Southern California Edison Preparing for the Move to Electric Vehicles

The arrival of the electric vehicle era is just around the corner. 2010 will see the launch of the Nissan LEAF all-electric car, the Chevy Volt plug-in hybrid and a new plug-in version of Toyota’s Prius gas-electric hybrid. In addition to new electric vehicles from major players in the automotive industry, start-ups including Fisker Automotive and Coda Automotive are scheduled to begin mass-marketing their own electric vehicles.

Electric car proponents point to the economic advantages and convenience of recharging electric vehicles overnight from a simple garage-installed electrical outlet.

Skeptics raise concerns about the potential drain on electrical utilities that could drive electric rates higher and express doubts over the suitability of existing residential wiring for such a specialized task.

Both arguments have their merits.

The vast majority of American garages are not equipped with the appropriate electrical equipment. That’s why Southern California Edison has embarked on an ambitious to make the reality of EV ownership easier for some of its roughly 5 million customers in the Los Angeles area.

The privately held electric utility has created a Web site designed to educate would-be plug in electric car owners about the electrical requirements of home garage recharging. Visitors to the site are provided technical and rate plan information and Edison will also dispatch technicians to install equipment upgrades. The company will also help consumers acquire any needed inspections and permits.

Edison’s R&D division has built a laboratory dedicated to electric-vehicles. The lab includes a “garage of the future” where engineers can evaluate the potential impact of EV recharging on the power grid. The garage features a 2-kW photovoltaic solar collector mounted atop the roof that feeds a 10-kW-hour electric storage system.

New “smart meters” are also being developed at the lab. These meters are designed to monitor the grid and notify customers of the most cost-effective times to recharge their plug-in vehicles.

Southern California Edison currently utilizes EVs in its service fleet and claims that they rack up 120,000 miles per month. The company estimates they reduce CO2 emissions by approximately 9,600 tons compared with traditional internal combustion engine vehicles.

The utility has asked the U.S. Department of Energy for $52 million to help fund research and development of new technologies intended to facilitate the move to electric vehicles. President Obama toured the current facilities earlier this year and appeared impressed by what he saw.

Edison currently generates 16% of its electrical energy using renewable sources and hopes to reach its goal of 20% sometime next year. Nationwide, only 4% of electricity is generated using renewable resources. According to Edison’s ECO Ted Carver, the primary reason is America’s dependence on coal.

He says, “More than half of America’s power comes from coal, and three-quarters of it comes from fossil fuel, which is cheap and controllable. The question,” he asks, “is how we flip that so that fossil fuel is just one-quarter on the equation.” Adding to the problem is the fickle politics behind energy policies and the astronomical costs associated with transitioning away from fossil fuels. As Carver puts it, “In the utility industry, it’s no longer hundreds of millions of dollars for a project, it’s billions. We are the ultimate capital-intensive industry. We have to eat that cooking for 30 years.”

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