Plug-in Hybrids Forcing Utilities to Get ‘Smart’

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President Barack Obama envisions 1 million plug-in hybrid vehicles on the streets of America by 2015, all helping reduce the United States’ carbon emissions and its dependence on foreign oil. At the moment, that vision is closer to a nightmare for utilities in some of the country’s most crowded cities.

The nation’s energy infrastructure is aging, and the growth of its generation capacity has slowed to a shuffle, from 4 percent in the 1970s to just over 1 percent this decade. Californians see the effect each time their homes are hit by rolling blackouts. Politics, regulatory uncertainty and high costs have all made investing in new power plants risky, the Department of Energy’s newly established Electricity Advisory Committee writes in an unsettling report released last week about the deteriorating state of the nation’s power supply.

Even if the power supply were stronger, all those PHEVs, with batteries that typically will only carry them 20 to 40 miles between charges, would need recharging stations in the city centers. Those stations are currently few and far between.

America’s crowded urban centers and their already stressed power systems simply aren’t prepared for a PHEV invasion.

New York state and the New York City-area’s largest utility, Consolidated Edison, are worried and hoping for more direction from Washington on how to bring the power grid into the 21st century with a united, nationwide approach. They know the future lies in smart grids. The question is how to best to get there. Arthur Kressner, director of research and development for utility ConEd, described his nightmare scenario if business continues as usual for the power grid and PHEVs become as popular as many people expect them to be.

Imagine tens of thousands of commuters driving into New York each morning and plugging into whatever outlets they can find to recharge, all at the same time, right after rush hour, Kressner told the New York Academy of Sciences last night. If just 30 percent of New York City-area’s 2.4 million cars did that, the city’s power use would spike between 6 percent and 20 percent.

“It is, in fact, very significant, something nearly approaching [the impact of] air-conditioning, and this would be all year,” Kressner said.

The solution, say leading politicians, utilities and energy experts, is to re-engineer the power grid as a smart grid as quickly as possible. Obama called for smart grid development during his presidential campaign, and the House Democrats’ economic stimulus plan proposes $32 billion to get started. The cutting edge vision for the smart grid would be a self-monitoring intelligent grid that can store its own excess power in vehicle batteries and tap that power when necessary (known as V2G, or vehicle to grid), pull excess power from rooftop solar panels to the owner’s financial gain (distributed generation with net metering), and communicate to vehicle batteries the best times to begin powering up (smart charging).

Getting to that point—developing the necessary technology and making the interconnections between consumers and grid—will take time.

ConEd hopes to begin rolling out the first stage of a smart grid, advanced metering in homes and businesses, in four to five years, with widespread use in 10 years, Kressner said. Advanced meters would educate consumers about how they are using electricity, how much they’re paying, and the environmental impact. A national study by Energy Insights, cited by the Electricity Advisory Committee, found consumers who had detailed knowledge of their electricity use were able to cut that use by 25 percent at peak times.

Advanced metering should encourage conservation and energy efficiency, but it won’t solve the PHEV challenge. To do that, the grid and the vehicles will have to get even smarter. The goal would be smart charging technology that would allow an owner to program a time for the vehicle to begin recharging or even allow a plugged-in vehicle to sense when demand on the grid is low, likely the middle of the night, and then begin powering up. The result would be more even electricity consumption, which would ease the stress on the power grid and save everyone money. Utilities benefit from not having to fire up plants to produce excess power at peak times; customers save money on their bills.

“It may be that plug-in hybrids are the killer aps that make a smart grid compelling,” Kressner said.

Once PHEVs reach the U.S. market, likely next year, urban centers like New York, Miami and Los Angeles will also need PHEV recharging capabilities: curbside chargers, public garages with chargers, perhaps even battery swaps. A few West Coast cities have electric vehicle charging stations, notably Portland, Ore. San Jose, Calif., installed its first charging station two weeks ago. Getting charging stations curbside on New York’s busy streets sounds daunting, but there are intriguing possibilities, Kressner said. ConEd already has 94,000 miles of wires running beneath the city, and it received an interesting offer: The pay-phone company Telebeam suggested putting its wired phone kiosks into double duty as PHEV recharge stations. Of course, drivers would still have to battle for the curb-side space.

Fortunately for ConEd and other big-city utilities, the spread of PHEVs in the U.S. fleet won’t be immediate, said Mark Duvall of the Electric Power Research Institute, which is working with the ConEd and the New York on the smart grid issue. With high-cost batteries requiring a preminum price and taking into account typical turnover of vehicles, he sees PHEVs reaching annual retail sales of 500,000 to 1 million in 2020.