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.

The key appears to be the strategy of adjusting rates to encourage charging at off-peak times.

"There's been a lot of thinking (about) what can we do to incentivize customers to not use electricity at a particular time of the day," says Sherry Boschert, author of a book on plug-in hybrids and vice president of advocacy group Plug In America.

Luckily for the industry, the switch to electric cars is expected to be gradual. Mark Duvall of the Electric Power Research Institute, a research outfit for the electric utility industry, says having 1 million on U.S. roads in eight years is an achievable goal. Just last week, Volkswagen CEO Stefan Jacoby estimated in a speech at UCLA that it could take 35 years for the world to fully embrace electric vehicles.

To prepare for that day, SoCal Edison runs prototype electric vehicles through their paces at its test facility in Pomona, a few miles east of headquarters. Ford chose SoCal Edison as a testing partner in 2007 for its experimental plug-in hybrid Escape SUVs. It recently announced it's adding seven other utilities to the program. Its goal is to have a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle on the market by 2012.

Other makers contribute models for testing, such as a new Mitsubishi iMiEV subcompact and a Daimler plug-in hybrid van undergoing evaluation recently. Kjaer says SoCal Edison and other utilities are working with General Motors on its Chevy Volt plug-in electric, which is supposed to hit the roads next year.

As for the long term, mechanics work on the fleet of RAV4s that have collectively logged more than 17 million miles since 1999. Today, the fleet achieves 120,000 miles a month.

"We have more data than Toyota does on this fleet," Kjaer says.

More than a dozen automakers are testing or planning to introduce plug-in hybrid or pure electric vehicles. Nissan plans to roll out its electric car some time next year.

Sales of electric vehicles most likely won't be evenly distributed across communities, but likely concentrated in particular places.

He won't name them but points to the places where Toyota's Prius hybrid can be found in the greatest numbers, such as Berkeley, Calif., or the Washington, D.C., suburbs.

That means installing higher-capacity transformers or whatever it takes.

"As long as we see the impacts of it and where it's going, we have the ability to prepare the system," Kjaer says.

He's convinced he's seen the future. It's electric.