Electric Vehicles to Jolt Urban Infrastructure

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The electric vehicle has staked out its future in urban America and our cityscape will be forever changed.

The dawn of the EV era could be a crucial piece of the puzzle as smart cities look to unlock traffic clogged downtowns and considerably contribute to efforts to ward off climate change.

Hosts of companies – auto, small delivery and bus makers, software companies, engineers and architects, construction firms – will get employed by the efforts, energy, utility, transport thought leaders and entrepreneurs tell Icons of Infrastructure.

An expanding EV charging network is steadily blanketing America, from eight charging stations in far off Alaska to 1,026 in Florida – 18,283 nationally, according to federal stats.

An even bigger wave is about to break.

America’s electric utilities are poised to spend $1 billion on EV charging in the next 3-5 years, according to Kellen Schefter, manager of sustainable technology for the Edison Electric Institute, which speaks for investor-owned utilities serving 220 million Americans.

While there are many transformative technologies being readied for deployment in our national electric grid – none eclipse EV charging in impact, Shefter said.

True, energy storage, microgrids, smart grids loom large.

But EVs will transform both the energy grid and transportation.

Prepare for a sea change. Today, fossil fuels provide 92 percent of the juice needed to move us and our goods about, compared to a scant 0.1 percent provided by zipping electrons, Shefter said.

So how will EVs unlock cities that have inexorably become more gridlocked decade after decade?

maryline daviaud lewett of black veatch

Maryline Daviaud Lewett, Black & Veatch

I put that question to Maryline Daviaud Lewett, Black & Veatch director of business development and transformative technologies in San Francisco.

Lewett painted a picture of EVs being central to the future of modern cities in America. Here is why. Today, planners have no visibility into how far or how long any single vehicle travels any day.

Technology-bristling EVs will change that – giving off mountainous data in real time data as they move about.

City planners will monitor and then intelligently manage the traffic flow, she said. Conceivably cars would be permitted for necessary travel, rationalizing the entire traffic patterns of a metropolis, she said.

Services like Uber and Lyft are now exploring moving towards company-owned fleets of electric vehicles. Ride share services, popular with younger adults, will also migrate toward EVs. So will delivery vans and buses, Lewett said.

“The goal is to reduce the number of cars in the streets,” she said.

That capability is coming, with industry estimates predicting that by 2020, three-quarters of all new cars sold will be connected to the internet.

By 2040 – a mere two decades out – one-third of the cars sold will be electric.

Connectivity with the internet implies vast new unimagined efficiencies. The trick will be to achieve them with little or no inconvenience or compromise of personal autonomy.

On the mass transit front, demand for electric buses in our cities has already escalated to the point that there is a lag of 6 – 12 months in getting them delivered, Lewett said.

electric vehicle bus

Black & Veatch this spring announced it has deployed a 50-kilowatt charging system specially designed to power 14 new Proterra electric buses in Washington, D.C. In addition to cleaning city air, the buses will save the city an estimated $6 million in fuel and maintenance costs over the buses’ 12-year life.

Kansas City Power and Light, a mid-sized, Midwest utility, has quietly surged to the forefront of U.S. utilities deploying EV charging units early and in mass.

Jeffrey Beeson, KCP&L manager of product marketing, said that more than 1,000 have been deployed, including 16 fast direct current or DC chargers.

That has spurred EV adoption – alongside several innovative incentive programs that the utility has adopted with Nissan.

Conventional, so-called “level 2” chargers can take up to 4 hours to charge an EV and are best suited for locales like workplace parking lots where vehicles linger. A fast-charger can replenish up to 80 percent of a battery in 15 minutes.

An added benefit of the charging system: it is educational.

“We have already noticed that customers who drive electric vehicles are so much more in tune with what a kilowatt is, how electricity works,” he said. These savvy customers are asking for new services like time-of-day rates that curb demand during peak periods, mitigating the need for costly, potentially polluting new power plants.

Until now, KCP&L’s focus has been building the charging network.

Now, it is pivoting to an outreach effort, going business-to-business to explain the merits of EV fleets, Beeson said.

The program is an economic development tool, making the city increasingly attractive to a talented young work force interested in such clean initiatives, Beeson said.

The innovations benefit all electric customers, helping to keep down the price of essential electricity, he said.

A key question that emerges for electric utilities is will the grid be sufficiently versatile to pivot to massive new electric vehicle energy needs.

john halliwell epri

John Halliwell, Electric Power Research Institute.

It will, according to John Halliwell, expert with the Electric Power Research Institute.

Halliwell likens the looming electrical load that will be required for a surging EV fleet to the advent of ubiquitous air conditioning in America starting four decades ago. The new electric demand from air conditioning has been enormous, but nothing the grid could not handle.

“The growth rate [from EVs] will be at a pace utilities can absorb,” he said.

What will be unprecedented, though, is the fact that a massive load will be on wheels.

“The load will move around, depending on our behavior,” he said.

That is not something the electric universe has encountered before, Halliwell said.

That will be a challenge. But with it comes new opportunities.

Utilities, auto makers and appliance makers are beginning to explore the use of EVs as portable batteries to provide backup generation for – say – coolers at a tailgating party, Halliwell said.

Barry Worthington, executive director of the United States Energy Association

Barry Worthington, executive director, United States Energy Association

Barry Worthington, executive director of the United States Energy Association, sees both positive and negative implications tied to the advent of EVs.

“Poor location selection can risk overloading distribution lines,’ he told Icons of Infrastructure. “Also, in some circumstances caution will be needed to not increase demand at peak times.”

But change – big change – is inevitable.

“When super-fast charging becomes affordable, look to the local gasoline station and convenience store to deploy charging stations,” Worthington said.

That, in turn, points to expansive economic impact.

Preparing for such expansion are new startups like Chargepoint, based in Campbell, California, which has 70 percent of the commercial EV charging station market, according to a spokesman.

charging stations available

That translates into 50,000 conventional chargers and 800 fast chargers, said Anne Smart, Chargepoint vice president of policy.

What will the future bring? EVs with larger batteries, longer driving range – and demand for ever-faster charging, she said.

map ev chargingTo prepare for these transformative developments, Chargepoint has made sure that a muscular one-third of its 500 employee work force are engineers. Keeping design engineers in house, and tapping additional resources as needed in India, has been the company’s “business model from the beginning,” Smart said. “We have been known for our R&D in the network space.”

Call it preparation for surging opportunity.

“The market is growing very significantly,” Smart said.

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