Electric vehicles and the changes they promise to bring to our transportation infrastructure are making lots of headlines these days, but to Ed Kjaer, the director of Electric Vehicle Tech Center, EVs are old hat.
Kjaer drives an electric Toyota RAV-4 every day. He’s logged 83,000 miles on the rig, which he drives to Southern California Edison’s Pomona facility, home of the EV Tech Center. And when he gets to work, it’s all EV, all the time. It’s clear from talking to Kjaer that he’s an EV advocate. But EV technology is about more than just zero-emission vehicles. It’s about a new approach to energy management and storage.
Step inside the EV Tech Center and the first thing you’ll notice, aside from shiny new electric concept cars from the likes of Ford and other carmakers, is an electrical buzz—similar to the buzz you’ll hear walking past power lines in a rain storm. Must be all those power and battery systems that researchers in the lab are putting through their paces. Of particular focus, not surprisingly, are banks of automotive grade lithium-ion batteries.
“The longest test has been going on for four years,” explains Kjaer. “We’ve put the equivalent of 200,000 miles on the batteries.” The purpose of the tests is to better understand battery performance under various conditions and to also try to determine what kind of shape the batteries will be in at the end of their host vehicles’ lives, to determine ways of extending their life cycles. One possible scenario is that utilities such as Southern California Edison (SCE) could find a use for used car batteries for energy storage. “How much energy will be left in those batteries? Can SCE reuse or extend the life of that battery?” asks Kjaer.
But not all the work takes place in the lab, he adds. “We bring in professional drivers to perform road tests. This, plus the lab tests, provides a glimpse into the realistic use of these vehicles in the real world.”
Another element of the EV Tech Center is the Garage of the Future. If MTV ever debuts a “Cribs” for cars, this tricked out shed should be in the first episode. Powered in part by a solar array and complete with a battery stack designed for home energy storage and smart meter, the garage was designed with a vision that one day, drivers will be able to gather enough electricity from the solar panels (or other renewable sources) to charge their cars, while storing excess power in onsite batteries—power that can be used to supplement the energy needs inside the home, or to sell back to the grid during times of peak demand.
The fact that the EV Tech Center is busily mapping out the future of EVs isn’t so surprising—after all, SCE has a vested interest in supporting EVs and EV drivers because they will be important players in building out the smart grid. What’s more impressive, perhaps, is the 16-year history behind the EV Tech Center.
SCE opened the EV Tech Center opened in 1993 as a laboratory for testing and evaluating electric-drive vehicles, battery technology and EV infrastructure. It was a forward-looking move at the time, and thankfully the effort wasn’t snubbed out when carmakers wiped EVs off Southern California roadways.
In fact, the utility has done a good job of keeping EVs on the road. It maintains a fleet of 300 EVs—electrified Toyota RAV-4s—and uses them for tasks such as visiting ratepayer sites to collect meter readings. That’s the largest EV fleet in the world, according to the utility.
These EVs have traveled 18 million miles and, SCE estimates, saved 9200 tons of tailpipe emissions and 9600 tons of carbon (this doesn’t count carbon released during electricity generation). Those numbers would make any fleet manager, or any sustainability officer, jealous. It also makes SCE a great case study for how to maintain and utilize a fleet of EVs—now that doing soon will soon become a real opportunity for businesses of all types.
Another area of study for researchers at the lab is the potential for advances in battery technology to allow energy storage at distributed renewable energy stations (or even in residences–that’s why the battery stack is in the Garage of the Future). This would allow utilities to capture and store some of the energy produced by wind turbines and solar arrays, thereby smoothing out the output of power at these sites and making them more consistent as energy sources. SCE is pursuing a number of government grants to build out this type of energy storage technology.
Note: Last week, Edison International offered to bring a Triple Pundit reporter down to Pomona, Calif., to tour its Electric Vehicle Tech Center and to attend a press conference with Craver and Ed Kjaer, the director of EV Tech Center. So I accepted the offer—and the Edison-sponsored air travel—and went to SoCal to learn more.