California utility prepares for surge in plug-in electric cars

Automakers envision electric cars as a solution to gas price jumps. Environmentalists see bluer skies. And electric utilities? They could be the biggest winners of all.

Electric cars use lots of juice and are typically plugged in to recharge at night when utilities have excess power-generating capacity. That's great for power companies.

But electric cars and plug-in hybrids, which are expected to start hitting the streets next year, could pose a challenge for utilities that aren't ready for them. Power companies need to make sure that a concentration of cars in a relatively small area won't overwhelm the grid. Charging has to be safe. Public charging stations need to be considered.

Southern California Edison, an investor-owned utility based in this Los Angeles suburb that provides power to 13 million, is trying to get ready. It's spending upwards of $5 million a year acquiring and maintaining the electric vehicle fleet, testing new plug-ins and researching battery capabilities.

As part of its program, Edison operates a fleet of 300 electric vehicles, most of which are Toyota RAV4s. The goal is to know the capabilities of the cars, and how they're going to be used and recharged, and to try to make the conversion as seamless as possible. It's also among the California utilities looking to upgrade the more than 1,000 public charging locations, installed from airports to shopping centers, left over from the last time the nation's most motoring-happy state thought it could make a go of electric transportation.

"This stuff is coming," says Ed Kjaer, SoCal Edison's electric transportation director. "We have to do it with safety and reliability. It cannot destabilize the system."

The storage problem

It's not just about selling more power. Utility officials are convinced that battery technology in the coming wave of electric cars could hold the key to solving a problem that has long bedeviled them: the inability to store all the electrons they produce. All that wind and solar power in the wings won't be much help if there is no demand in the system at the moment it surges through the wires and if it can't be stored for later use.

"The holy grail of the electricity business is storage," says Ted Craver, CEO of Edison International, SoCal Edison's parent, based here east of Los Angeles. SoCal Edison, like California's other big utilities, is being required by state regulators to boost the power it receives from renewable sources to 20% by next year. Right now, 16% of the utility's power is from renewables, most of it from geothermal sources, Craver says.

A big component of Edison's electric car program is researching the capabilities of automotive batteries with an eye toward developing units to store energy and use them to power individual businesses or homes, or clusters of them. One future possibility: used plug-in hybrid car batteries that still have life left in them as the heart of a home storage unit.

While the electric car revolution could provide a way to make better use of renewable energy sources, it also presents some big challenges. If lots of electric cars are being charged at the same time in a small community, they could overwhelm the system. For instance, more powerful transformers might be needed, Kjaer says.

Plugging in an electric car can be the equivalent of running up to six plasma television sets at once — a big energy drain.

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