Preparing for Electric Vehicles

Even though gas prices at the pump are much lower than they were 12 to 18 months ago, plug-in hybrid electric and plug-in electric vehicles are still getting a lot of attention. In past years, when gasoline prices retreated after a sharp increase, interest in new vehicle technologies seemed to retreat with them. That isn’t the case this time. These vehicles are attractive to consumers for reasons beyond the price of gasoline. Most of us would like to take some credit for reducing CO2 emissions, and plug-in vehicles would allow drivers to do so.

In addition, every time I hear about an OPEC meeting or see one of T. Boone Pickens’ press releases telling me how much money we (U.S. citizens) sent last month to hostile nations in the Middle East and other unstable regions for foreign oil, I think I might feel better about myself if I were driving an electric car.

Almost every major auto manufacturer, in conjunction with battery developers, is working feverishly to create an affordable electric vehicle that will appeal to the masses, so it’s a matter of time before we see electric cars begin to overtake the cars designed around the technology that replaced horse-drawn carriages 100 years ago.

This summer President Barack Obama said he wants 1 million electric vehicles on the road by 2015. One million sounds like a lot of automobiles, doesn’t it?

In reality, 1 million is just a drop in the bucket when you consider that about 135 million passenger cars are on U.S. roads today. Even if we reach this goal, it likely will have little impact on CO2 emissions or oil imports.

Recently I heard Energy Secretary Steven Chu discuss his vision for electric vehicles. He said that the current grid is not ready for the 30 to 50 percent (40 million to 68 million) penetration of electric vehicles that he wants on the road.

Chu envisions a substantially larger electric vehicle fleet than Obama does. The Electrification Coalition, which aims to reduce U.S. dependence on oil through the electrification of transportation, has an even loftier goal. Last month, the organization published its “Electrification Roadmap” designed “to provide a public policy guide to transforming the U.S. light-duty ground transportation system from one that is oil-dependent to one powered almost entirely by electricity.” The goal in the document is 120 million electric vehicles, or what the coalition calls grid-enabled vehicles, on the road by 2030. Reaching that goal should make a difference in emissions and oil imports. It will also have a major impact on electric utilities.

For the immediate future, the current grid should have no trouble fueling the nation’s fleet of electric vehicles. The task will become more challenging, however, as more electric vehicles show up in American driveways. The thought of Americans plugging in 50 million or more electric vehicles before they go to bed each night, or even more alarming, while they watch the evening news, has many utilities worried.

There is no need for panic, however; it will likely be some time before millions of these vehicles hit the road. Dr. Kathryn Clay, director of research for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents most major automakers, said it will take decades for grid-charged electric vehicles to account for a significant portion of the U.S. transportation vehicle fleet. Clay said breakthroughs in battery technology are needed, and new technologies typically take 15 years to penetrate the national fleet as older vehicles retire and are replaced by new models.

While there is ample time, now is the time for utilities and automakers to begin working together to prepare for a smooth transition to the grid-charged electric vehicle fleet.

Editor’s note: Dr. Kathryn Clay will be one of the many featured speakers at the Electric Light & Power Executive Conference on March 21 and 22, 2010, in Tampa, Fla.

Teresa Hansen, editor in chief

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