Plugging In Readying the Grid—and Cities—for Electric Cars to Come

Will the electric grid be ready to recharge electric cars by the end of the year? Yes and no. It will be able to handle the relatively low volume in the first two or three years, especially if cars recharge late at night when demand is very low. But there’s a lot of work left to do to ensure that EVs will work in one of their natural habitats—cities.

Utilities are in a bit of a bind when it comes to electric cars. They really want it to happen—what industry wouldn’t want to horn in on the lucrative monopoly enjoyed by oil companies all these years?—but they also don’t want to invest a lot of time and resources figuring out how it’s going to work. The result is an underdeveloped plan to welcome EVs, even though the cars are right around the corner.

Mike Rowand, director of Advanced Customer Technology at Duke Power, says that early EVs will not be for everyone. It may be several years before EVs come into use in some places. In New York City, car sharing (membership groups that let people pick up parked cars and trucks when they need them) may be the first opportunity for driving EVs.

Rowand says that the company will not be putting a lot of public charging on the ground before the first cars are delivered. The utility’s goal, he says, is to be “just ahead of the consumer,” and that means waiting to see what the market does, and where it develops.

That will come as a disappointment to Gothamites, who probably presume they’re at the head of the queue. Utilities, Rowand says, can’t be ready on day one for every single application. EVs need to be for families with garages first, then other models will play out. Yes, the world is increasingly urban and many EVs are being touted as city cars, but there aren’t many garages in urban cores.

Charged Up in California

Still, utilities, especially in California, say they’re ready to charge large numbers of EVs. California will probably be the number-one early adopter state, with 25% of U.S. hybrid sales, EV-friendly laws and a unique $5,000 cash rebate.

According to Doug Kim, director of plug-in electric vehicle readiness at Southern California Edison (which has the largest utility fleet of green cars in the U.S.), southern California will likely be the first and largest market for EVs. Kim estimates that Edison’s 50,000-square-mile coverage area could be home to a whopping 450,000 plug-in cars and trucks by 2020.

Prodded about urban charging, Kim talked about charging stations in the workplace, at gas stations and at big-box retailers. But virtually none of that will be available to people who live in an apartment, work in an office tower or shop in a storefront without a parking lot.

Felix Kramer, founder of CalCars.org, says it will all—eventually—work out. “First buyers will self-select,” he says.

“They will be people with garages and access to a plug. As vehicles become available, parking garages will start providing charging because it will offer a commercial advantage. Some early buyers might be unhappy campers until fast charging is available.”

The Fast Charge

Fast charging, with 480 volts, is what the big-box retailers are likely to offer, and it has the potential to recharge an EV in 30 minutes. But batteries will need active cooling for that to work, because fast charging would otherwise heat packs up too much and impact their longevity.

The most likely urban scenario is as Kramer suggests: Big city parking garages and street-level lots will add charging that is accessible to regular customers. A second source will be coop apartment complexes with some parking. Fast charging will remain one of the big challenges of EV adoption, though.

The New Urbanism movement says living in a central city is the greenest choice you can make, but does an EV fit with that lifestyle? It will be the utilities that ultimately decide.