Electric Car Infrastructure Trials: Some Progress, Long Road Ahead

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.”