Ford Embracing Utilities to Boost Electric Car Network


Portland, Ore. — Anticipating the roll-out of their new electrified line of cars and light-duty vans, Ford (s F) is partnering with utility Portland General Electric to make sure adequate charging infrastructure and electrical grid capacity are available in their service area. In the U.S., there are currently about 1,800 public electric car charging stations, with most of them located in California. By July of 2011, an additional 1,000 are expected to be added in the Portland-Eugene corridor alone.

Over the next two years, Ford will releasing new electric vehicles on three different platforms: the first is the already familiar Hybrid Electric Vehicle (HEV), the next is the Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle (PHEV), and the third is the no-gas Battery Electric Vehicle (BEV). Ford hopes that these options will satisfy most customers who are looking to reduce their carbon footprint, use less fossil fuel, and save money on gas.

The Ford Focus Electric BEV has a projected range of 100 miles on a full charge. This is plenty for the average trip to the grocery store, but what happens on an extended trip, or if you forget to charge your batteries overnight? The biggest problem facing the widespread adoption of BEV and PHEV vehicles seems to be the availability of charging locations. Research done by Ford has shown that current PHEV owners will charge their vehicle on average twice a day, most frequently at home, and only occasionally at a public charger.

However, charging a car at home presents many logistical challenges, ranging from extended extension cords, to overwhelmed circuit breakers, to putting extra strain on the grid. While the cars can be plugged into a normal 120 volt wall outlet, charge time is dramatically decreased when the cars are plugged into a special 220 volt charger. To foster the usage of electric cars, Oregon regulators have streamlined the permitting process for getting a 220 volt charger installed at homes. Now, a charger can be installed by an electrician before a permit has been filed, significantly cutting down the overall install time.

Due in part to their scarcity, public locations are the least commonly used charging site. Not only are they rare, but until recently there hasn’t been a standard for charging hardware. Thanks to the recently agreed-upon J1772 outlet, more plug-in vehicles coming down the production line, and grants from the Department of Energy, the number of public charging locations is projected to increase sharply. One company, Coulomb Technologies, already has a charger model in production that uses a membership system with RFID identification to prevent energy theft.

Commercial fleets have their own special infrastructure problems. The Ford Transit Connect Electric BEV will be aimed at commercial and public fleets, and will have up to an 80 mile range. Fleet customers are interested in the fastest charge time possible, and will be a major point source of electrical demand, spiking during the day and at closing time. Ford is hoping that businesses will pick the Transit Connect for a variety of reasons, from cutting fuel and maintenance costs, to creating a green halo for the business.

What has yet to be resolved is how fully electric vehicles will pay their share of road tax, a tax normally collected at the pump. In Oregon, road tax comes to $0.424 per gallon, and goes toward road maintenance. Proposals have been made to use smart metering systems to capture this tax, and it just so happens that Portland General Electric is in the final stages of converting its 800,000-plus customers over to smart meters. It’s also possible to tie the meters into Microsoft Hohm’s (s msft) online energy monitoring system, which captures energy usage statistics and offers tips on how to lower energy use.

Regardless of the challenges, Ford and PGE seem to be committed to working together to increase the usage and viability of electric cars. As the technology matures, we can expect to see faster charging times, longer battery ranges, and more charging stations. The big unknown factor is, of course, whether or not the public will make the change to a car that you have to plug in.

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