Ford, Chevy, Nissan, and Mitsubishi have all announced plans to release fully electric cars in the coming years, which means we’re going to have to have charging stations available for about a million all-electric cars by 2014. So, how’s that going to work?
Good question. Here’s your cheat sheet on what they’re calling electric vehicle “smart charging.”
How it’ll work
Many homeowners will have some sort of charging system at home. Apartment and condo parking lots will also likely start to add them, as will many workplaces. But many city-dwellers won’t have their own garages, and others will want to pick up juice on-the-go, so there will need to be a street-based system as well. Many in the industry are envisioning some kind of “pump” attached to parking spaces.
The main challenge isn’t with the vehicles themselves, but with the electricity grid. Unlike with gas stations, where cars simply pull gas from the tank on-site, electric cars, whether they’re charging during the day or at night, will be pulling power straight from the grid. That means power companies need plans to support the additional load and will have to develop effective mechanisms to manage demand, so that the grid doesn’t come down, for example, if electric car owners all plug in their vehicles at the same time as a heat wave.
Operators of street-based charging stations will also need to develop a business model for their pumps. Unlike gas stations, they won’t be selling the electricity per se. They’ll simply be the conduit for the electricity to pass from the utility to the car. Instead, they’ll have to develop some kind of fee structure for simply using the pump itself.
Electric cars could actually help with load balancing. Owners could agree to plug them into the grid when they’re not being used. Then, if there was a sudden surge in demand, utilities, using “smart meters,” could pull power out of the cars’ batteries and feed it into the grid, returning it later after the surge subsided.
The charging infrastructure for electric cars will need more than just the equivalent of a “dumb” pump. They’ll also need new kinds of “smart” software—inside the cars themselves, at the charging stations, and at the utilities.
Smart software inside vehicles will allow owners to program their charging preferences. For example, they might plug their car in when they arrive at home after work, but tell the car not to start charging until 2 a.m., when electricity demand would be lower. Or, they might program the car to tell the grid: “Charge me anytime between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.,” and then the grid could decide, based on demand, when to put the car online. They might be able to program the system to only charge when the grid was using renewable energy.
With an increasingly smart grid, utility companies will be able to charge different prices for electricity based on demand. It might be more expensive at 2 p.m. on a regular workday, and less expensive at 2 a.m. when most people are asleep. Car owners could also program their cars to only charge when the price of electricity was below a certain amount.
Utilities themselves will also need new types of software to similarly manage demand. For example, they could keep track of which cars were plugged into the system and, based on instructions from the cars themselves, load blocks of them on- and offline throughout the night, to distribute the demand.
When the system will get here
There are a handful of charging stations in California, Arizona, and Georgia. But it’s unclear exactly when charging stations will arrive en masse, because of the chicken-and-egg problem. Prospective all-electric car purchasers want to know they’ll be able to charge their vehicles, while prospective charging station operators want to know they’ll have customers for their sites. But expect to see more of these start to crop up in the next five years, as more and more all-electric cars hit the road.