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Electric vehicles: looking back, looking forward, Part II

In yesterday's column, "Electric Vehicles: Looking Back, Looking Forward," the first installment of this two-part interview with Electric Drive Transportation Association (EDTA) President Brian Wynne, we discussed consumer adoption of electric vehicles (EVs) and municipal and commercial adoption of EV fleets. We welcome readers' comments on Wynne's points in particular and on EVs and utilities in general.

Intelligent Utility: This time last year, utilities were busy engaging new EV owners to understand the uptake patterns, they were concerned about clustering and how multiple EVs charging at the same time might impact neighborhood transformers. Would they be prepared? The result was a rational approach to EV penetration that's been slower than anticipated, except perhaps in places such as Southern California. There, at least one major utility thinks EVs could represent long-term viability for their business model. What do you hear from utilities lately on their stance?   

Brian Wynne: There's a short-term and a long-term view. Many were concerned about the smoking transformer phenomenon. That's largely abated. Now we're back to the longer-term conversation where, unless you're in Southern California, where there's more clustering, and transformer upgrades may be necessary, now we've got some time to think through the customer experience. Interestingly, and this is borne out by the upcoming J.D. Power and Associates' survey, those utilities that are engaging their customers over EV adoption have a higher than typical customer satisfaction rate. And utilities are trying to learn from what essentially is a shared customer with the automotive industry. That process is underway. 

Intelligent Utility: We recently wrote about a J.D. Power survey that reflected that customer engagement raises satisfaction levels. And that's going to be critical to utilities' keeping customers in the fold as disintermediaries vie to be a go-between. It's interesting to think of EVs as a component of utilities' engagement strategy. 

[See "J.D. Power: Meter Awareness `Less Than Optimal.'"]

Brian Wynne: The other piece of this—and how utilities react to it—is the debate about whether we need to install public [charging] infrastructure to create a sense of comfort for people concerned about being able to charge their EV. I don't know the answer. For people with range-extended vehicles that's less critical than pure battery EVs, but it is an issue for municipal authorities. If we want to encourage this, do we proactively put public infrastructure in place even though we don't yet know how consumers will use it? Or the extent to which that infrastructure's presence will influence the public's purchasing decisions. Utilities are talking about whether it's really a chicken-or-the-egg situation.  

Intelligent Utility: EDTA covers more than EVs. We've talked about fleets and infrastructure. What about batteries and fuel cells. There have certainly been some ups and downs this past year. What's new? 

Brian Wynne: That topic reflects what we spend most of our time on, which is federal policy. We have encouraged the Department of Energy to continue its collaboration with industry to advance technologies across the board, including advanced batteries, fuel cells. You probably saw the DOE grant to Argonne National Laboratory that would double the energy density in advanced batteries in an accelerated timeframe. 

[A public/private team led by Argonne National Laboratory has been selected for an award of up to $120 million over five years to establish the Joint Center for Energy Storage Research (JCESR).]

This is an appropriate role for government. Assistant Secretary of Energy Dave Danielson, who was the first employee in ARPA-E is now the head of EERE at the DOE—that stands for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy, which includes the vehicles technology program. We have a good relationship with him and his team. All of our members are interested in greater energy density in batteries. One of the most interesting elements in these programs is to determine the value of EV batteries when they've reached the end of their useful life in the cars. Can we repurpose them, particularly for energy storage on the grid? If we do, that unlocks tremendous value—you could amortize their value over a much longer life cycle and dramatically reduce their initial costs for EVs. These are extremely important tasks to do in a governmental framework, in collaboration with industry. 

Intelligent Utility: In many ways, Americans live in a media bubble, blinded by their own self-importance, distracted by our own policy squabbles. What's your sense of progress on EVs overseas? 

Brian Wynne: To me, the good news is that electrifying transportation is a global phenomenon. Progress is being made in many places. That said, it lands in different markets differently. Europeans, for instance, are more open to the notion of a city car. Oil, being a monopoly fuel, is a global problem that needs to be addressed on a global basis. That's one of the reasons I'm so optimistic about electric drive technology. A positive tension in that scenario is international competitiveness. 

We helped ourselves enormously with the investments made by the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act's focus on upstream manufacturing of advanced batteries. Sure, there were two high-profile setbacks, A123 being the most recent. Yet that company has continued to operate through its bankruptcy and stamp out batteries for energy storage on the grid. 

[See more on the controversy over a Chinese company outbidding Johnson Controls Inc. for A123's taxpayer-financed battery advancements.]

If you look at ARRA-funded programs, there were 29 projects financed at 300 sites around the country making, in one form or another, parts that go into the realm of electrified transportation. We've given ourselves the opportunity to lead on a global basis. We cannot do that, even though we invented lithium-ion technology, unless we manufacture them here. As we speak, the first Nissan batteries are being charged in Smyrna, Tenn., where they've established a factory to make both the Leaf and the batteries on the same site. This is a good thing. 

This country has stolen a march in some ways from some of our competitors abroad. Given the cost of transporting lithium-ion batteries we'll be happy we did that. The taxpayer will get a return on investment, as will private investors who leverage that money. 

Intelligent Utility: Any specific uptake or advancements for electric drives elsewhere in the world worthy of note? I see that electric scooters have taken hold in China, for instance.

Brian Wynne: The key guy on light duty and two-wheeled vehicles, particularly in Asia, is a guy named Ed Benjamin, who founded the Light Electric Vehicle Association (LEVA). Ed knows everything about this particular topic. I remind people that the largest electric drive deployment in the world is electric bikes in China. [Editor: said to number approximately 130 million.] Those bikes took off like wildfire and, in some municipalities, authorities were trying to ban them. People go faster on them and they don't make any noise. They were considered a safety hazard, initially.   

As Rodney Slater, former secretary of transportation [under President Bill Clinton], said in a meeting where I was present, "transportation is about economic access." Fundamentally, that captures why electric bikes took off. The owner could travel to the next town and get a better job. Once that happened, it took off. That's a very unique case and it doesn't mean we'll be successful with electric vehicles in the U.S. But it aided an entire market for different form factor lithium-ion batteries that you pull off the bike and charge in your apartment.  

Our transportation system in the U.S. was built in an era of cheap gas. Gas isn't cheap anymore. So there's no question in my mind that the transportation system will change. There'll be less sprawl. There's already a move back into the cities, moving closer to where you work. Those trends favor electric drive technology in the medium- and long-term. So I'm encouraged by those trends. I pay attention to foreign markets to glean whatever lessons we might use here.


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