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Electric Car Infrastructure Trials: Some Progress, Long Road Ahead

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Cities have thrown down the gauntlet for electric car charging in recent months, and utilities are increasingly eager to tout infrastructure efforts. Among automakers, the Renault-Nissan Alliance has been out in front working to coordinate governments, utilities and charge station companies to develop regional networks of hardware and services that drivers will need to make the automakers’ upcoming electric cars practical for daily use. But what steps follow a big partnership announcement, after a utility, a vendor or an automaker says it’s done a deal to ready the power grid for an EV rollout?

For at least one of the 26 partners that the Renault-Nissan Alliance has lined up so far — utility San Diego Gas & Electric — the vision for how to support plug-in vehicles at even a pilot scale is just beginning to take shape. In an interview last week, SDG&E’s Clean Transportation manager, Bill Zobel, gave us a glimpse of what the utility has accomplished so far, and what it has in the works.

At this point, Zobel said, the company is still in the process of assembling its internal team for the project. When that group is fully established next month, it will help develop milestones and oversee outreach to customers and “integration across the broader utility.” By September, SDG&E aims to have commitments from fleet operators in the San Diego area to trial at least 100 electric cars coming from Nissan next year. Zobel said the University of California, San Diego is “ecstatic” about the program. The city and county of San Diego, several nearby cities and the U.S. military may also sign up to try the vehicles. SDG&E plans to have at least 15 of the cars in its own fleet.

Back in March, when SDG&E and Renault-Nissan announced their partnership, Suzette Meade, a spokeswoman for the utility’s parent company, Sempra Energy, told us in an email that:

SDG&E will be leading efforts to develop the energy infrastructure necessary to help make San Diego ready for electric vehicles, including operation and maintenance of an EV charging network/stations.

But Zobel indicated on Thursday that SDG&E now plans to leave the hardware piece of the vehicle-charging puzzle (charging stations) to private companies, property owners (who might decide to install charging hardware at an office or home garage, for example) and public agencies. While the utility is “in talks” with several charging companies, Zobel said it is mostly to help each other figure out the best way to integrate their equipment, to explain, “This is the best way to integrate with our system.”

SDG&E’s plans to work more closely with smart meter systems developers. It aims to test out smart meters from several companies, and Zobel said the utility is talking with a number of startups as it looks for smart meters with open architecture that are ready to be “rolled out en masse” and “have the ability to upgrade and change on the fly.” (SDG&E recently announced plans to offer its customers Google’s PowerMeter energy tool, and it is also working with Microsoft on managing customer energy data, but these are by no means exclusive deals.)

SDG&E has requested stimulus funds from both the state of California and the federal government (Zobel wouldn’t tell us how much) to help it expand the project more quickly than it might without the funds. It already has its sights on a larger initiative with the Renault-Nissan Alliance, and according to Meade, has begun developing plans to “expand the partnership beyond electric vehicles for business fleets in 2010.”

For the long term, SDG&E is thinking about how to educate EV buyers about “circuitry, wiring and permitting requirements,” and other aspects of EV ownership. Typically when you buy a car now, Zobel said, “there’s instant gratification.” Put your money down, and you have a vehicle that you can refuel at any gas station. Pretty soon, however, the utility, car dealers, the local government and drivers will need to “understand the requirements for an owner walking off the lot with a plug-in car.” When electric cars hit California in the 1990s with GM’s now famously “killed” EV1, that understanding was missing, Zobel said. “We’ll be much more prepared than we were last time.”

26 Responses to “Electric Car Infrastructure Trials: Some Progress, Long Road Ahead”

  1. In past electric cars were viewed as a futuristic vehicle. No one knew the importance of it till many of the automotive companies tried to launched their hybrid electric vehicles. I feel every automobile company should launch it’s one electric variant.

    With depleting natural resources I feel this variant can serve a better option for the consumers. I have also heard that these vehicles are cheap for the pockets.

    But as in whole electric vehicles are the best option for today’s world.

  2. Interesting comment from Bill Zobel that does not recognize GM and Honda for their consumer EV lease programs: “Pretty soon, however, the utility, car dealers, the local government and drivers will need to “understand the requirements for an owner walking off the lot with a plug-in car.” When electric cars hit California in the 1990s with GM’s now famously “killed” EV1, that understanding was missing, Zobel said. “We’ll be much more prepared than we were last time.”

    I actually don’t think the understanding was missing back then. San Diego was the worst EV market of all in CA. In the movie “Who Killed the EV”, one EV Customer said “the dealer did what he could to talk me out of an EV”. This SAME customer is less than honest in the movie. I came across his EV post from way back, where he said the dealer made sure he was a good fit for the car, checking to make sure he had a garage to mount the EV charger, cheked his daily driving distance was OK and that he knew the vehicle range would deteriorate over the lease period.

    So both GM and Honda put their customers thru a few hoops to make sure there would not be buyers remourse. Seems people are forgetting all the good work of the past! A conspiracy or just the simple reality of living with an EV? Time will tell.

  3. We have been depending of fossil fuel for far too long. It is time for a change. No doubt there are a few drawbacks on pure electric car right now, but we shouldn’t ignore it.

    Can’t wait to see all the electric cars on the road.


  4. Good comments,
    We have tried to not commit the error of jumping in too soon or “greenwashing” as one of the commentaries puts it. Evoasis has “devolved” to a normal gas station model with loads of power on-hand which is drawn down from off-peak energy and stored for daytime (peak) demand. Multi-voltage and amperage delivery to deal with cars of varying spec’s and a “tack-room” of various power cables to address the non-standardized state of “standardization” with plug, cables etc. Solar on the canopy to help with powergen and a well appointed lounge/retail area to hang-out which waiting for the still elusive fast-charge. Best-of-Breed design hopes to keep up with the onslaught of new technology.
    Hey, if it was easy, the car guys/battery guys would do it themselves. Now we just have to find a way to burn coal underground and never let the carbon “upstairs” in the first place…:) It burns plenty-well underground in the mines but keeps finding its way to the surface. Let’s not forget the methane boiling off the used-to-be-frozen tundra as well. The world might likely spontaneously combust if we’re not careful, the match being a solar array too near a venting lake of methane-BOOM!, cockroaches to the head of the food chain!-wonder what they’ll drive in a few million years? -:) Probably will have two steering wheels and planty of room for the “kids”.

  5. PChargin

    How should we approach the problem of building out a new infrastructure? should we wait unril we have all the answers, or should we begin to build out limited pieces that will support near term trials? certainly if we are to learn anything by the initial deployments of electric cars, we should also do limited deployments of the charging infrastructure.

  6. kent beuchert

    At least Zobel knows enough not to try to outguess the technology. These would-be Earth saviers out there startingt o build “infrastructure” are clueless as to what infrastructure will actually be needed, especially 2 years from now. We are on the cusp of the battery development that can change everything and actually make electric cars an advance over gas powered vehicles – fast charging batteries that are (or will be) affordable, in terms of purchase price and lifespan. Those who applaud the Tesla are applauding technology that hasn’t changed much in 100 years, since the Detroit and Waverley electric cars were on the roads. The Tesla is not the embodiment of a practical technology – (nor even the Tesla sedan, which reduces driving ranges by half) it is instead a very expensive means for a few well-heeled folks to greenwash their otherwise unsavory images. The advances by MIT are surefire
    and willl produce fast recharging batteries that put out gobs more power and last longer – and will arrive within two years commercially. The EEStor is a less
    certain success, but if it does what they say it will, it will immediately transform the auto industry, since it will actually enable electric cars to be cheaper than gas powered vehicles in addition to fast recharging.
    Fast recharging, we need to warn these municipal leaders eager to curry favor with their rather brainless green constituents, means all these
    public electrical outlets and slow recharging stations become obsolete and inappropriate. Since there wont be any numbers of EVs to be concerned about in the next two years, they would be well advised to not start spending money on projects that have such an uncertain future. But, as usual, the desire to impress the citizens will overwhelm any logic or common sense they might possess.