Think Plug-in Cars Will Charge Up at Home? Think Again

Updated with clarification from Schurr: If nothing else, many players in the plug-in vehicle ecosystem — entrepreneurs, EV enthusiasts, lawmakers, automakers, utilities and others — can agree that electric cars won’t go anywhere close to mainstream without a reliable way to recharge the batteries. As IBM’s Vice President for Energy & Utilities, Allan Schurr, put it today at the Opportunities in Grid-Connected Mobility Conference in San Francisco, Calif.: “People don’t buy cars to stay local.” But if you’re expecting plug-in cars to juice up overnight in home garages in significant numbers — a common vision of the “ideal” scenario, Schurr said — you may be disappointed.

“Overnight charging in fact is likely to be the rarity rather than the most common,” Schurr said. That’s mostly because it’s a very small fraction of vehicle owners that park their car in a garage that they own overnight. The bulk of the market is made up of people who don’t own garages — apartment dwellers and many urban homeowners, for example. “I don’t know any automaker that is going to throw away [a sizable share] 80 percent of the market opportunity and sell cars only to those that have access to garages,” he said, adding that as a result, he expects much more investment in public charging infrastructure to occur in coming years. Update: Schurr says 80 percent is the portion of vehicles that are not parked in a garage owned by the same person that owns the car. They could be parked in rented spots, on the street or in driveways.

But public infrastructure, and even charge points at workplaces, is much more complicated than private residential installations, Schurr said, echoing a point raised by General Motors earlier this year. It’s not about permitting or safety hurdles, Schurr said in an interview this morning. There’s just so many players to coordinate, he says, including utilities, billing system developers, cities, hardware companies and automakers. And the network has to allow drivers to travel across energy distributors’ service boundaries, plug in and get a bill at the time of sale. “You don’t want to get a bill next month,” like our current electricity bills, when you recharge, he said. “You expect to see what you’re getting.”

IBM, of course, wants to help manage this coordination as part of its “smarter planet” initiative. Schurr said the company is working to grow small companies with innovative technologies to help solve this problem, and wants to see the federal government support standards development and open architecture. Schurr expects the “first wave of problems” for electric vehicles and grid operators to start cropping up as early as 2011, long before plug-in vehicles make up a significant portion of the U.S. fleet, as a result of “clustering” — small numbers of vehicles concentrated in early-adopter communities or places with strong incentives — which could put extra strain on a local network. So the clock is ticking.

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