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Electric Vehicles, the New Frontier?

Plug In 2011Last Thursday the U.S. space shuttle touched down for the last time, and a part of history came to an end. N.C. Senator Fletcher Hartsell, Jr., reflected that morning that “It’s sad to think we might have lost our vision a bit [in the space program]. But, when you look at the area [of electric vehicles], it says we might be finding it again here on Earth.”

The Senator spoke on the final day of last week’s Plug In 2011 conference, during a Siemens-sponsored panel. As a contractor for Siemens, who is a sponsor of The Energy Collective, I am encouraged when the company supports such discussions. Emerging areas, such as EV technology, require experts coming together to move the new industry forward.

Shhh – Just listen
In today’s fast-past, technological world, new technologies can launch in a matter of months, not years, as it once was. EV technology is no different. However, what sets EVs apart is that the technology does not end at the vehicle level. As such, utilities such as Duke Energy, say they are taking their time with the information collection phase in rolling out this new technology.

According to Jessica Bishop, Director of EV Program Development for Duke Energy, collecting information is crucial to knowing how your organization needs to respond to the increase in EVs on the road. Such information can tell you whether customers:

  • Understand “time of use” rates or that peak time or off-peak time can change depending on the season
  • If they like to pay flat rates for charging their vehicles, much like they do with their cell phone usage
  • Will they need a lot of support from your customer service group and how best to train them to respond to customers’ questions and problems

More “listening” comes in the forms of EPRI studies. Dr. Thomas Reddoch, Director of Energy Utilization at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI) referenced several studies done around the U.S. with companies such as TVA, SCE and Southern Company to gain insight into consumers’ expectations. One finding showed the new industry that customers are willing to pay about $500 to get “geared up” for electric transport, but not much more.

Bishop also explained that you can even learn from your own employees. Rolling out EVs among your own workforce can give you valuable information. For example, she strongly recommends to all employers planning to encourage or support EVs among their work force, “to put an employee parking policy in place first. Do this before you install any infrastructure.”

Saying ‘I Do’
“It feels real this time,” says Bishop. “But, we’ve been here before and you never know what could happen in a year.” And, so, as with any new venture, the industry is uncertain. But, of course, it is not just the utility industry that is uncertain, there is also that automotive industry. “Two industries need to get married,” explains Reddoch. “Two giants that think about the world in very different ways [must come together].”

In the early days of it, it seems areas for improvement have already been identified. An audience member addressed the panel about issues they are already seeing in the sales process of EVs. Don Bowman, Manager of Engineering for Wake Electric Membership Corporation, pointed out that there are early problems with aligning message and plans around EVs between car dealerships and local utility companies.

“Now that the cars are here,” explains Bowman, “car dealers need to ask the customer who their utility is [at the time of sale]. Then the dealership should have information from the utility [to share with the customer] about what their rates are and any programs the utility company may have for setting up charging equipment at their home.”

Readying for a Technology that Touches Everyone
“At the end of the day, for all of us who are involved in this industry, if the public doesn’t adopt it, then it is all for not,” claims Reddoch.

As such, a significant amount of time at both Plug In 2011 and the Siemens-sponsored panel revolved around the topic of educating the public. Senator Hartsell, a local mayor from the Raleigh, NC area, and many others wanted direction on how to educate the masses.

One possible solution was offered by Roland Lartigue, Siemens Energy, for having local communities tap into the EV industry in their own backyards. Using Raleigh, NC as an example, he mentioned that ABB, Eaton, GE and Siemens all have significant operations in and around the city, and suggested that site tours may be available to those interested.

Further, he suggested that local communities start promoting and using the resources of local EV groups and associations. For the Raleigh, NC audience he pointed them to: The FREEDM Systems Center, Advanced Energy, or “…simply search on the Internet for ‘electric vehicles NC’ to get local information,” suggested Lartigue.

Something all of us can do, no matter where we live.

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