for restoration of power when there is an outage, how they plan and construct new capacity that extends circuits out to physical locations.
That’s going to require a lot of work and investment in things like sensor data collection, data management, application integration, analytics and optimization and security. It also will require lots of third party technologies such as “smart” metering that allows two-communication between the power provider and the user. And in the back office there are billing systems and customer management systems that must be adapted to these new conditions.
Which comes first?
It’s a classic chicken-or-egg problem — people won’t buy plug-in electric vehicles if there’s nowhere to charge them, and utility companies won’t invest in the infrastructure to support them unless they’re sure it will get used.
So all interested parties – carmakers, governments, power producers and their suppliers, technology companies and consumers – need to engage so that market adoption and infrastructure maturity will develop in tandem.
Allan Schurr is Vice President of Energy and Utility Strategy and Development for IBM.
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