Will Electric Cars Overload the Grid?

With the expected uptick in sales of electric cars, concern arises over the burden on the grid. But experts say there should be no problem keeping autos charged for ‘power trips.’
Illustration by Pat kinsella

Electric cars are becoming downright fashionable, the environmental cutting edge for those who can afford it. Hollywood Oscar parties now celebrate the green of it all, and even top-tier actors — think George Clooney and Tom Hanks — drive electric.

But beyond the green and the warm and the fuzzy lurks gritty work: finding ways to fuel the future if, say, a million electric cars are soon humming along U.S. highways.

Those car owners will want efficient ways to plug in to the grid, the national system of wires that connect power plants to electrical outlets in homes and elsewhere. Chalk it up as a budding industry that, in one analysis, has Michigan poised to be the Silicon Valley of clean energy.

Overall, fueling cars from the grid is green.

“There’s no question that going electric is far cleaner than driving your average gasoline car,” says Luke Tonachel, an energy and transportation analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council. “If you’re shopping for a new car, plug-in electric vehicles are one of the cleanest vehicle options. Any impact from the production and use of the plug-in electric cars pales in comparison to the pollution of traditional gas powered cars.”

For environmentalists, one electric-car advantage is the option to kiss off the grid and refuel with solar panels or other alternative energy. Plus, as power plants are upgraded to generate less pollution, plug-in electrics will, in turn, be greener.

But where to plug in to the grid while away from home? There’s an app for that. A California company, Xatori, publishes PlugShare, a smart-phone application that tracks the location of car-charging stations. Generous electric car owners can also make available their charging outlets to give fellow electric pioneers a quick boost of juice if they’re in the neighborhood. Run the app to find a nearby outlet. More than 4,500 charging locations around the country are listed, says Xatori (pronounced zu-tor-ee).

In a State of the Union speech, President Barack Obama called for having a million electric vehicles on U.S. roads by 2015, up from just a smattering. It’s a tough sell. Some 57 percent of Americans won’t buy an all-electric car with limited range, according to a USA Today/Gallup poll. Such cars typically travel 100 miles or fewer before stopping for more juice.

Jason Wolf says his company, Better Place, has a solution for increasing electric-car range: switching batteries on the fly.

“This is a fully automated system,” says Wolf, Better Place’s vice president for North America. “You drive in, there’s a gate at the front. It opens. You go through what looks like a modern car wash. Everything is done automatically. It has already communicated to your navigation system where you need to switch batteries. You go through a three-to-four minute switch from start to end. It aligns with the vehicle, removes the depleted battery and puts in a fresh battery and you’re off in three to four minutes.”

Users would, in effect, subscribe to the service. The company opened its first demonstration center in Israel in 2010. Wolf equates buying an electric car with a fixed battery to buying eight years of gasoline at the dealership.

“We don’t pay for eight years of gasoline when we buy the car,” he says. “If we did, it would cost pretty much the same as an electric vehicle with a fixed battery. But if we separate that battery, you suddenly release about a third of the price of the vehicle and now you can sell it for $20,000, competitive with a gasoline car. Then you can provide the buyer of that switchable-battery car a membership to the energy.”

However electric cars are fed, there’s plenty of juice available.

“There is essentially no worry at all about power supply,” says John Voelcker, editor of GreenCarReports.com, a website that monitors and reports on the electric-car industry. “Even if you drive half the miles driven in the country on power from the grid, you’re adding less than 10 percent to total electric demand.”

A million or so electric cars on the road appeals to advocates of vehicle-to-grid (V2G) technology, which configures electric cars to plug in and sell power back to the grid when needed. Cars could be tapped to balance loads during peak usage and earn the owner money (perhaps $5 to $10 a day under the right conditions).

Voelcker calls V2G a “lovely idea, in theory.”

“But it’s very, very far away in terms of something car buyers need to think about,” he says. “You’re going to need tens of thousands of electric cars in any one locale to make it practical. More than that, it’s like someone saying, ‘I want to siphon some gasoline out of your tank any time I want — you OK with that?’ ”

But beyond the green and the warm and the fuzzy lurks gritty work: finding ways to fuel the future if, say, a million electric cars are soon humming along U.S. highways.

In Michigan, a sprint to hook electric cars to the grid is on. DTE Energy recently salted Southeast Michigan with car-charging stations at 16 public locations, including Detroit Metro Airport, Ferndale, Rochester, Auburn Hills, and Saline.

In Farmington Hills, Nissan partnered with General Electric to speed development of smarter charging systems.

“Using the research they have in place and the data we have from the cars we’re currently selling, we can start mapping out the impact those vehicles will have and how smart-grid technologies can be implemented,” Nissan spokesman Brian Brockman says.

Ford Motor teamed up with SunPower Corp. to provide Focus Electric buyers with an unusual option: solar panels atop their homes. The system, sized for driving about 1,000 miles a month, will cost less than $10,000 after federal tax credits. Ford also contracted with Best Buy to sell a 240-volt charging system for the Focus Electric.

Michigan State University, like many colleges, has charging stations on campus. In November, MSU opened its first public charger at the Kellogg Hotel and Conference Center.

Michigan’s Clean Energy Coalition partnered with 41 other organizations to build long-term consumer confidence in electric vehicles and make public connections to the grid more convenient.

“A primary focus is to make sure municipalities have the tools they need to accommodate the growth in charging stations,” says Sean Reed, executive director of the coalition, a nonprofit agency based in Ann Arbor. “We have a lot more electric vehicles coming to market than we’ve ever seen. It’s going to take time for those numbers to build up significantly, but there’s no doubt there’s a lot of momentum behind the growth.”

Utilities are already researching how a large fleet of electric cars will affect the grid.

“If you add incremental loads to a neighborhood, it’s not like some magic number is reached and you have an outage in the area,” says Mark Duvall, director of electric transportation for the California-based Electric Power Research Institute. “That doesn’t happen. “When you overload transformers and other equipment, they wear out more quickly. This is equipment that can last for decades. So the effect can be very subtle. Utilities have their own operating requirements for their equipment. When they observe that equipment is not meeting the operating requirements, they’ll upgrade the system.”

At a typical household current of 120 volts, charging an electric car draws 1,400 watts or so, less than some hair dryers. But at that voltage, it may take overnight or longer to charge. For a faster turnaround, automakers recommend a 240-volt charging station.

One potential snag is “clustering.” That’s when a number of electric cars show up in the same neighborhood and drain more electricity than usual. The first clusters are likely to develop in an upscale suburb of early adopters, say people who study such things. If a cluster develops, electrical service there would need to be upgraded to handle the load.

Tonachel, of the Natural Resources Defense Council, predicts more and more options for car buyers.

“The car fleet takes an average of 15 years to turn over the entire fleet of vehicles on the road,” he says. “The future of transportation is one of more choices for consumers. There will be different types, but all of those vehicles will be cleaner and consume less oil, which is going to be good for American pocketbooks, as well as good for the environment and good for our national security.

“With respect to Michigan in particular, the Midwest is poised to become the Silicon Valley of clean vehicles. It’s because of the standards and investments that have been made. Michigan led the nation in U.S. patents for clean energy from 2002 to 2010 due to these vehicle investments. Patents awarded for hybrids and electric vehicles jumped 60 percent from 2009 to 2010.”

If Tonachel is correct, Michigan is driving back to the future. The state pioneered electric cars more than 100 years ago, producing the battery-powered Detroit Electric, advertised as “graceful, distinctive, yet dignified.” It was knocked off by the internal-combustion engine.

What comes around, goes around.

Bullard is a Nebraska-based freelancer. Email: editorial@hourdetroit.com.

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