Utilities Scramble to Meet Power Needs of Electric Cars

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David Silverman / Getty

A power input on Renault's electric car

Dave Kaufmann likes people yelling at him as he drives through La Cañada, Calif., the wealthy suburb north of Los Angeles where he lives. What they're shouting about is his battery-powered electric vehicle, one of up to 30,000 estimated to hit the streets of Southern California in the next 36 months, the biggest expected e-car surge in the country.

"They all want to know, 'What's that? Where can I get one?' " says Kaufmann, a home contractor and self-taught electric vehicle, or EV, enthusiast.

By some accounts, the next 10 years will see as many as 1.6 million electric or plug-in hybrid vehicles zipping around the state, in what is shaping up to be the nation's e-car proving ground. But in the 1990s a similar optimism hit here too, only to fizzle as gas prices plummeted and gas-guzzling SUVs took over the auto market with a vengeance.

That was then; this is now. Strong government incentives and regulations, car and battery-maker innovations and the public's genuine concern for global warming are all contributing to the EV enthusiasm. But utilities are working feverishly to put infrastructure standards in place; the prospect of managing rapid EV growth has utility executives both amped up over the opportunity and queasy about unplanned snafus.

"We've had a run at this before, but now there have been important advances on the technology side," says Theodore Craver Jr., chief executive officer of Southern California Edison.

SoCal Edison provides electricity to 13 million people and is the biggest power player behind the new EV push. Craver foresees at least 30,000 EVs in his region by the end of 2012. The state's Air Resources Board is less optimistic, quoting estimates between 7,500 and 25,000 EVs on the state's roads by 2014. Most are brand names you've never heard of, at least not yet, like Zenn, Zap, Helion and Wheego.

On its own, SoCal Edison maintains the largest EV fleet in the country, with some 300 electric vehicles, mostly Toyota RAV4s and trucks. It also operates in Pomona the Electric Vehicle Technical Center, a facility advanced enough to have automakers knocking. Ford's plug-in hybrid Escape SUVs have been tested there, and others, such as Mitsubishi's iMiEV subcompact and Daimler's plug-in hybrid van, are under review. General Motors' much anticipated plug-in hybrid, the Chevy Volt, has been put through its paces in Pomona.

"We know EVs, and we know the consumer will be annoyed if the experience isn't a good one," says Craver. "A bad buying and user experience could hurt EV market growth; we have to make the experience positive."

One part of SoCal Edison's ramp-up involves the installation of 5.3 million SmartConnect meters in every home throughout its 50,000 sq. mi. service region, from the Pacific Ocean to the San Bernardino Mountains to the east and into parts of Orange County. Total installation is expected to be completed by 2012 at a cost of $1.9 billion. But much more will be needed to handle the widespread adoption of EVs, the utility says.

While EV owners can charge the cars by plugging them into a regular 110-volt outlet, the "slow charge" can take up to eight hours and may jack up an electric bill the equivalent of 2 kilowatts per month. Most e-car owners will eventually want to plug in their faster, highway-approved EVs into new rapid-charging, 220-volt garage chargers. But that requires another step: finding a certified electrician and several thousand more dollars to install the add-on feature to the home or garage.

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