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Renewable Energy Vision
Expert analysis on the most pressing issues facing the renewable energy sector in the U.S and abroad from ACORE staff, members and supporters.

GM SERIES PART 2: Charging Infrastructure - It's not your father's filling station

Published on 02 Aug 2013  |   Written by    |  

By Dan Frakes and Alex Keros 08/02/2013

When developing a new type of vehicle and propulsion system, somewhere along the line infrastructure will be a major part of the equation and needs to be addressed. This article sheds some light into how infrastructure is playing a role in the development of electric vehicles, and how key partnerships with utilities and organizations like the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) are instrumental in the development of vehicles like the Chevrolet Volt and Spark EV.

 It’s cheap and it can be virtually anywhere…We have come a long way since the first electric vehicles were competing against gasoline vehicles in the early 1900s. There is some great history on how these technologies jockeyed for supremacy back then and why it was perhaps not the right time for electric vehicles. Today looks like a much different story.

If someone came to you with a proposal for a new a vehicle and said it runs on an energy source that is 3-4 times less expensive than what is used today, what would you say? Perhaps that same person suggested you could place the fueling station at your house and you might never have to go out of your way to fill up your vehicle. A filling station could be at work and some of the places you visit the most. All you would do was simply get out of the vehicle, plug it in, walk away, and return to a vehicle that could be fully fueled, depending on how long you were away.

When you think about it, privately owned vehicles sit idle much more often – mostly at home and at work - than they are driven. This “downtime” presents a great opportunity when talking about where and when to charge them. This is the opportunity we have at our disposal, so we might want to leverage it.

Home is where…First and foremost, the most benefits will occur when electric vehicles charge at home and at night—the good news is that this will happen by default anyway. Furthermore, some plug-in vehicles (like the Chevy Volt) provide even more benefit by being able to program what time to start and stop charging the vehicle based on when you will need it. For example, if you want to leave at 6am for work the following morning, the vehicle will determine when to start charging so you wake up with a full charge. If you decide to install a Level 2 (240V) charging station, you will most likely be able to have a fully charged vehicle using off-peak electric rates. Utilities are a great resource and many have great programs to encourage off-peak charging. These incentives come in the form of discounted rates, and additional smart grid services such as demand response will become increasingly more important. This allows for the lowest cost, lowest impact scenario by allowing utilities to leverage their existing power generation equipment and avoid unnecessary upgrades to the local grid.

Off to work…Perhaps, the second best opportunity for charging is at work. (Many of you may not want to hear this, but it is likely the next place we spend most of our time). While you’re busy at work your vehicle could be charging for the 8-10 hours you spend at your job. While a good portion of charging will occur in the morning before peak load periods in the afternoon, some charging can fall during the peak period. However, let’s consider the following. Depending on your required energy needed to commute home charging during the day is the perfect use of Level 1 (120V) charging. It fits well within the 8-10 hour workday and the draw on the grid is quite low. If using Level 2, most scenarios suggest charging would be complete by early afternoon.

Many businesses including General Motors offer free charging to employees and visitors. Having workplace charging available encourages employees to consider electric vehicles (not to mention fleet managers) and is viewed as a benefit for future employees considering a career with your company. It also could be a key market enabler for those living in multi-unit dwellings (e.g. apartments) or others who do not have access to charging at home.

Let’s grab dinner…From running errands to visiting a friend in a neighboring community, most drivers also want to have the assurance that they can find a charging station when they want it or need it. Balancing the desire for coverage and avoiding unused assets makes public charging, and determining the proper location, a bit more challenging. There have been many different proposals from charging stations scattered along freeways to strategically placed stations in and around city centers. But one thing to keep in mind is these stations are typically for drivers who need just enough electricity to get them back to home or work. In other words, the value of these charging locations will most likely be in extending the electric range when the battery is nearly depleted—where the plug-in electric hybrid wants it and the all-battery electric vehicle needs it. Of course, they also provide piece of mind for hesitant customers during these early years, but herein is the challenge on deciding how much and where.

Based on these requirements, the ability to charge faster—AC Level 2 and DC fast charging—is typically the customers preferred solution. If you are unfamiliar with DC fast charging, it can provide a Chevrolet Spark EV with an 80% charge of its battery in about 20 minutes. When someone does not have the time to wait, DC fast charging may make sense. And similar to workplace charging, DC fast-charging may become an important market enabler for those who do not have access to charging at home (e.g. multi-unit dwellings).

DC fast chargers deliver a significant amount of energy (e.g. 50kW) to a vehicle, so it requires a site with ample electrical service (typically a commercial or industrial site) and thus DC charging will act more like a corner “fueling” station than other types of charging. However, in settings where more time is acceptable, Level 2 and even Level 1 (…think airports…) will be sufficient.

Get Smart…like Agent 99, putting together the pieces of this puzzle to ensure it works for current and potential customers is part rule-book and part instinct. And yet again, modern technology can position electric vehicles and its associated technology for future growth. As the industry generally brings more connectivity into vehicles and integrates these vehicles into our lifestyle, electric vehicles could easily become the point of the spear.

In its simplest terms, a customer can provide his/her utility company with a few rules when it comes to having a fully-charged battery, similar to the simple demand-response programs in use today in some areas for air conditioning homes. These services are valuable to utilities and can be translated into value to customers.

These services can easily expand. Electric vehicles, for example, can support the system-wide adoption of renewable energy. With a connected electric vehicle, rules can be applied to charge only when the wind is blowing at night or when the sun is shining during the day. GM’s OnStar is teaming up with TimberRock for just this purpose. TimberRock monitors the output of its solar charging stations, how much stored energy is available and when it can sell energy back to the grid to help meet peak demand. To help balance the system, TimberRock will manage the energy flow into its fleet of Chevrolet Volts.

And beyond, the vehicle’s battery could become a tool to integrate multiple vehicle-to-grid services. The most intriguing is where customers could choose to allow their utility companies to use vehicle batteries in a bi-directional manner. While there are still lots of steps necessary to achieve this level of integration, you could imagine a world where you receive a message on your smart phone asking if you would like to make some money selling a few kilowatts of energy back to the grid!

That’s what friends are for…Many stakeholders and partners are necessary to put these critical pieces together. Infrastructure may not be viewed as either cool or sexy, but it is necessary to maximize the utility and benefit of an electric vehicle. At the core of these efforts are industry standards, like those developed through SAE and ISO. These standards establish the physical, electrical, communications and performance requirements to ensure vehicles operate properly with charging equipment. They also build the future framework when vehicles can communicate directly with utilities.

Furthermore, the new “fuel providers” are our electric utilities that must ensure they offer a safe, reliable product to a much wider customer-base, while integrating a wider range of services with increasing transparency requirements. While in many respects an electric vehicle will remain just a car, it can be an important tool in our energy toolbox if we continue to work closely with utilities to maximize its benefits. Understanding where and how customers will value these services will be a critical exercise as the electric vehicle market expands.

Along with utilities, the automakers, utility regulators, electric vehicle service providers, investors, and ultimately, the customer, will determine how the priorities shape the infrastructure network. While a ubiquitous network is possible, a carefully planned network which balances access to charging stations and efficient use of all resources—from generation to the type of charging—can be a huge asset to our energy future.

Dan Frakes and Alex Keros manage General Motors' Public Policy work on advanced vehicles, infrastructure, and technology. Their diverse background spans from engaging public-private partnerships to electric vehicle infrastructure planning to supporting the launch of the Chevrolet Volt.

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