Ladies and gentlemen, start charging your engines



A Chargepoint electric car charging station

Electric cars’ surging popularity is steering Con Edison and the state to figure out how they’ll be charged up.

The main question is how much electric vehicles will burden the power grid. Power companies haven’t yet figured out how much power electric cars will draw, or how the grid should be rebuilt to accommodate them.

Local power grids could be overstressed if several people in one neighborhood charge their cars at the same time, says Chargepoint, a company that provides car charging services. That means utilities like Con Edison may need to know who owns electric cars, so they can upgrade their facilities accordingly, Chargepoint suggests.

Grid stress hasn’t  been a big problem so far, however. California’s Pacific Electric and Gas conducts a local grid check every time it learns a customer has bought an electric car. The 10,000 grid checks the company has conducted so far have uncovered a need for only 12 area grid upgrades, says a report by ClimateWire.

Others advising the PSC on the issue say it’d also be a good idea if the state encouraged car owners to recharge their vehicles overnight, when power use is lowest. Some say the best way to do that may be to lower power prices during off-peak hours.

Con Ed already offers time-of-use rates, but few residential customers have signed up – and the company says those who have seem to use electricity in about  the same way as people who pay regular rates.

Con Edison’s prices may not be low enough for electric vehicle fleets to be as cost-effective as gas-powered vehicles, particularly when vehicles need a quick power boost. City officials analyzed how Con Ed rates would work if 33 percent of New York’s taxi fleet was electrified. It found that the time-of-use rate Con Ed offers some of its biggest customers “does not incentivize customers to quick charge or to avoid charging during times that are most detrimental to the grid.”

The PSC decided November 14 that it won’t impose rules on publicly available charging stations, which motorists can find in parking garages and parking lots. The order was a win for Con Ed and companies that manufacture public charging stations, who believe they are outside the rubric of state regulation.

The PSC noted that some rules about the stations may yet be needed. Businesses and homeowners installing charging stations may have to follow municipal zoning, building and electrical safety rules.

Electric cars aren’t selling at the pace hoped for by President Obama and other policymakers. There’s no way motorists will put 1 million electric vehicles on US highways by 2015, as Obama had wished.

But sales are growing – they were up 40 percent in October 2013 over October 2012, Chargepoint says. Cars with electric drives – including hybrids – have a 3.9 percent share of new car sales, says the Electric Drive Transportation Association.

New York is one of the biggest markets for electric cars. Chargepoint  says in a filing with the PSC that only California and Washington state have more electric cars than New York.

About Bill Sanderson

I'm a New York-based journalist, and a former reporter at the Concord Monitor in New Hampshire, the Bergen Record in New Jersey, and the New York Post. My work has appeared in The Wall Street Journal, and Politico New York. Twitter: @wpsanderson.
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