What Will an Electric Vehicle-Ready Smart Grid Infrastructure Look Like?

smart grid

It's 2020. You drive your plug-in hybrid electric car home at 6 p.m., plug it in, let it charge via the solar panels on your roof or the wind power coming from the grid, and you leave it charging until the morning. Sounds simple enough, right? It's not. Utilities have a long way to go before they're prepared for the impending onslaught of energy-sucking vehicles—and they might not all be ready in time.

One utility that thinks it will: Southern California Edison. The utility covers a massive swath of land that includes 5 million meters, 14 million residents. By 2020, the utility's customers could have up to 1 million EVs on the road. But SoCal Edison is already gearing up for the early adopters, explained Pedro Pizarro, the executive vice president of Power Operations for Southern California Edison. "If you have a block with three or four Priuses, that's probably an early adopter neighborhood," he said. SoCal Edison is in the midst of surveying its customers to find out which ones plan on buying EVs early. The zip codes with the highest amount of early adopters will likely receive upgraded wiring and circuitry that can handle all the excess pressure on the grid from EVs.

SoCal Edison is also working with cities, auto manufacturers, and car dealerships to assess the potential impact of EVs. "We will be prepared even if high-end predictions are correct," Pizarro said. But there are still kinks to work out—for example, how can the utility incentivize customers to charge at off-peak hours so they don't overtax the grid? Of the 700 customers who participated in a recent SoCal Edison survey on the matter, half of respondents said that they wouldn't be willing to charge off-peak. Even if that's just because the respondents don't realize how much money they could save, its a problem. "We have a big job ahead in communication," Pizarro said.

Most utilities aren't nearly as prepared as SoCal Edison. "A very small number of utilities are taking practical steps," explained Allan Schurr, VP Strategy, Energy & Utilities at IBM. According to Schurr, many utilities don't know what people's driving patterns will be—will drivers upgrade their garages to be EV-ready, for example, or will they go to public charge spots? Utilities will have to keep track of where charge spots are located and make sure they know where the highest electricity loads will be. For its part, IBM offers a readiness assessment service that helps utilities figure out their smart grid weak spots.

On the whole, though, the technology coming down the pipeline is promising—utilities just need to keep a close eye on the auto industry. "The interesting thing is that the pace of new change to the grid isn't in control of the utility," Schurr said. "It's driven by automakers."

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