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Electric Vehicles – Disruptive Technology?

RP Siegel | Tuesday October 2nd, 2012 | 3 Comments

Last Sunday was National Plug In Day, a day of recognition of plug-in electric and hybrid vehicles. Events were held in 65 cities across the nation.

Participation had all the markings of a disruptive technology in its genesis, a solid number of enthusiastic early adopters, holding forth with their pride of ownership to a growing crowd of curious mainstream consumers who were asking lots of questions. That’s what I saw at the event I attended in suburban Penfield, NY outside of Rochester. A dozen or so EV owners stood beside their electronically powered steeds like proud papas pointing into the open engine, oops, I mean, motor compartments. There was a booth set up with a sign that asked how much does it cost to drive 100 miles? The answers, which were hidden under cardboard covers, were as follows:

  • gasoline car (25 mpg @ $4/gal = $16)
  • electric car (25 kWh @ $0.10/kWh= $2.50)
  • electric car charged by solar = $0

Indeed, the 50,000 current EV owners have already logged some 200 million electrically powered miles. And that’s just the beginning. What is needed is for more people to understand the equation of spending a little more money upfront in return for a lot of savings over the long haul. It would help if banks would step up and offer the kind of financing that is now available for renewables and energy-efficiency projects, using some of the energy savings to pay off the loan more quickly. After all, the average American now spends $200 a month on gasoline. That could fatten up anyone’s electric car payment.

Plug In America estimates that over 10,000 people attended the various events which were sponsored nationally by Plug In America, Sierra Club, and the Electric Auto Association, with additional local sponsors.

Bob Seibert, chairman of the Sierra Club’s Global Warming Committee said, “I think we finally got the ball rolling.”

Plug In America President, Chad Schwitters, added, “We were very gratified that so many companies, utilities, and government agencies joined excited and satisfied customers for National Plug In Day.” Indeed, many manufacturers were on hand at multiple locations showing off their wares.

Mike Calise, Director of the Electric Vehicles at Schneider Electric was on hand at the Cupertino, California event to show off his company’s new line of EV chargers. I caught up with Mike by phone, a couple of days after the event. He shared my perception of a disruptive technology in the making. Disruptive technology is a term coined by Clayton Christiansen in his book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, distinguishing it from sustaining technology which is incremental in nature. Disruptive technology is risky, it goes against the grain and finds its way into the market like a weed coming up through a crack in the sidewalk, often meeting a need that most people didn’t even realize existed, sometimes catching the major players by surprise.

At the National Plug In Day Event, Schneider demonstrated their latest Level 3 DC quick charger which was announced in May. This 50 kW DC charger is a high-end commercial unit designed to be located along highways between cities. Running at 90 to 120 amps at anywhere from 208 to 600 volts three phase, they are capable of delivering 80 percent of a full charge in 30 minutes. This could begin to reshape our idea of a road trip to include stopping for refreshments or a stretch break while the vehicle recharges. The availability of the quick chargers essentially increases the “effective range” of these electric vehicles.

This could conceivably spawn a whole new industry of “things to do while your vehicle charges up.” You will be waiting a relatively long time for what amounts to a couple of dollars worth of electricity, though undoubtedly there will be premiums for the convenience factor.  I wouldn’t be surprised to see free EV charging promotions as a way to attract customers to various locations and get them to spend time there. Once they plug in, they are a captive audience.

Some of these “convenience chargers” are already deployed in demonstration projects like the one in California we wrote about last spring.

Schneider is developing the electrical equivalent of a gas pump, so why should we care about that? Probably, if it wasn’t for the fact that this is disruptive technology which will change the way we do things and improve the impact of our transportation system on the environment, we wouldn’t care. But some people are already able to charge up their vehicles at home (no more gas stations!), or charge them up while parked at work, or maybe even at the mall. And soon, you’ll be able to charge up along the highway when you go to visit Grandma, a hundred miles up the road.

These variable electric demands will be drawing power from an integrated electrical system that is being supplied by various power sources, including time-varying power from renewables. This requires not only a smart grid, but intelligent networked chargers designed to transact interactively with the grid. That’s what these chargers are capable of doing now. Think of them as an air traffic controllers for electrons.

I asked Mike if they had thought about building up their brand around the idea of charging EVs with renewable energy, to be super clean and to get down to that totally free driving experience. (Schneider has a renewable business).

He said he’d look in to it.

[Image courtesy of Schneider Electric]

RP Siegel, PE, is an inventor, consultant and author. He co-wrote the eco-thriller Vapor Trails, the first in a series covering the human side of various sustainability issues including energy, food, and water in an exciting and entertaining format. Now available on Kindle.

Follow RP Siegel on Twitter.


▼▼▼      3 Comments     ▼▼▼

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  • pt

    More disruption I say!!!

  • http://blog.kwiqly.com/ James Ferguson @kWIQly

    Always wondered why they cant standardize of power cells so they can charge and then be swapped out – If Formula One can charge 4 racing tires in 4 seconds – I guess I could swap a barry pack over in 5 minutes if it was well designed!

  • Fabian Lamaestra

    @James Ferguson they already have that in Isreal, it’s called the “better place” project.