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Get Ready for Trial and Error in the Electric Vehicle Network Buildout

The Energy Technologies Institute, a UK government-backed group whose members include oil and tech giants, utilities and charge-point makers, has announced the launch of several new research projects in order to figure out how best to design a vehicle-charging network. As part of ETI’s 11 million-pound (about $16.51 million) Electrification of Light Vehicles program, the three new projects — headed up by engineering design firm Arup, computing giant IBM (s IBM) and auto supplier Ricardo UK (s RCDO) — will look at options for maximizing consumer adoption of plug-in vehicles and minimizing potential negative impacts on the power grid.

The British government has already pledged to invest more than $453 million for electric vehicle infrastructure, and to support the installation of at least 11,000 charge points, but the need for these new research initiatives suggest that there will likely be some trial and error in the initial buildout process for electric vehicle infrastructure (see: Startups to Watch as UK Builds Out Roadside Charging). ETI’s research teams have 4.5 million pounds and a little less than two years to figure it out.

More specifically, the projects will delve into three research areas: One, consumer attitudes and behavior when it comes to buying and using plug-in vehicles and charging infrastructure; two, impacts on electricity distribution networks, the need for smart charging systems, and future regulatory challenges related to charging infrastructure; and three, how mass deployment of plug-in vehicles will affect the economy and carbon emissions.

IBM, which will lead the second project, explains in a release that the research initiatives are meant to result in a proposal for “an overall system architecture for integrating plug-in vehicles” that takes into account electricity networks, charging points, and payment systems, and “ensures lead times are put in place for open and interoperable architectures.”

The projects in the UK don’t offer an exact parallel for infrastructure development in the U.S., as ZDNet points out today, given the country’s smaller size and different regulatory structure. But many of the questions also apply to deployment of electric vehicles in the U.S., and as the timeline for ETI’s projects suggests, the clock is ticking.

Pike Research anticipates more than a million charge points will be installed for electric vehicles by 2015. And IBM’s Allan Schurr told us in an interview last spring that he expects the “first wave of problems” for electric vehicles and grid operators to arise 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 power network.

Image credit EVoasis

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