As Cali Gears Up for Electric Cars, the Heat's On to Hammer Out Standards

As a rule, neither utilities nor automotive standards groups tend to win many points for speed. We’ve written before about automakers and utilities ratcheting up efforts to hash out standards for how plug-in vehicles will interact with the grid. So far they’ve stopped short of forming an open standards movement like the ones that have formed in the IT and computing industries. But the pressure is on for standards to be put in place ahead of the emergence of plug-in vehicles designed for the mass market in the next few years — especially in California, which will likely be an early test market.

tesla-models-caliThat was one of the messages driven home this week at a California Public Utilities Commission workshop on smart grid standards. Adding to the challenge of developing rules for a new territory — the intersection of vehicles and the electric grid — is the fact that state utility regulators are in many ways still figuring out their role in a nascent market that will be shaped in large part by protocols and standards from nationwide groups like the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) and the National Fire Protection Association, which writes wiring and electric codes.

As Saul Zambrano, director of the Clean Air Transportation program for utility PG&E (s PCG), noted in his presentation at one of the CPUC panels on Wednesday:

Beginning as early as 2010, California is likely to be a major focus of initial mass marketing of a new generation of electric vehicles…Now is the time for the Commission, utilities, utility customers, auto manufacturers, vendors and other stakeholders to establish overall policies, rates, and incentives in the electric sector to ensure that electric infrastructure and customer services needed to support the market penetration of electric vehicles.

Electric vehicle infrastructure startup Better Place, whose Jason Wolf presented at this week’s workshop, has a clear idea of how it would like the Utilities Commission’s role to take shape, as explained in a letter submitted earlier this month in response to a CPUC white paper on opportunities and barriers for EVs in California (you can read the full comments from Better Place and other groups here). In its written comments, Better Place urges commissioners to consider a “green EV tariff,” which would provide “added incentives for EV customers that use electricity generated [with] renewable energy to power their vehicles,” and not surprisingly, charging infrastructure rebates. Better Place proposes a statewide rebate program for private investments in charging infrastructure similar to incentive programs for energy-efficient appliances.

On the standards side, Better Place wants the CPUC or the California Energy Commission (another state regulator) to set up a statewide approval process for EV infrastructure modeled after the requirements established by the San Francisco government (so that a company like Better Place won’t have to draft a new proposal for every municipality), and updates to state building codes.

Better Place writes that the costs for installing charge points for electric vehicles in parking lots could be significantly reduced if developers were required to install the equipment, or at least the electrical capacity, at the time of construction or renovation. It probably wouldn’t be the CPUC’s job to enact these codes, but Better Place is calling for the commission to help form a working group to “determine a sensible set of reforms and estimate their costs to the relevant parties.”

coulomb-sfOther companies have also submitted policy ideas: Charge point maker Coulomb Technologies wants to see a a framework for “new billing models in recognition of the mobile customer…with whom the serving utility has no credit and billing relationship.” And southern California utility San Diego Gas & Electric (which has partnered with the Renault-Nissan Alliance to trial electric vehicles and charging infrastructure) urges commissioners to, among other things, consider allowing utilities to consider authorizing utilities to invest in, coordinate and deploy charging infrastructure “in advance of the market to spur” adoption of EVs.

The Golden State’s electric grid may be among the first to deal with plug-in vehicles in large numbers — and all the reliability issues that can come with them. An active discussion about how to manage this is clearly already under way, and we’ll be watching closely as it unfolds. We’re not the only ones. As Andy Frank, a UC Davis engineering professor and the founder and chief technology officer of Efficient Drivetrains, said on a panel at this week’s workshop, “What we’re doing here — we’re really setting world standards.”

Model S photo credit Tesla Motors; San Francisco charge point photo credit Coulomb Technologies