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Utilities Excited and Worried As More Electric Vehicles Come On-Line

Posted on December 1, 2010
Filed Under Electric Vehicles, HEV, PHEV | Leave a Comment

The first mass-market electric cars go on sale next month, and the nation’s electric utilities couldn’t be more thrilled — or worried.

Plugged into a socket, an electric car can draw as much power as a small house. The surge in demand could knock out power to a home, or even a neighborhood. That has utilities in parts of North Carolina, California and Texas scrambling to upgrade transformers and other equipment in neighborhoods where the Nissan Leaf and Chevrolet Volt are expected to be in high demand.

Not since air conditioning spread across the country in the 1950s and 1960s has the power industry faced such a growth opportunity. Last year, Americans spent $325 billion on gasoline, and utilities would love even a small piece of that market.

The main obstacles to wide-scale use of electric cars are high cost and limited range, at least until a network of charging stations is built. But utility executives fret that difficulties keeping the lights on for the first crop of buyers — and their neighbors — could slow the growth of this new niche.

“You never get a second chance to make a first impression,” says Mike Rowand, who is in charge of electric vehicle planning at Duke Energy, based in Charlotte.

Auto executives say it’s inevitable that utilities will experience some difficulties early on. “We are all going to be a lot smarter two years from now,” says Mark Perry, the director of product planning for Nissan North America.

Electric cars run on big batteries that are charged by plugging into a standard wall socket or a more powerful charging station. A combined 30,000 Nissan Leafs and Chevrolet Volts are expected to be sold over the next year. Over the next two years, Ford, Toyota and every other major automaker also plan to offer electric cars.

Governments are promoting the expensive technology as a way to reduce dependence on foreign oil, cut greenhouse gas emissions and improve air quality. Congress is offering electric car buyers a $7,500 tax credit and some states and cities provide additional subsidies that can total $8,000. The Leaf sells for $33,000 and the Volt sells for $41,000.

Driving 10,000 miles on electricity will use about 2,500 kilowatt-hours, a 20 percent increase over the average annual consumption of a U.S. home. At an average utility rate of 11 cents per kilowatt-hour, that’s $275 for a year of fuel, equivalent to about 70 cents per gallon of gasoline.

Nationwide, utilities have enough power plants and equipment to power hundreds of thousands of electric cars. Problems could crop up long before that many are sold, though, because of a phenomenon carmakers and utilities call “clustering.”

Electric vehicle clusters are expected in neighborhoods where:

• Generous subsidies are offered by states and localities
• Weather is mild, because batteries tend to perform better in warmer climates
• High-income and environmentally conscious commuters live

Progress Energy is expecting electric car clusters to form in Raleigh, Cary and Asheville, and around Orlando and Tampa, Fla. Duke Energy is expecting the same in Charlotte and Indianapolis.

Adding an electric vehicle or two to a neighborhood can be like adding another house, and it can stress the equipment that services those houses. “We’re talking about doubling the load of a conventional home,” says Karl Rabago, who leads Austin Energy’s electric vehicle-readiness program. “It’s big.”

How big depends on the size of the battery in the car, and how fast the car is charged.

When plugged into a standard 120-volt socket, the electric car will draw 1,500 watts. By comparison, a medium-sized air conditioner or a countertop microwave oven will draw about 1,000 watts.

But the car can be charged faster, and therefore draw more power, when plugged into a home charging station. The first Leafs and Volts can draw 3,300 watts, and both carmakers may boost that to 6,600 watts soon. The Tesla Roadster, an electric sports car with a huge battery, can draw 16,800 watts. That’s the equivalent of 280 60-watt light bulbs.

A modest home in the San Francisco Bay area that doesn’t need air conditioning might draw 3,000 watts at most.

Extra stress on a transformer from one or two electric vehicles could cause it to overheat and fail, knocking out power to the block.

Ted Craver, the chief executive of the parent company of SoCal Edison and a chairman of an industry electric vehicle planning association, says early buyers will likely be tolerant of a few hiccups. At the same time, he says, those are the people utilities should try hard to please. “They turn into promoters,” he says.

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