It's not expected to be the explosive growth of the solar or wind sector, but electric vehicle drivership is set to expand in the U.S. and around the world.
Two recent reports from Navigant Research illustrate the trend, as well as the electric utility's crucial role in driving it.
In one, the firm predicted light-duty plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) are expected to make up half of the global EV market by 2024. And in the other, it in concluded charging station development would need to be done in conjunction with smart grid technology to ensure the maximum benefits back to the grid.
Automakers are beginning to widely address longstanding issues with the range of EVs and the time they take to charge, as well as the sticker shock that accompanied past models. Major automakers like General Motors, Nissan and Tesla are all working on PEVs with more modest price tags, below $40,000, and with ranges up to 250 miles.
And on the utility side, power providers are beginning to look at electric vehicles as an opportunity.
"Utilities don't want to miss the boat," said Scott Shepard, senior research analyst with Navigant Research. "Solar is an example of what they don't want to happen. ... Utilities are stepping away from the idea the electric vehicle is a larger threat."
And with many utilities facing stagnant or declining load growth, Shepard said electric vehicles represent a chance to reverse that trend. "There aren't really a lot of opportunities for load growth out there, but this is definitely one," he said. "In many ways, I think the electric vehicle is the device by which consumers have greater interaction with their utility. The EV is a sea change from the conventional vehicle."
But in order for PEVs to gain wide adoption, analysts say the charging stations will need to be not just more plentiful, but strategically deployed to match both customer and grid needs.
"The beauty of electric transportation is, most of the costs are already out there," said Rendall Farley, EV program manager for Avista. "The transmission, the connections to homes and businesses, are already in existence. It's just a matter of adding a relatively small amount of infrastructure. .... You can do more faster with electric transportation than any other alternatives."
Avista's investigation into grid benefits
Avista, which serves 340,000 electric customers in Idaho and eastern Washington, has just begun rollout of a charging program targeting 272 port installations over the next two years, including 45 public ports and 7 DC Fast Charging stations. The utility has just 400 customers driving electric vehicles, compared to more than 16,000 currently in Washington state. But most of those, said Farley, are located in the western portion of the state and are concentrated in the Puget Sound area.
"We've got relatively low EV adoption," said Farley. "We see this as a longer-term trend we want to get ahead of."
Avista's two-year pilot is a "comprehensive program," he said, moving beyond installing charging ports to a broader evaluation of their potential use as a resource, as well as to better understand customer behavior.
The rollout began this summer and so far has installed relatively few stations, but Farley said the plan is to have them all installed by the end of the pilot. Of 120 residential ports, 65 have been approved; an 45 of 100 planned workplace/fleet ports have been approved.
There have also been 19 public ports approved, and 1 DC fast charger.
"In the public arena we’ve got 45 locations targeted, to really establish a regional backbone," Rendall said. "We want to encourage more regional driving."
When the 45 Level 2 port connections are combined with 7 planed DCFC stations, it amounts to about 30 public installations for 400 drivers -- a ratio the utility hopes will help spur drivership.
But Rendall cautioned, "where you cite them is very critical as to whether it’s providing value."
The basic criteria is that charging locations should be within a short walking distance of an amenity the driver values. For DC fast chargers, locations would target drivers on their way somewhere — a coffee shop, for instance.
For public AC Level 2 chargers, "they need to be a short walking distance to some other attraction or place the EV driver would want to go anyway," said Rendell. "Like restaurants, entertainment venues, major parks … places where the person is likely to want to go and leave their vehicle a couple of hours."
The utility looks at several aspects of a potential charge site, including the extent to which the host will be engaged and an active partner. Also key is the proximity to electric power, of course.
"Some sites are really desirable but are cost prohibitive from that standpoint," said Rendell. "It’s a balance."
Looking out to 2040, Rendell said on the very high end 20% of the vehicles on the road could be EVs, while the low-end estimate is more like 4%. Bloomberg New Energy Finance estimates 35% of new vehicle sales will be EVs at that time.
But while the pilot looks to boost drivership, but Rendell said "more importantly, do we really understand what the net benefits are?"
Continued government support will be essential, particularly in the United States right now. "There is still quite a ways to go in terms of vehicle choice," he said. "A lot of people don't want to drive a small passenger vehicle."
Several European nations, led by Norway, are looking at eliminating sales of gas cars within the next decade. "I don't think that will happen in the United States," said Rendell. But "ultimately, EVs are just better. They’re cleaner, faster, save money and they’re more reliable. It’s a more elegant, simpler design. I see a future, in a few years, where EVs not only compete but out-compete with gasoline vehicles."
2 years of free 'gas' drives KCP&L EV drivership
Over at Kansas City Power & Light, the utility launched an EV charging rollout in January of last year, and is now about 18 months into the project.
"We've seen a significant increase in driver growth," said Kristin Riggins, sustainability products manager at the utility.
The utility started with just 50 drivers in its territory, and now has around 1,200. "Nationally, we're one of the top growing areas for EV growth," said Riggins. "In the second quarter EV sales hit a record nationally, up 39% over last year. In the Kansas City region growth exceeded 50%"
So far, about 700 charging stations have been rolled out to a variety of locations including grocery stores and other big box retailers. All of the 700 are public, currently operating under a two-year pilot phase during which they are free to use.
There are also 15 fast-charging stations installed in a partnership with Nissan.
Businesses apply to host a charging station, and KCP&L installs and maintains the station and ports. There is roughly six months of free "gas" left in the pilot phase, and the utility has filed with state regulators to begin charging a rate close to the retail rate to juice up cars.
"One of the things we talked about when we launched, was range anxiety," said Courtney Hughley, a spokesperson for KCP&L. "We knew people have had questions, and we sought to provide that answer. ... We think of it as, 'If you build it, they will come.'"
The stations have the capabilities to integrate into demand response programs, but the utility is not yet exploring wider grid services, instead choosing to focus on upping the number of vehicles it is supporting.
"It will be a huge benefit for KCP&L to have the entire network as a demand response network," said Riggins. "We'll continue to study that option. ... There's a lot of different benefits and risks, but that has not been a focus of this project yet."
In addition to demand response, the stations could be considered for grid ancillary services.
"Once they're all installed, we can focus on the stations in the ground and take some time to see what we've learned before we make a decision on what come next," Riggins said. "There are definitely some possibilities."
Public outreach is a major factor of the pilot, said Hughley. And the stations "speak for themselves" — literally.
"They pop up at a Walmart or your local grocery store. A video runs at the station, to capture attention," she said. "When we first launched the project it was mostly about getting the name out there."
The utility also has a group of EV "ambassadors" who who are drivers willing to answer questions about and advocate for EV ownership to other would-be customers, somewhat similar to community solarize groups that help guide homeowners through the process.
And the utility is getting ready to move into a phase where the utility will partner with dealerships to educate drivers about driving electric. "We don't have all those plans firmed up yet," sad Hughley, "but we're moving into a phase where the drivers know who we are, and now we're trying to reach people who don't drive electric. We want it to be an option they consider."
"Our ultimate goal is not to have to do outreach," said Hughley. "Where we've educated enough of the right people that it's not our responsibility. ... We're not car salesmen, we know electricity."
While there are many home charging stations in KCP&L's territory, Wiggins said there is anecdotal evidence of drivers not installing one because they live near public stations — perhaps the new equivalent of dropping cable, or your land line.
Getting the right types of charging stations into the right areas is key. When KCP&L launched the charging station project, it already had 20 stations "but they were not in all the areas where people live their lives," said Hughley.
"Fast charging is definitely more expensive, but you need a combination to really reach the market," Riggins said.
The utility installs DCFC stations in places with a shorter "dwell time," Riggins said. "They need to be at locations where people are not staying for a long period of times."
And complicating the matter, not all DC fast-charging stations can be used by all vehicles. There are different ports on different vehicles, Riggins said. Some models have not implemented DC fast charging on their vehicles. On the other hand, Riggins said, a BMW can charge anywhere except Tesla stations, but Tesla drivers have an adapter to use all other stations.
"Level 2 is really the standard for charging infrastructure," Riggins said.
Overall response to the program has "exceeded my expectations, not just in terms of numbers, but how people are engaged," Hughley said. "We did not have to do a lot, to have people become ambassadors for us."
"We knew this would have a big impact on the city and region," she said.