Is America Ready to Drive Electric?

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Rebecca Lindland, a senior auto analyst for the research firm Global Insight, is a fan of both electric cars and GM's plug-in Volt. "This is not a George Jetson future," says Lindland. "This is ours." But that future is still a ways off. Lindland said that when she met with GM executives not long ago to talk about the Volt, she reminded them of one vexing question: The plug-in makers' assumption is that drivers will recharge their cars in the garage at home, where it shouldn't be too hard to find an electrical outlet. "But I live in an apartment and park my car on the street," says Boston area resident Lindland. "So where am I going to plug in my car?"

That's just one of countless questions that needs an answer before plug-in cars can truly take their place on American roads. Certainly, electric cars have at least one built-in advantage: The electrical grid already exists. Other auto alternatives, like hydrogen fuel cells, would require the development of an expensive new infrastructure to deliver the gas to fueling stations around the country. But to make plug-ins a truly viable alternative — one that could kill petroleum — we will need to make changes to the way we supply and use electricity, both small and large. "Electricity is everywhere and it is extremely low cost," says Mark Duvall, program manager for electric transport at the Electric Power Research Institute. "But we have to take into account the ways that drivers will want to use electricity."

The first changes would have to be in pricing and delivery. Most of the U.S. utility system is extraordinarily dumb — using 19th-century technology to run 21st-century applications. In real-time, utilities rarely know how much electricity any given customer is using, or when. Even though electric cars use relatively little power — the average car recharging draws about as much juice as a widescreen TV — they could still potentially overwhelm the electrical system. If plug-ins suddenly became popular, before the grid had a chance to get smarter, it could lead to a real power predicament. "You can imagine what would happen if five drivers on the block got home at 5 p.m. and all decided to recharge their cars at the same time," says Charles Griffith, auto project director at the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor, Mich.

One way to deal with the additional demand created by electric cars would simply be to build more power plants. That would be expensive, however, and, if the additional plants burned coal or natural gas, bad for climate change. A better solution: tap into the enormous extra capacity of the grid during off-peak times, like between midnight and dawn. According to a study by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, off-peak capacity could support the conversion of 73% of the current auto fleet — enough to cut demand for oil in half — without the addition of a single extra plant, provided the cars all charge late at night. "We have a great amount of untapped resources," says Luke Tonachel, vehicle analyst for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "We can minimize impact on the grid."

To do that, however, we need to persuade plug-in owners to recharge at the right time — by pricing electricity cheaply late at night, when demand is low. If charging a plug-in battery costs 2 cents-per-mile after midnight, and many times that during the day, drivers will likely wait before plugging in. (If that pricing model sounds familiar, it should be — it's how long distance calling works.) But to make that system work, utilities will need to install smart meters in customers' homes capable of monitoring when cars are charging, and then to price the juice accordingly; smart meters are already being tested out by utilities in California and Texas. These changes would also help utilities even out the peaks and valleys that come with providing power. "The hope is that we'll be able to actively regulate our grid to improve efficiency," says Brian Wynne, president of the D.C.-based Electric Drive Transportation Association. "There is tremendous potential."

(See photos of the dozen most important cars of all time here.)
(Check out the 50 worst cars of all time here.)

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