San Diego Chargers: Region Serves as a Testbed for new EVs and Their Charging Stations

6/8/10Follow @bvbigelow

San Diego County, which is bounded to the South by the U.S. border with Mexico, along the West by the Pacific Ocean and in the East by the parched deserts of Imperial Valley, has often served as a test market for everything from light beer to broadband wireless plans. And over the next year or so, this cul-de-sac of Southern California is expected to serve as an extensive test market for at least 10 types of plug-in electric vehicles.

The largest rollout, which is expected to begin in December, will be the five-passenger Nissan Leaf, a zero-emission all-electric vehicle—which is powered solely by a pack of advanced lithium-ion batteries. Nissan says its Leaf can reach speeds of about 90 mph and can go about 100 miles before its batteries must be recharged.

Amid high consumer interest in all things clean and green, both startup and establishment automakers are formulating plans to introduce a variety of new electric vehicles—from the high-end Tesla Roadster Sport car (at a base price of $101,500) to a midsize sedan from China’s BYD Auto (estimated at almost $22,000). Behind the scenes, however, utility, energy, and government officials have voiced concerns about the combined effects that new fleets of Plug-in EVs (PEVs) could have on the local power distribution systems.

To some industry observers, the anticipated introduction of EVs embodies potential changes in energy demand on a scale that the utility industry hasn’t seen since air conditioning was introduced in the 1960s. (And then there is another disquieting matter that is not often voiced: If electric vehicles are charged on power grids that get their energy from power plants that burn fossil fuel, then aren’t we just moving the carbon emissions problem from one bucket to another?)

While utility officials expect most EV owners will do their recharging at home overnight, studies done by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) and others suggest that EV owners will likely be clustered in affluent communities (where people can afford the higher EV sticker prices), which could tend to overwork—and prematurely “age”—some local neighborhood transformers. An EPRI study done earlier this year concludes that the adverse effects on transformers and other components of the power distribution system will depend on the extent of market penetration by PEVs and the re-charging behaviors of PEV early adopters.

Ecotality logoSuch concerns are one reason why the U.S. Department of Energy awarded a $99.8 million matching grant last summer to Electric Transportation Engineering (eTec), a subsidiary of Scotsdale, AZ-based Ecotality (NASDAQ: ECTY) to deploy electric vehicle charging stations in San Diego and 10 other markets: Phoenix and Tucson, AZ; Portland, Eugene, and Salem, OR; Seattle, WA; and Nashville, Knoxville, and Chattanooga, TN. As the lead applicant for the DOE grant, eTec partnered with Nissan North America as it deploys up to 1,000 Nissan Leaf EVs in each of the five states. San Diego is expected to get all 1,000 of California’s Nissan Leafs as the only market in the state enrolled in the project.

The DOE grant will be combined with $8 million from the California Energy Commission and matching funds put up jointly by Ecotality, Nissan, San Diego Gas & Electric (SDG&E) and other partners to install 1,450 charging stations throughout the San Diego area. “Now begins the process of figuring out where all this charging infrastructure is going to go,” says Joel Pointon, SDG&E’s manager of electric transporation programs. “It’s truly a regional project.”

The Nissan Leaf will showcase the largest deployment of EVs in San Diego, but other carmakers are following close behind, according to Pointon, who says as many as 10 different EVs are being introduced in San Diego under various pilot programs. His list includes a plug-in version of Toyota’s popular Prius hybrid-electric vehicle, and an electric BMW Mini Cooper that has been circulation in San Diego for several months as part of a one-year pilot study of 500 test cars. Pointon also counts the Chevy Volt, a PEV that uses a gasoline-powered generator for recharging the battery, Tesla’s Roadster, the Mitsubishi MiEV, Aptera Motor’s three-wheel EV, an electric Saturn VUE, Chinese BYD and Norway’s Think EV.

“These vehicles are coming with different types of batteries and with different charging systems,” Pointon says. “We will need to track the addition of these vehicles to our system because it will create new demands on our grid.”

SDG&E says the Leaf can be recharged in six to eight hours (depending how low the batteries are) using a 240-volt, 20-amp charging station—which draws about 3.3 kilowatt-hours from the grid. In comparison, a typical single-family home in San Diego draws from 2.5 kilowatt-hours to 5 kilowatt-hours. So a Nissan Leaf that regularly recharges its battery is almost equivalent to adding a new home to the grid.

On the other hand, Pointon says the Leaf is estimated to be about four times more efficient than a similar-size gasoline-powered car.

He says SDG&E’s rate for off-peak charging is equivalent to about 3 cents a mile. “If you’re looking at the cost to go a mile,” Pointon says, “our rates are about 25 percent to 33 percent of what you would pay for gasoline at $3 a gallon, if your car gets 25 miles to the gallon. That would cost you about 12 cents a mile.”

[[Editor's note:  CommNexus San Diego has organized a breakfast presentation on the future of EVs and networked charging stations that begins at 7:30 a.m. on Thursday, June 17th. Online registration is here.]]

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at bbigelow@xconomy.com or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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