In the auto industry’s struggle to re-invent itself as innovative, high-tech, and environmentally friendly, car companies have fixed on the idea of plug-in hybrids and electric cars as a solution. What hasn’t been worked out is the fundamental question of how and where a million plug-in vehicles—that’s President Obama’s goal for 2015—will find juice for their cars.
Pike Research, a renewable energy research and consulting firm, recently published the results of its inquiry into that question. Based on numerous interviews with industry insiders, as well as analysis of planned plug-in car production, the Pike study, “Electric Vehicles on the Grid,” projects rapid growth in car charging infrastructure—but not in ways that many consumers expect. John Gartner, industry analyst at Pike Research, said, “Automakers made the commitment and there’s no going back. They can’t let this fail. But it’s not going to be perfect.”
Pike identified a number of myths about how electric car charging will unfold by 2015. “That sounds like it’s in far in the future, but we’re really not getting started with vehicle production until 2011,” said Gartner, in an interview with HybridCars.com. “We’re talking within four years. That’s a big ramp up.”
The Myths Dispelled
1 Public car charging stations will not be ubiquitous in the urban landscape.
Pike forecasts 1 million car charging installations by 2015—but most of them will be private. Early buyers of electric cars—which will be expensive—will be affluent and will see public charging as less convenient than pulling into the garage or driveway for a fill-up. “A high percentage of early adopters are likely to have home residential access to charging,” said Gartner. “They will probably pay for the installation themselves just for the convenience of home charging.”
2Public recharging infrastructure will not be critical to the early success of plug-in cars.
Yes, pure electric cars have a critical dependency on public recharging to travel beyond their expected range of 100 miles. But Pike forecasts just 3,000 annual sales of electric cars by 2015 compared to 204,000 plug-in hybrids and 435,000 conventional hybrids. Plug-in hybrids combine electric and gas power to provide a driving range that matches or exceeds conventional vehicles. “Plug-in hybrids get you there,” said Gartner. “Eighty percent of the problem solved. You have the gasoline engine as your backup.”
3EV owners will not pay for public charging.
The low cost of electricity makes for a tough business model for fee-based charging. “People who look at their utility bill, and say it’s a buck or two for a full charge. Why should I pay $8 to charge somewhere else, when I get it at home for so low?” Gartner believes retailers will give away electricity to make their location more attractive to customers.
4Drivers will not use standard home outlets.
The need for bulletproof reliability and performance regardless of power fluctuations—and the ability to monitor power transfers—means that standard 110 outlets are not sufficient. “All the industry forces are going to try to heavily recommend that people don’t try to plug into a standard outlet,” said Gartner. Instead, they will produce and market specialized dedicated EV outlets at a very attractive price as part of a package of discounted products or energy.
5 The setup and hardware for home recharging is not yet ready.
The clock is rapidly ticking toward the introduction of the first plug-in cars. “The industry will be building up until the last minute to meet national and international standards,” said Gartner. At this point, utilities and carmakers don’t know how they will keep track of vehicle charging, or how they will avoid having transformers blow when as few as two EV owners simultaneous charge up in the same neighborhood. But they know it’s a problem and they are working to address it. “It’s gong to be a real rat race to get everything in line.”
6Vehicle-to-grid technology is not imminent.
The potential for plug-in car owners to store energy in their vehicles, and sell it back to the grid—commonly referred to as “vehicle to grid” or V2G”—is still very much in the development stages. Gartner said, “The grid operators are not interested in it right now. They have too many other priorities. “ And Auto OEMs “want no part of vehicle-to-grid” at this stage. Expect pilot projects, but nothing real until 2020.
Combine these trends to create Pike Research’s picture of car charging infrastructure in 2015: Mostly plug-in hybrids, mostly plugging in at home using specialized dedicated outlets.