Plug and Play: A Q&A with Luke Tonachel on Electric Cars

Given the huge amount of carbon emissions from vehicles, the shift from internal combustion engines to electric can't come too soon. And the news that telephone boxes in Madrid, Barcelona and Spain are being converted to charging stations for plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) gives hope that these vehicles may be poised to join the mainstream. In our ongoing series of conversations with NRDC experts, vehicle analyst Luke Tonachel gives us his take on the industry.

Q: Where does the greatest difficulty lie now in turning electric vehicles into a mainstream transportation option? Is it a technical issue, such as improving batteries; an infrastructure issue, such as developing a smart grid; or an administrative issue in resolving matters between vehicle manufacturers, utilities and third-party services?

LT: Fortunately, the technology exists to start deploying plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles today. Several automakers will have plug-in vehicles in their showrooms over the next two years. Recent advances in batteries promise safe, reliable operations over many years of driving, but high up-front costs will be an obstacle to the adoption of PEVs. We need battery production to ramp up so production costs come down. We also need to see how long typical high-production batteries will last on the road.

Improvements are needed on the grid side as well. There needs to be vehicle-charger-to-grid communication networks to ensure "smart" charging, meaning that vehicles will be allowed to charge only when there is excess capacity on the grid. In addition to your typical home electricity utility, there are new entrants in the business of supplying power for vehicle charging. These companies, like Coulomb Technologies and Better Place, endeavor to provide charge points and subscription services for vehicle owners. All providers will need to follow a common set of grid connection and charging standards to enable charging outside of your garage, and industry forums are currently working on this objective.   

Q: Looking specifically at technical issues, do we have the raw materials—such as lithium—needed to produce batteries on a mass-market scale?

LT: Lithium, commonly supplied as lithium carbonate, is plentiful for widespread electrification of the U.S. car market. However, the cost is likely to increase significantly as demand for plug-in vehicles grows to five million vehicles or more per year. Recycling programs will be important to keep costs down, and the U.S. government recently awarded a $9.5 million grant to battery recycler Toxco Inc. for lithium battery processing.

Q: If 10 to 20 percent of car owners were to choose electric vehicles, electricity consumption would increase considerably both in peak-demand periods and off-peak. Smart-metered energy prices could encourage off-peak charging, but would we be able to avoid having to build more power plants?

LT: We should avoid charging cars when electricity is at peak demand so we can avoid building new fossil fuel power plants just to serve plug-in vehicles. According to a report from the U.S. Department of Energy, off-peak capacity of the grid could satisfy the charging needs of a car fleet that is more than 70 percent plug-in hybrids. It is vital that we at least maintain the reliability of the local electricity transmission and distribution networks, so utilities must carefully plan how they will meet the demand from plug-in vehicles. They must pursue all cost-effective measures to promote consumer energy efficiency (think efficient appliances) and upgrade infrastructure as necessary to meet growth in electricity demand.

Q: What are some of the business issues to be resolved between utilities, electric vehicle owners and third-party infrastructure/service providers like Coulomb?

LT: If you charge your plug-in car at home, you can be sure that the electricity usage will show up on your utility bill. What about when you're away from home and want to charge your car? How will you get billed? Also, when should the vehicle get charged to minimize impacts on the grid or give you just the amount of charge you want to get home? The business model for charging-station operators is not certain. Charging your car away from home might be like going to a gas station: you pull up, plug in and pay the operator for the electricity. Alternatively, you could be part of a network of charging stations owned by service providers like Coulomb, and you could plug in to any of the stations and be billed on your network account. Coulomb's system has the advantage of centralizing the account management because Coulomb would contract for electricity distribution across multiple utilities.

There also needs to be a business arrangement between the grid operator (or utility) and the charging station operator to ensure that vehicles are not charged during peak demand periods. Charging station operators may offer different pricing depending on the time of charging, including higher prices at higher-demand periods. However, high prices alone may not be enough to minimize grid impact because even at high electricity prices, it is relatively cheap to drive on electricity. Therefore, grid operators/utilities will need agreements with the charging station operators to preferentially cut charging power to prevent large stresses on the grid.

Fortunately, most driving needs can be handled with overnight charging because people typically drive only 20 to 30 miles a day for commuting and running errands. Highway-capable pure electric vehicles coming to market are likely to have ranges near 100 miles. With plug-in hybrids, the gasoline engine kicks in to power the car when the battery is depleted.

Q: What are the most exciting developments you've seen this year in electric vehicles?

LT: A survey of recent auto shows reveals that just about every company has a plug-in vehicle concept or plans for production. We'll see how many of these vehicles succeed in the marketplace in the coming years.

Meanwhile, it's been very exciting to see the federal government dramatically increase its support for vehicle electrification. Under the stimulus plan, $2.4 billion is being distributed for advanced battery and electric vehicle component manufacturing and for plug-in vehicle demonstration programs. Additionally, the House of Representatives passed a clean energy bill that allocates longer-term funding of over $4 billion specifically for electric drive vehicle and infrastructure commercialization projects. The signal to industry should be clear: electric drive is an essential part of the nation's strategy to get off oil and cut global warming pollution from transportation.

Photo credit: Wikipedia community

Comments

Now that I have a PHEV, my main frustration is a lack of places to plug in. Not being able to plug in at work means only about half of my daily commute is electric. Landlords and employers have little incentive to install and operate charging stations, and no expertise. Charging stations away from home need to be handled by centralized management companies. If the local utility companies or other common provider could set up, maintain and bill customers for power usage, that might break the logjam. Property owners would have to receive some token compensation for permission to install and operate the stations, and the operating companies would need a tracking system, such as the one Coulomb has developed, to enable customers to subscribe to a charging service. If the local utilities were also the operating companies, they could combine the bill with the subscriber's residential bill.

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