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Why Electric Vehicles Worry California Power Regulators

| Monday February 8th, 2010 | 5 Comments

Pylons; Photo by Net_Efekt

Though historically high gas prices provide a strong market demand for electric vehicles (EVs) in California, it is the state with an electric grid that is the least able to support these cars. With automakers set to launch at least a dozen EV models by 2012, California’s electricity regulators are scrambling to respond to the expected power needs, with policy to accommodate the emerging, private sector infrastructure required for widespread EV use. Meanwhile, car company CEOs are holding their breath–while also optimistically moving forward despite, regulatory uncertainty.

California’s grid is like the economy: overleveraged!

California’s power grid resembles the state’s current economy in both its health and ability to meet needs. California’s electricity demand is barely met by production, which must occur in real-time due to the absence of electricity storage mechanisms. This creates a volatile spot market in the race to meet peak summer demand, when many Californians run air conditioning. In this context, regulators at the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) brace for an onslaught of EVs, which are projected to occupy up to 10% of the domestic auto market by 2020, according to Renault’s bullish estimate.

Energy supply: playing grid Jenga

Charging stations, and especially quick charging stations like those being tested by AeroVironment (an EV charging station maker) and Think (the Norwegian EV company that partnered with them), may exacerbate California’s peak demand issues. AeroVironment’ charging stations use 440 volts to charge an EV battery in fifteen minutes (standard US wall sockets supply electricity at a rate of 120 volts). The AeroVironment charging station’s quick, intense charges may create demand “minipeaks” that, on top of summer peak demand already met only by expensive spot market purchasing, could destabilize the grid. Additionally, a future of widespread EV use points to significantly increased energy demand overall. Where will it come from? In order to supply more energy, to accommodate EVs or growth generally, California must expand its grid.

Regulations will focus on consistency

Solutions for grid expansion include building new infrastructure (green jobs!), increasing smart grid technology proliferation and creating new power facilities on the supply side. These projects are likely to be state sponsored and utility profit friendly, thus unlikely to face serious political opposition.

Regulations around EV charging stations and grid upgrades are most likely to focus on triage- how to prevent a grid collapse due to new potential EV demand. As a result, consistency, logistics and cost assignment are the areas of likely focus. Interconnection consistency, for example, ensures that poor grid connections cannot compromise the grid overall. Regulation may also assign the costs of new grid infrastructure, especially where the grid is expanded specifically to meet the needs of private companies (like a charging station in the middle of nowhere).

Charging station and battery type uniformity would be ideal, but can only come later. Regulators are currently being forced to make energy rules ahead of the market they will effect. With no defined size, keystone product and amidst constant innovation, there is the danger that rules will stifle market efficiency. The real regulation of EVs will come after Californians have chosen their favorite EVs and charging systems, when the EV impact is measurable.

Making it work

Even with impending CPUC regulation, EV are a clear “go” for California as well as the larger national market. CEOs should expect rules that will affect but hopefully not stifle their businesses. Not only would harm to car sales, during California’s worst-ever recession, be political suicide, but three fourths of the CPUC commissioners are Schwarzenegger-appointed ex-corporate lawyers. In one of the only times that these backgrounds will benefit the public, California can reasonably rely on the CPUC to approve industry-friendly rules.


▼▼▼      5 Comments     ▼▼▼

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  • HSR0601

    1. I'm interested in such a novel approach from Aker Wade, a leading provider of fast-charge stations for worldwide industry, saying as belows :

    ” It makes economic sense as part of an integrated energy distribution system, when power is produced at off-peak times it can be stored in the charging stations, if it’s needed somewhere down the line, the grid can take a little power from several stations to equal out demand.

    The charging stations would take in power when rates are about three cents per kilowatt hour, and if the power company needs to take some power back into the grid, it would do so at 40 cents per kilowatt hour. ”

    As such, the stations would even benefit the nation’s power grid.

    2. The utilities prepare to upgrade the electricity grid to accommodate the roll out of electric vehicles, and one of the outstanding features delivered by smart grid, as it is, could be to see the grid more reliable and resilient.

    3. Wind energy is broadly counted as the most cost-competitive type of sustainable source, and the sole compromise of it is its intermittent nature. But with the introduction of EVs, the outstanding concern will be cleared along the way.

    4. The comment below was by far the most recommended one in a certain article, and quite impressive. kindly take time to read this.

    I live in Ontario, so I'll use that as an example here. Other jurisdictions are similar.

    Currently Ontario has about 30,000MW worth of generating capacity of which maybe 28,000MW worth could potentially be available at any given time (the remainder is mostly wind power for which you can't depend on more than 10% from a planning perspective and forced outages).

    Yesterday our PEAK consumption was 20,500MW at about 6:00pm. Overnight the consumption fell to 17,00MW by midnight and down to a minimum of 14,500MW at about 3:00am. We had a full 8 hours where consumption never rose about 18,000MW meaning that last night we had a minimum of 10,000MW worth of spare capacity overnight available for charging vehicles in Ontario. This is actually quite typical.

    Now, 8 hours at 115V/20amp standard household circuits will be more than enough to fully charge a Chevy Volt for it's 64km range every night. Doing so consumes a peak of 2.3kW. So with 10,000MW of spare capacity we have an overnight capacity last night to charge 4.3 million electric cars in Ontario.

    Now obviously that won't work every night, some nights we need more overnight power than last night. There are also some transmission issues that are non-trivial, though not impossible to solve. However even given all of this, tossing 2 million electric cars on the roads in Ontario will be trivial so long as the bulk of them are charged overnight, and making that happen is trivial by simply switching to time-of-day billing (something Ontario, and many others, are already in the process of doing).

    So, can we put 250 million electric cars on the road tomorrow in North America? No. But we can probably drop a good 50 million out there with little to no upgrades required even on the higher power consuming day of the summer.

    Thank So Much !

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  • Amelia

    @ HSR0601 While I don't agree that California's energy demand, esp in summer, is analogous to Ontario's, I see what you mean and like the Aker Wade stuff. Howev, the thing about quick charging stations is that we are not talking about concentrated night time charging, more of a constant addition to daily demand.

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  • http://www.misselectric.com/ Shannon Arvizu

    This is a total false alarm, as other sources have already noted, see http://www.EVCast.com Episode #314, humorously titled, “If A Billion EVs Plug In At Once The Earth Will Explode.” California's electric utility industry has been a strong proponent of plug-in transportation technologies for over a decade. They have developed a very sophisticated knowledge base for integrating plug-in vehicles into the grid and are preparing accordingly. Moreover, renewable energy generation is increasing significantly in the state as well. The state is on track for transitioning to a clean tech transportation system in the most seamless way possible.

  • readandunderstand

    As long as you only charge them at night during the summer the grid could handle it. Not during the day though. It's pretty close to overload as it is. It would be too much on summer days. This is a fact. But night time would be fine after about 8PM. From about 10PM until 6AM would be great! Otherwise, it's risking the grid. Winter would not be a problem at all.

  • readandunderstand

    As long as you only charge them at night during the summer the grid could handle it. Not during the day though. It's pretty close to overload as it is. It would be too much on summer days. This is a fact. But night time would be fine after about 8PM. From about 10PM until 6AM would be great! Otherwise, it's risking the grid. Winter would not be a problem at all.