Utilities Plan for Neighborhood EV Clusters

By Published On: May 28, 2010

Summer power demand will soar if electric vehicle ownership develops as planned by the state, overloading existing distribution infrastructure, according to utilities. In anticipation, utilities already are planning, and in some cases installing upgraded equipment to handle the new load. Some electric-powered vehicles use as much power to charge as four households use during the summer months, Bill Boyce, Sacramento Municipal Utility District electric transportation supervisor, told the Assembly Transportation and Utilities & Commerce Committees at a joint hearing May 24 Existing distribution facilities cannot handle the load in many instances, he said, particularly if charging occurs during the day. Limits could become acute in neighborhoods where electric vehicle clusters develop. Addressing the constraint, California Public Utilities Commission member Nancy Ryan told the panels the commission is developing time-of-use rates. The rates, she said, incentivize charging at night when there is slack capacity in the grid. This minimizes the need for new facilities, she explained. To help make sure motorists can always find a place to recharge so they don’t get stranded, Ryan said a draft decision released May 21 exempts charge station operators from CPUC regulation. They “are not utilities,” said Ryan, because “they are not a natural monopoly.” Ryan said the full commission could adopt the proposal--modeled after a decision that exempted natural gas vehicle fueling stations from CPUC regulation-- as soon as late June. But even as the state deploys charging infrastructure, Ryan pointed out that for electric vehicles to run truly emissions-free, utilities increasingly must make electricity with renewable energy. Now, the “slack capacity” available in the middle of the night is mostly from nuclear and some fossil-fueled plants that do not have the ability to ramp power production up and down according to demand. By the middle of the decade, utilities expect to see hundreds of thousands of plug-in hybrids charging up off the grid, utility representatives said. In response, California utilities, like Pacific Gas & Electric, are planning upgrades to their distribution systems to prepare for hybrid electric vehicles (see story on page 4). California policy makers expect virtually all vehicles will have to be electric in order to achieve the 80 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions required under the state’s climate change law, AB 32, by 2050. Plug-in hybrids run on batteries and electric motors for short trips and then switch to combustion engines for longer trips. GM plans to introduce the first mass market plug-in hybrid, the Volt, late this year. Pure electric vehicles, which are expected to follow plug-in hybrids, rely solely on batteries to run, without the benefit a range-extending internal combustion engine. Southern California Edison recently modeled how up to 200,000 plug-in hybrids in its service territory by 2015 could affect its 4,300 distribution circuits, according to Doug Kim, plug-in hybrid readiness director for the utility. Based on the results, Edison already is installing upsized transformers in its distribution system as it replaces aged units, he said. In Washington, a bipartisan group of lawmakers announced May 27 that they plan to introduce legislation to spur commercialization of electric vehicles. The bicameral Electric Vehicle Deployment Act provides the Department of Energy $4 billion to offer $2,000 subsidies for electric vehicle purchases in selected regions of the nation that would have to compete for the money. The bill provides additional money for charging stations, plus $5 billion in loan money to build an electric vehicle factory in the U.S. In the House, Representatives Ed Markey (D-MA) and Judy Biggert (R-IL) are sponsoring the bill. In the upper chamber, Senators Byron Dorgan (D-ND), Lamar Alexander (R-TN), and Jeff Merkley (D-OR) are its sponsors. The Electrification Coalition is backing the measure. The organization is a coalition of automotive, technology, transportation, and utility companies, including Pacific Gas & Electric, which are pushing for pro-electric vehicle public policies.

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