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Austin Energy prepares to meet plug-in electric demand

Monday, March 1, 2010 by John Davidson

If you believe the buzz, major automakers will be churning out hundreds of thousands of plug-in electric vehicles over the next decade—some beginning this year—transforming not only the auto industry but also, potentially, the way electric utilities operate.

 

Austin Energy wants to be part of that transformation and has begun preparing infrastructure to meet what it thinks will be a growing regional demand. The utility expects that plug-in electric vehicles, or PEVs, will begin trickling into the Austin area in 2011 and 2012 but quickly increase to more than 30,000 by 2015 with as many as 190,000 in Central Texas by the year 2020.

 

“It’s coming. They’re real,” Austin Energy’s Larry Alford told the city’s Resource Management Commission at a recent meeting. “This is a game-changer in a lot of ways, but there’s a lot of work to be done.”

 

These PEVs are not the slow, limited range golf cart-type contraptions usually associated with electric-powered automobiles; the new generation of PEVs are full-sized vehicles manufactured by major automakers like Chevy, GM, Honda, Nissan and others. Most of these vehicles will have a range of about 40 miles, and some could go as far as 100 miles on battery power alone.

 

AE has already been working on the issue for years. The utility is currently in negotiations with GM and Chrysler for test vehicles, and has begun negotiations with a company that manufactures charging stations. In addition, the city has been approved for a state grant to convert 38 Priuses to PEVs over the next year.

 

Those vehicles will join the two prototype Prius-PEVs that AE used as part of a communication software study that showed how the utility could control the time and rate of charging from a central location. The idea is that, when plugged in, the vehicle battery only charges when energy prices are low or when cheap wind power is available—like at night.

 

A PEV running on a battery charged with wind power, AE officials pointed out to the commission, emits zero CO2. The trick is how to make sure a large number of PEV vehicles will be able to charge their batteries every day without straining AE’s grid.

 

“We’re already thinking about how we’re going to manage the large number of these vehicles that we think will be in the Austin service area post-2015, to make sure we’re not experiencing a nighttime peak,” said Austan Librach of AE. “We want the ability to spread those charges out over the nighttime hours. If you had no control, everyone would start charging at 7pm.”

 

Eventually, AE plans to integrate PEVs back into the overall grid and use sources of surplus battery power to mitigate periods of peak usage, a process called vehicle-to-grid, or V2G. Librach said the utility is working with the Austin Independent School District to convert school buses into PEVs, which would enable AE to tap into a large source of electric power in the summer, when the buses are not in use.

 

There are also plans for public charging stations, but according to Librach, 90 percent of all charging will happen at the PEV owner’s home, for which Austin Energy has developed a charging device that’s easily installed and that AE will likely subsidize and perhaps own.

 

Other AE programs in the works include vehicle demos planned for the Pecan Street project and a partnership with Austin-Bergstrom International Airport to convert ground support vehicles into PEVs. The utility is also meeting this week with CAMPO officials about starting a dialogue with all the jurisdictions in the AE service area about public charging, said Librach.

 

“We have a full gamut of programs and research that has already begun,” Librach said.

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