The Hurdles to Combining Electric Cars and Clean Power

The longstanding argument for why plug-in vehicles aren’t that green is that if the electricity grid is powered mostly by coal, well, then so are our plug-in cars. That’s not so great when it comes to reducing carbon emissions. But the ideal is that over time as consumers and corporations increasingly embrace EVs, the power grid will also correspondingly shift over to incorporating clean power, like solar and wind. And in the meantime, some utilities can offer green power services for EV drivers.

Well, those are the visions. However, there are major hurdles to implementing these ideas. Here are the road blocks:

Infrastructure Investment

First and foremost, there will be a colossal investment needed for both clean power and electric car infrastructure to make their way onto the market, and both will take a lot of time. Author and professor Vaclav Smil has explained in his recent book that an all-electric U.S. fleet would conservatively need 980 TWh of electricity per year to run, which was 25 percent of the U.S. electricity generation in 2008. Smil thinks utilities wouldn’t realistically be able to build that additional amount of electricity generation within two decades.

In addition, that extra generation would have to come from clean power to be carbon-reductive. As anyone who has followed the utility-scale solar market knows, it takes years for utility-scale solar projects to move from drawing board to supplying electricity. In the case of BrightSource Energy’s inaugural solar thermal project Ivanpah, it has taken over three years to just get regulatory approval, and now here come all the environmental protests.

California’s utilities have struggled to meet the state mandate that says they need to buy 20 percent of their electricity supply from clean power by 2010. Most utilities weren’t likely to make that deadline, but state regulation gives them until the end of 2013 to comply. Meanwhile, the utilities will have to make sure they line up enough contracts or install their own projects to meet the 33 percent goal by 2020. And this is just in California, which has an aggressive state mandate.

Utility scale wind is a more mature market, but wind installations slowed in the U.S. considerably in 2010 due to the slowed economy. In addition, because of intermittency, Smil and other researchers think wind could never be a dominant form of clean power. In fact, it’s far from clear if solar and wind will be able to provide baseload power (provides energy 24/7), and the U.S. will have to rely on other forms of clean power like nuclear, geothermal, and hydro.

From a plug-in vehicle market perspective, perhaps it’s not such a bad thing that clean power will take such a long time to get built out. Because plug-in car adoption will take just as long. Bloomberg New Energy Finance predicts there will be 1.6 million plug-in cars sold by 2015, rising to 7.6 million by 2020. In 2010, the U.S. had about 245 million passenger cars, SUVs, vans, and light trucks.

EV + Clean Power

Clearly, it’s going to take decades for both clean power and electric vehicles to make a sizable dent in the U.S. infrastructure. In the mean time, some utilities and companies are looking at ways to use or sell clean power for electric vehicle projects.

SAP (s SAP) and German utility MVV Energie are starting a pilot project using 30 corporate SAP electric vehicles that will be powered exclusively by the utility’s clean power. MVV Energie will be building and operating the smart charging stations that are capable of filling electric cars exclusively with certified green energy.

Better Place, the electric vehicle infrastructure company, plans to incorporate clean power into its networks, particularly in its launch region in Israel. In 2008, when Better Place CEO and founder Shai Agassi announced the Israel Better Place launch, he said the infrastructure will be powered by “batteries, that get their energy from green sustainable electricity sources.” (We’re thinking that’ll be mostly solar, given Israel’s climate).

Batteries as Aid for the Power Grid

While we’re waiting for EVs to be powered by the sun, electric car batteries could be an aid to getting clean power onto the grid. A network of electric cars could offer the potential of distributed energy storage and grid services like load balancing or frequency regulation.

The power grid works by constantly balancing supply and demand (generation and load) and must be kept at a 60 Hz frequency. That’s a complex and difficult task given today’s grid has little energy storage capacity. So if the frequency goes too high or low, the utility must respond by shifting generation and load. For example, PJM, a regional transmission organization serving a population of 51 million, pings generators to control regulation as often as hundreds of times per day. Electric vehicle batteries could act as the real-time, distributed intelligent frequency regulators, replacing generators.

PJM has a project with the University of Delaware using electric vehicles in a demand response program, but John Gartner, an analyst with Pike Research, says, “We don’t see this as a commercial application until at least 2015.” However, after the issues are resolved, the arrival of electric vehicles will provide greater flexibility for utilities to integrate higher percentages of wind and solar power, says Gartner.

Image courtesy of Better Place.

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