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May 18, 2011

What Keeps Utilities Up at Night?

 

PGR Partners Go Beyond Consumer Concerns; Address Other Industry Challenges

Within any given city, many well-established sectors must change to accommodate plug-ins, and diverse players must build a new system of connectivity in order to coordinate charging times, billing, consumer preferences, and other factors.

While electric utilities may not be leading the EV transition, they are definitely a key player. As fuel demand shifts away from gas stations and onto the power grid, utilities not only face an enormous opportunity, but multi-faceted challenge of providing reliable, clean and cost-effective electrons to a growing consumer base.

A report released today by Accenture, for example, outlines how consumers’ preferences for charging EVs could challenge utilities and charging service providers by increasing grid congestion and peak time electricity demand.

During today’s Project Get Ready (PGR) webinar, Watson Collins from Northeast Utilities (you can see him here on YouTube) shared what New England’s largest utility is doing to make sure EVs are able to thrive in the region, and provided unique insight into what their biggest concerns are.

When it comes to literally fueling the EV transition, what do electric utilities worry about?


1. Metering and Smart Charging
More testing is needed for different off-peak recharging approaches: Is off-peak charging centrally controlled, or controlled by the consumer using price signals, offering time-of-use rates? Are time-of-use rates for just the vehicle or the whole house’s electricity usage?

2. Load for Vehicle Charging
Lower capacity electric vehicle chargers (1.4kW and 3.3kW) are not likely to cause significant impacts to electric utilities. However, if high capacity chargers (10kW and above) are installed in residential locations, it is likely to impact the utility system. Ratemaking policies and utility demand charges are potential ways to address this challenge.

3. Interoperability
Utilities can’t interface with multiple “closed” systems, so “open” systems based on common standards are needed (meaning different components can communicate with the system). We’ll tackle this concept with our next post after this topic is discussed in depth during our next webinar.

4. Utility notification of charging stations
Utilities can better accommodate if they know when and where charging stations will be installed. Right now, progressive automakers or states are working to enable this information exchange. However, there is not currently a forcing mechanism for consumers or charging stations installers to report charging station installations.

5. Consumer protection
It is important to preserve the fuel cost advantage of electric vehicles for consumers, given the high first cost of the vehicles and the related infrastructure. With volatile oil prices, EV customers are willing to pay a high premium knowing that they can reap the benefit of comparatively cheaper, stable electricity prices. However, as demand for electricity spikes with the influx of EVs, can utilities maintain the cost advantage over time?

Other PGR utility partners, like Progress Energy or Portland General Electric (featured in NREL’s EV deployment case studies) may have some advice given their regions are ahead of the curve. But, as Progress Energy Transportation Manager pointed out in RMI’s Solutions Journal, “technical advisors are privy to citizens’ concerns about what needs to happen and what challenges need to be overcome. But, as consumers are created, it’s about being flexible, and we all need to be able to adapt and learn as we go.”
 

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