Plugging In America's President
President Barack Obama's visit to Southern California Edison's Electric Vehicle Technology Center in Pomona was the culmination of more than 20 years worth of effort by the one of the state's largest utilities in pushing the development and deployment of electric vehicles starting in 1988, explained Ed Kjaer who leads the utility's electric vehicle program, the largest in the country.
It was Kjaer who had the opportunity to brief the President on the activities of the center, activities that do not include manufacturing electric cars, as a number of publications erroneously reported.
"The only thing we produce is data," Kjaer told EV World publisher Bill Moore two days after the Presidential visit.
With nearly 300 electric vehicles -- principally 2000-2001 Toyota RAV4 EVs -- in its motor pool and now some 17 million accumulative electric-only miles on their collective odometers, SCE is rightly recognized as being world-class in its understanding of EV technology and the electric power grid. Kjaer pointed out that 16% of SCE's electric power comes from renewables, a figure set to rise to 20% by 2020, which will require the use of much more energy storage at the home, neighborhood and grid-level. That storage is going to come in the from batteries in vehicles and energy storage appliances, he contends. The utility purchases 80 % of all the solar electric power produced in America and eight percent of it wind energy.
SCE's engineers and executives like Kjaer see a gradual merging of electric vehicles like the RAV 4 EVs they operate on a daily basis and twin Escape Hybrid PHEVs they are are testing with the development of smart grid technology in what is referred to as "intelligent energy demand."
The eventual large scale deployment of electric cars of all shapes and forms poses significant challenges to the grid, as well as energy storage opportunities, he explains. What happens, he asks when more and more electric cars start to appear in neighborhood driveways? What happens to the transformer that supplies that block? What happens power-wise when they all get plugged in? How does the utility respond?
These are the types of questions being asked by the engineers at SCE's Pomona center. The utility has an ambitious plan to roll out more than five million smart meters by 2012 in its effort to more intelligently manage customer loads.
Kjaer noted that the President's visit wasn't just a "photo op". In his words, Obama came in "well-read... well prepared. He was very engaged and, frankly, very engaging. He asked really very good questions..." adding that Obama left the clear impression that he is genuinely concerned about energy security and climate change, both central issues in the Administration's policy goals.
SCE's staff prepared what Kjaer called four stories for the President starting with the "Garage of Tomorrow." The one that appears to have most impressed Obama was the "non-road" research into energy storage applications like peak-shaving home battery banks. Kjaer explained that the industry can bring down the cost of batteries by cross-utilizing the batteries that go into cars with grid-storage appliances. The same type of battery can be used for both applications, presenting a much larger market and volume for manufacturers like A123 and General Motors, who is moving towards a vertically-integrated electric car battery manufacturing supply system.
He stressed that we need to establish a residual value for these advanced batteries in order to start pulling the cost out of the car. If a GM Volt battery pack has an addition 10-20 year life as a home energy storage unit after the car has been recycled, that allows the manufacturer to amortize the cost of the battery of a much longer cycle, reducing the per unit cost.
When the President got to the test cell housing one of the two Ford Escape Hybrids that has been converted to a plug-in, Obama joked that he'd love to have one -- his personal car in Chicago is an Escape Hybrid -- but the Secret Service would make him put two tons of armor on it.
Kjaer stressed to the President that the PHEV Escape is not a production vehicle. Its sole role right now is to better understand and develop grid communication protocols for the coming generation of PHEVs. Ford plans to debut its first production PHEV in 2012.
EV World asked Kjaer what his chief concerns are, to which he replied that one is a lack of preparation by many of the country's electric utilities, as well as many of the carmakers: GM and Ford being two of the exceptions. He would like to see much more "robust dialogue" between the two industries, dialogue currently being facilitated by groups like EPRI and the Electric Drive Transportation Association in Washington, D.C.
That being said, he acknowledged that the initial roll-out of PHEVs and battery electric cars will concentrate in selected areas like California and the northeast, which accounts for, in part, the apparent slowness of adaptation by many of the nation's utilities.
His second concern is not can the industry meet the increased electric demand that EVs will present once they reach meaningful numbers, but with distribution as the local level.
"There will be geographic concentration of these vehicles," he stated. He urges utilities to start to develop power distribution models for how it will respond to the various types of electric drive cars slated to begin to appear in 2012 and beyond. Simultaneously, utilities need to be developing consumer incentives to mitigate the impact of EVs in their service area.
"How do we make sure the customers are charging off peak," he asked? "How do we make sure not every car comes on at the same time to fuel? Those are the kinds of issues that we're really grappling with and again, some utilities are fully engaged and an awful lot aren't. That is of significant concern to those of us that have been doing it a while, but also of concern to the auto[makers]."
We wrapped up the interview by promising to return to the issue of smart grids and how that is going to impact customers lives in the future.
You can listen to the complete 39-minute interview by using either of the two MP3 players at the top of the page, or you may download the file to your computer hard drive for transfer to and playback on your favorite MP3 player.