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Meeting the Challenges of Plug In Electric Vehicles

Eileen Tutt is executive director of the California Electric Transportation Coalition and can be reached at Eileen@caletc.com.

Plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) are part of the automobile landscape in California today. A PEV is any vehicle that can operate partially or exclusively on electricity from an on-board battery and can be plugged in to recharge the battery. Generally speaking, hybrid vehicles are not PEVs, because although they may operate using battery power, their batteries cannot be recharged by plugging into a source of electricity.
PEVs provide many benefits for cities and communities. These cars emit no pollutants when operating on electricity, thereby providing significant air quality benefits. They are also very quiet, which helps reduce noise pollution.
Infrastructure Challenges
The infrastructure challenges associated with PEVs include the process of issuing permits for PEV charging units and managing the demand on the electricity grid, particularly at the local level. Many cities, counties and regions are already working with their local utilities to address permitting challenges. Cities throughout the state have joined counties to embrace expedited permitting programs, with local officials calling for expedited permitting and inspection of PEV charging stations. State agencies and the Legislature have stepped in to support these local efforts, and the California Energy Commission (CEC) has announced it will provide funding for local government infrastructure efforts, including expedited permitting.
In addition, State Senator Christine Kehoe (D-San Diego) has introduced SB 730. This two-year bill would create pilot cities that demonstrate PEV readiness, including streamlined permitting, in coordination with the CEC’s efforts so that the data collected can be shared among all cities, counties and regions as the market for PEVs grows.
As local governments coordinate these readiness efforts, another challenge involves minimizing the impacts on the electricity grid, particularly at the local level. To put this in perspective, it’s helpful to understand a few basic facts about how PEVs draw power to recharge their batteries.
The increase in demand for electricity that results from a single PEV varies depending on how it is recharged. PEVs can be recharged either with 120-volt power or a 240-volt charger. Recharging a PEV by plugging into an ordinary 120-volt wall outlet represents about one-fifth of the increase in electrical demand compared with plugging a PEV into a 240-volt charger. The time it takes to fully charge a depleted battery using a 120-volt outlet ranges from eight to 18 hours depending on battery size. However, the time it takes to fill a depleted battery using a 240-volt charger ranges from four to eight hours depending on battery size and charger amperage. Therefore, it is very likely that PEV owners will opt to install a 240-volt home recharger. One PEV charging on a 240-volt charger represents an electricity demand equivalent to the average peak summer demand of a single home in cities where air conditioning is common, but represents the average peak demand of two to three homes in cities where air conditioning is less common.
If PEV owners charge their vehicles at off-peak times, the impacts can be significantly minimized. However, it will take a collaborative effort of local and state governments, utilities and auto makers to educate consumers about the advantages of off-peak charging.
Other Impacts on the Power Grid
Another key factor in reducing local impacts to the grid is notifying the electric utility about locations where PEVs are charging. Such impacts can be significant, and a partnership between cities and utilities that ensures the utility is notified of a new 240-volt charger can protect against localized power outages or other adverse impacts on the grid. Cities and counties issue permits for 240-volt and higher voltage chargers and can work with the utilities to provide information about where these chargers are, thus helping to mitigate unexpected load increases and avoid expensive upgrades to transformers. Replacing or upgrading local transformers as part of proactive planning rather than as an emergency response to outages will reduce the costs associated with making these improvements.
Both local governments and utilities benefit from such a cooperative effort. Cities and counties are helping to keep the local grid safe, reliable and efficient for residents and businesses, and utilities can upgrade the local grid in a cost-effective manner.
Developing Solutions in an Evolving Field
It’s critically important to understand that the issues related to PEVs are an emerging and evolving area. Conditions and circumstances vary for each jurisdiction, and local governments face a variety of factors that affect decision-making related to PEVs. Furthermore, some communities have been working on these issues for a considerable time, while others are just beginning.
As mentioned earlier, collaborative efforts are under way with utilities, state and local policy-makers and manufacturers to address a wide range of PEV issues. For example, charging station logistics pose a number of challenges. How can local communities best meet the charging needs of PEV drivers who live in multifamily complexes? In a setting with shared charging stations, how are the issues related to billing and power grid demand managed most effectively? In a similar vein, how can the needs of commuters who wish to charge their PEV at commercial parking lots during working hours be addressed?
Consumer education is another area that requires a concerted effort. Buyers need to be educated so they understand that they can’t just run an extension cord into their garage to charge their PEV if they want to do it as quickly as possible. Older homes are likely to need electrical upgrades in order to accommodate the more efficient 240-volt chargers. As part of the push to educate the public, utilities are connecting with consumers when they walk into PEV dealerships to help them understand the practical aspects of PEV ownership.
These issues in turn raise questions related to metering, rates, infrastructure upgrades and permitting. Policy-makers, utilities and manufacturers are grappling with the intricacies of how to plan collaboratively for increasing numbers of PEVs on California’s roads in a way that works for all of the partners in this effort as well as residents and businesses. As these efforts progress, they have the potential to inform other states and the nation.
For updates on policy issues related to PEVs, visit www.cacities.org.
Annual Conference Session to Address Electric Vehicle-Related Issues
City officials interested in learning more should plan to attend the “Smart Grid: What Cities Can Expect” session at the League of California Cities 2011 Annual Conference & Expo in San Francisco, Sept. 21–23. The session will cover the plans submitted by the state’s three investor-owned utilities to transform California’s electrical grid to one that is more efficient, reliable and technologically advanced. Speakers include representatives from local government and utilities.
For more information, visit www.cacities.org/AC
Facts About Plug-In Electric Vehicles
Purchasers of plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) are eligible for federal incentive programs that provide up to $7,500 in tax credits. California offers PEV purchasers an additional rebate of up to $5,000. These rebates bring the price of PEVs in line with that of a comparable gasoline-powered vehicle. As PEV sales increase and manufacturers achieve economies of scale, PEV prices are expected to drop even more.
Electricity is a less expensive fuel than gasoline. A plug-in hybrid with a range of about 35 miles can be fully charged for about $1.90, and a pure battery electric vehicle with a range of about 100 miles can be charged for about $5.60. These estimates are based on California average residential rates. Utilities are likely to adopt special rates for off-peak PEV charging, which would further reduce the cost of electricity used by PEVs.
Studies conducted worldwide since 2009 reflect the experience of several million miles driven in electric vehicles. Some of the key findings indicate that:
  • The limited range of pure battery electric vehicles does not significantly reduce the utility of the vehicle for most drivers. A usable range of about 100 miles covers the mobility needs of most PEV users;
  • Home recharging is preferred by PEV drivers. The current lack of an extensive public infrastructure does not significantly restrict the utility of PEVs; and
  • More than 90 percent of all PEV drivers believe it’s important to have access to renewable energy to charge their PEV.
Additional Resources
The following links provide information related to PEVs.
Investor-Owned Utilities
Municipal Utilities


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