Monday, March 16, 2009

Utility companies preparing for electric cars?

A USATODAY news article suggests California utility prepares for surge in plug-in electric cars which made me wonder what the other electrical utilities are doing. Electrical utilities have a role in clean transportation as being the provider of choice of the electricity that would power electric vehicles. A couple concerns known to me are whether the electric grid can handle the increased demand for electricity, and what will be the environmental effect of increased electricity demand. Let's take a look at the situation.

Utility companies could be big winners in the shift to electric transportation. The money flowing to the oil companies is largely for transportation, and clearly the oil companies receive massive megadollars of revenue. This flow of money could be diverted to the utility companies. Electric vehicles are thought to generally be recharged at night when there is excess electrical generation capacity.

California ISO is a not-for-profit public-benefit corporation charged with operating the majority of California’s high-voltage wholesale power grid. They therefore play a critical role in distributing electricity, and their website has massive quantities of information. The vast majority concerns the markets they run to handle payments between power suppliers and utility companies. There is not anything on the site directly concerning environmental concerns. Still there is very useful data that can be consulted to grok energy demand in California.

The Lassen Municipal Utility District provides a map of energy utilities operating in California. It shows there are three primary utilities, and a handful of smaller ones, and for this posting I'll only look at the three big ones: PG&E (central and northern California), SoCalEdison (LA Basin), and SDGE (San Diego).

PG&E's Environment program says they "we are committed to being an environmental leader and demonstrating this through our actions. We pledge to think creatively, work cooperatively and be results-oriented in our environmental stewardship efforts." What they're doing is:

  • Putting Energy Efficiency First: Using energy more efficiently is the fastest, most cost-effective way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat global climate change.
  • Clean Energy Solutions: exploring harvesting energy from the sun, ocean waves, tidal currents, and agricultural waste, and are involved in state-of-the-art, cleaner sources of fossil-fuel based power.
  • Fighting Climate Change: reducing our greenhouse gas emissions and to providing customers with tools to shrink their "carbon footprint."
  • Greening Vehicles: They apparently have a long track record of pushing for clean vehicles, for consumers and for themselves. They have a plug-in Prius (yes, just one). Most of their words in this section discuss supplying compressed natural gas (CNG) as a fuel to their own fleet plus other fleets.
  • Promoting Stewardship: managing lands and waters in a responsible and environmentally sensitive manner. Their infrastructure traverses unique and sensitive habitat.
  • Supporting Communities: Solar Habitat Program, Solar Schools, Partnering for a Greener San Francisco
  • Buildings and Operations: Greening their own buildings

Let's look more closely at their green vehicles program. This is pretty disappointing.

They show a picture of their plug-in Prius, and the car has a sticker saying "100 MPG" and "I can't remember the last time I filled up". Okay that probably just means they drive the car around San Francisco within the battery-only range, right? It's disappointing that they have only one of these cars.

Most of the page is concerned with using natural gas as a vehicle fuel. Obviously PG&E sells both electricity and natural gas and they are leveraging their other asset, access to natural gas, as a "green vehicle" option. Are there emissions benefits from using natural gas in vehicles? Yes. For heavy trucks and buses, a new (Model Year 2004) natural gas vehicle can cut toxic soot pollution by 75 to 90 percent, while smog-forming pollution is reduced by about 25 percent compared to conventional diesel. Diesel soot is extremely toxic, containing over 40 chemicals that California has declared as toxic air contaminants. The California Air Resources Board (CARB) estimates that diesel exhaust causes 70% of the state's cancer risk from airborne pollution.

They use both compressed natural gas (CNG) and liquefied natural gas (LNG) for their heavy duty vehicles. They operate 37 PG&E-owned-and-operated CNG fueling stations supplying fuel to their own vehicles and various commercial fleet customers.

But the overall picture is they're doing very little in the way of studying electric vehicles or planning for accommodating them on the local power grid. They do have a 'Vehicle to Grid' (V2G) program but I couldn't find where it's discussed.

Southern California Edison is "committed to environmental protection".

  • Environmental Commitment: Helping to protect the environment in which we work and live.
  • Smart Grid: Nation’s most advanced neighborhood electricity circuit.
  • Edison SmartConnect™: A smarter, cleaner energy future with our customers.
  • Electric Transportation: Nation's largest electric vehicle fleet.
  • Power Generation: Dedicated to operating safe and environmentally responsible facilities.
  • Transmission Projects: Strengthening system reliability throughout our service territory.

Their various programs look interesting in various ways. The SmartConnect program offers customers more information about their power use supposedly to give them better awareness of their impact which may steer customers to making better choices. Let's focus on their electric transportation program.

Their Electric Transportation Vision is pretty well described and thought out. They obviously have spent some effort to understand the issues such as national energy security, environmental issues, etc. It's amusing that the picture leading the page shows lines of golf carts and fork lifts so their vision is to keep electric vehicles used only for low speed vehicles? C'mon, electric vehicles don't have to be boring golf carts.

  • Near-Term

    • Vehicle to Home: Charging vehicles (mainly plug-in hybrid-electric vehicles) during nighttime (off-peak) hours, and using that stored energy occasionally for peak emergency backup or peak shaving to avoid higher electricity costs during critical peak usage days.
    • Home Energy Storage: Identifying and evaluating new stationary applications for advanced vehicle batteries, such as a home energy storage device.
  • Mid-Term
    • Excess Grid Capacity: Using the electric grid’s nighttime excess capacity to charge volumes of plug-in and other electric vehicles, helping lower customer rates by spreading fixed generation plant costs over more energy use.
    • Long-Term

    • Vehicle to Grid: Tapping into the potential ability to move stored energy from plug-in and other electric vehicles back into the electric grid as part of the “smart grid of the future,” helping enhance power grid quality, reliability and cost-effectiveness.

Their Electric Vehicle Technical Center conducts state-of-the-art testing and evaluation, they have a "garage of the future" evaluation platform to plan for recharging electric vehicles at home and they do cutting-edge work with electric-drive technologies.

  • Tests battery-electric, hybrid-electric, plug-in hybrid, plug-in hybrid fuel cell and fuel cell propulsion systems for on- and non-road applications.
  • Evaluates and tests advanced battery modules, battery packs, battery management systems and various types of chargers.
  • Supports the development of more energy-efficient battery charging systems.
  • Evaluates advanced batteries and other energy storage technologies for stationary applications, such as home energy storage, telecommunications and emergency backup power.
  • Partners with government and industry to demonstrate hydrogen and fuel cells and understand the safety and electrical system impacts of hydrogen generation, compression, storage and delivery.
  • Provides consulting services for industry.

This looks very good and comprehensive on their part. They appear to be doing all the right things to understand and plan for electric vehicles.

San Diego Gas & Electric Company's Environment program talks about "A Sustainable and Eco-friendly Future"

Their programs are:

  • Going Solar
  • Building Green with Us
  • Producing Your Own Power
  • Sustainable Communities Program
  • Saving Energy Today
  • Exploring Clean Transportation
  • Learn about Renewable Energy
  • Environment Home

Clearly one of San Diego's main assets is abundant sunshine. What's that song? Actually the first time I was in San Diego it was overcast and cold (for June) and rainy, so obviously it does occasionally rain in southern california. Their service area also includes the deserts to the west of the mountains, and I believe SDGE is investing in solar power plants in those deserts to provide electricity to San Diego.

Their programs for clean and electric vehicles look very weak, but still with a useful focus.

In Sept 2008 they announced results of study: Plug-In hybrid electric vehicles excel on MPG and emissions reductions, SDG&E study confirms "SDG&E tested the performance of two 2007-model standard hybrid vehicles and then converted them into plug-in hybrids, using a lithium-ion battery conversion kit. When compared with the standard hybrid, the plug-in hybrid achieved a 60-percent increase in gas mileage, a 37-percent decrease in carbon dioxide (CO2) tailpipe emissions, and an 18-percent reduction in fuel costs. When compared with conventional gasoline-fueled vehicles that average 22 miles per gallon (MPG), the fuel cost savings jump to 57 percent. "

Unfortunately their page has very few specifics to understand what they're doing. They discuss electrification of the following useful areas to address, but with no details as to the actual programs being pursued.

  • Non-road Electric Vehicles
    • Fork lifts, materials-handling equipment, personnel carriers and cleaners
    • Airport ground support equipment (electrification of ground support equipment at San Diego International Airport)
  • Electric Idling Initiatives - Electric idling initiatives, which involve substituting electrification for petroleum-fueled idling operations, include:
    • "Cold ironing" (Port of San Diego cruise ship and cargo terminals)
    • Locomotive electric idling (San Diego Sante Fe Train Station)
    • Truck-stop electrification

External Media

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