by: Joel Makower

This week's announcement by General Motors that it has joined with more than 30 utility companies across the U.S. to work on issues related to electric vehicles got a great deal of media play. But the coverage only began to scratch the surface of the complexity of bringing plug-in electric vehicles to market in mass quantities.

In reality, the GM-utility conversation isn't entirely new. It began in January, at a Vehicle Electrification Workshop held at GM's research center in Warren, Michigan. I had the privilege of attending the meeting, which was facilitated by my colleagues at the sustainability strategy firm GreenOrder. The meeting included more than two dozen utility executives, including a team from the Electric Power Research Institute, the industry-funded consortium that served as the co-convener of the meeting.

It was an eye-opener, to say the least. It turns out that building the infrastructure for the plug-in electric vehicle isn't simply a matter of, "Here's a plug, here's a socket. End of story."

First of all, not everyone has a socket — a secure place to park their car and recharge it. Those living in apartment buildings, for example, lack this ability. Even where a plug exists, it may not have sufficient amperage to handle the load. (I'm a good example: I have a socket in my garage, but it's on the same circuit as my bedroom. If you plug in a power-hungry appliance in the garage, TiVo gets grumpy.)

But that's the least of it. Building the plug-in infrastructure involves a mind-numbing array of technical challenges. Among them:

  • Connections — What does the connection between the car and the socket look like? Can it be standardized across vehicles? Doing so would avoid the rat's nest of incompatible connectors that we've come to expect from cell phones. And such connections will need to carry more than just electricity. They'll also need to enable smart communications, such as the ability to sell energy back to the grid, which involves billing or financial transactions. Incompatible connections may be fine for a phone, but not for a car, where a universal connection standard — akin to computers' USB cables and plugs — would ensure that any vehicle could connect to any plug, anywhere — and do so safely and durably.
  • Smart charging — In the new world of plugs-ins, your car should be able to sell energy you don't need back to the grid during times of peak power demand, such as in late summer afternoons, when both office buildings and homes are running air conditioning. Today, that peak demand is served by older, usually dirtier and less-efficient "peaker" generators that utilities fire up when needed. A national fleet of a million or more EVs, most sitting idle roughly 90 percent of the time, could serve as a massive national storage device that can be tapped as needed to meet peak demand. But you, the driver, will call the shots, determining how much power, if any, you'd be willing to sell to the grid on a given day. (Of course, your electric utility could call the shots, too, telling you what time of day you can, and can't, recharge your vehicle, at least without paying premium rates.) All this affects battery architecture, smart metering systems, communications protocols, a standard user interface, and common (and simple) messaging terminology — "bi-direction powerflow management," in the argot of utilities.
  • Mobile billing — It may be one thing for me to charge my EV at or near my home in Oakland, California. But what if I drive to Reno, Nevada? Will I be able to buy and sell electricity in another state — or even another utility district in my own state? Much like the early days of cell phones, where calling from outside one's home territory resulted in onerous fees — remember roaming charges? — there's the potential for EVs to lose their luster if they can't affordably do buy and sell power wherever you go.
  • Public interface — If EVs are to be ubiquitous, so, too, must be the charging stations — in homes, at work, on downtown streets, in shopping centers, hotels, highway rest stops, parking lots, tourist destinations, and a gazillion other places. These will need to be convenient, well designed, safe, reliable, and secure (so no one can unplug your car in order to charge theirs, for example).

    There's much more. There's the need for public education, which requires understanding consumer habits and market expectations. There may need to be new financing mechanisms for customers, especially if plug-ins, as expected, cost more to buy, at least for the first decade or so. There will be infrastructure costs for cities, building owners, and others to build charging stations. What policy measures or subsidies will we need to incentivize them to do so? Will EVs get preferential treatment at toll booths, parking lots, and in HOV lanes? (Will today's Prius-style hybrids eventually lose their current preferential status?) What happens to fuel-economy ratings — will they need to be revised or rethought?

    I'm just getting started, but you get the point.

    It's not just GM, of course. Every car company large and small that wants to be a player in the EV market will likely need to hew to whatever standards are created — or risk being incompatible with the mainstream, the automotive version of Betamax. GM, in its wisdom, decided it wanted to be at the table where those standards were created.

    All of this may seem somewhat futuristic, but it isn't. The first-gen plug-in hybrid vehicles (not counting the relatively small number that have been retrofitted by hobbyists and EV fanatics) will hit the market in 2010 — a scant two years from now — from GM, Nissan, Toyota, Volkswagen, and others. Given the slow pace of gaining consensus — not to mention building a national infrastructure — the GM-utility partnership could play a key role in advancing the conversation, building some, if not all, of the many pieces we'll need for our petro-free transportation future.

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