Navigant Research Blog

EV Equipment Finally Charges Ahead

— February 28, 2011

Way back 18 months ago the Department of Energy announced that with its financial support, a company that most people had never heard of would install more than 12,000 electric vehicle chargers in a few select cities across the country. This prompted great interest in EVSE (electric vehicle supply equipment) vendor Ecotality, which as administrator of the program would be using its own equipment.

Fast forward to Q1 2011, (initial deployments were originally scheduled for summer 2010) and the pieces are just now falling into place for these installations to begin in earnest. Ecotality achieved UL certification for its Blink EVSEs in January 2011 and manufacturing partner Roush in February 2011 began to manufacture the Blink charging equipment in volume. 2011 will see most of the chargers installed in states including California, Arizona, Tennessee, Oregon, Washington, Texas, and the District of Columbia.

Installing EV charging infrastructure isn’t just about finding the homes and buildings and safely connecting the power. The greater challenge is in having the information about the vehicle charging being captured and transmitted. The EV Project is a test bed to understand how EVs will impact both the grid and overall household power consumption, and the charging data will be wired and wirelessly sent to a centralized repository.

To that end, during the past few weeks Ecotality has formed partnerships with Sprint to streamline wireless communications and with Cisco to enable the Blink chargers to interface with home Cisco’s home energy management system. Connecting EV charging with the smart grid will be a technical challenge due to a lack of standards and utilities that aren’t quite ready to invest. Pike Research estimates that the investment in IT to enable smart charging will total $1.2 billion by 2015.

Ecotality also received a $2.87 million contract play a similar administrative role for the San Francisco Bay Area Air Quality Management District. This project will include 20 “fast” DC chargers that initially will be compatible with EVs from Nissan and Mitsubshi that have special ports installed. These DC chargers will include 42-inch display screen, which seems an excessive use of public funds to people who have yet to move to a flat screen in their homes.

Ecotality may also be connected its charging network to equipment from ABB, a global player in building power equipment that invested $10 million in Ecotality earlier this year.

Many of Ecotality’s chargers will be idle most of the time as the dozens of people in each metro area who are able to get a Nissan Leaf or Chevrolet Volt this year are expected to primarily charge at home. Led by Ecotality and fellow California companies Coulomb Technologies and AeroVironment, the EVSE market is now charged and ready to go.


Efficiency, Efficiency, Storage

— February 28, 2011

I have an admission to make. I love science fiction. Literature, television programs, and movies. I really enjoy sci-fi.

One characteristic that most science fiction shares is that many of these stories take place in the context of societies that have “solved” the energy dilemma. Somehow, the “people of the future” have managed to make energy clean, bountiful, and equitable. How is this so? Typically, there is a discovery of a very efficient power generation technology that is inexpensive enough to duplicate en masse and simple enough to distribute widely. With the energy dilemma solved, these societies then evolve without the constraints of oil at $100 a barrel or regular blackouts. Ah, to be in the future.

These scenarios and stories are made up. To some, they have never seemed further from the truth. We are largely a fossil-based global economy, access to energy is dismally poor and inequitable, and some power generation is efficient – but far from all are so.

For me, this brings to mind how important efficiency is. Efficiency of all kinds: building efficiency, device efficiency, power generation efficiency, thermal versus electrical efficiencies, and the list continues. Why is efficiency important? Because it allows us to do more with less. Efficiency loosens budget constraints. With more free capital, people and organizations can invest in opportunities that are otherwise out of reach.

Now, efficiency is one part of the puzzle. A second part of the puzzle is energy storage. How do I take all that dear energy and make use of it when I need it most? This is a conundrum that affects people, firms, and utilities. For the most part, we are all familiar with batteries. Batteries are a convenient technology for storing energy that come in various sizes and technology types. Batteries store energy for our mobile phones, laptop computers, and even our cars. We plug these devices into an outlet and then use the energy the battery stores from grid. However, what kind of “battery” could I use to store energy directly from a wind farm? What are the different applications for energy storage at the utility scale? Why are some applications more lucrative than others? How are classic energy storage technologies comparing to new energy storage technologies?

I do not have the answers to these just yet, but I am looking forward to learning the answers as I update Pike’s Energy Storage on the Grid report for 2011. I’ll be working on this project for the next six to eight weeks, so if you have anything to share, feel free to email me or comment on this post on the Pike Research blog.


The Promise (and Perils) of Government Microgrid Markets

— February 25, 2011

Government funding has played a key role in launching the microgrid market, especially at the federal government level. Yet there is, at present, few “microgrid” line items in most federal, state or local government budgets. In the Obama Administration’s ARRA stimulus package, there are categories for “customer-owned systems” and even “microgrids,” but these were never funded!

An exception to this generalization about government comes from the military. As microgrids are proven to be both reliable and cost-effective resource options, the federal Department of Defense (DOD) will continue in its historical role as a key early adopter of new technology, as was the case with aviation, electronics, the Internet, and GPS. DOD markets will be driven by “net zero energy” mandates for military bases. The Navy and Marines have the most aggressive goals: 50% net zero facilities by 2020. Under the best case scenario, 10% to 20% of all DOD bases in the United States will deploy microgrids by 2020 according to one reliable military source.

Why is the military so interested in microgrids? Consider these startling facts: In May 2002, a forest fire took out the two feeder distribution lines serving an Army base in the Southwest, resulting in a 16 hour outage, costing $3 million and a loss of critical mission capability. Some DOD sites report loss of power events as many as 300 times per year! The DOD has identified the vulnerability links back to backup diesel generators that are frequently oversized, poorly maintained, are dedicated to only one building or facility, and cannot share power with other buildings. On top of all that, experience has shown a low probability of being able to start immediately when called upon in times of emergency.

One of the most advanced “energy surety” microgrid projects (a concept developed by Sandia Labs) is being developed at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. The goal of this prototype is to develop the hardware, software, and controls to perform field testing of microgrids with a subset of buildings that could provide reliable power in islanded mode for a minimum of 30 days. In addition, this microgrid pilot project, expected to total 5 MW in size, is also designed to prove the ability of microgrids to shave peak demand as well as to integrate existing and new renewable energy resources into the generation mix at the military base.

The federal Department of Energy (DOE) is also funding microgrids to the tune of $55 million for eight different projects validating microgrid technologies, though only a few of these – such as California’s Santa Rita Jail (Alameda County) and Beach Cities project (San Diego County) — are bona fide microgrids. The map below highlights the variety of microgrid research and pilot projects receiving some form of federal funding.

The General Services Administration (GSA) serves as a conduit for funding infrastructure for federal facilities throughout the country. Though GSA has no specific budget for microgrids, the agency late last year announced funding for a 25 MW microgrid expected to come on-line in 2016 for the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) new headquarters at the former St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. GSA has earmarked $215 million in federal funding for this project that incorporates several other federal government buildings. The total price tag is $3.4 billion, showing the value of public/private partnerships. Nevertheless, recent federal budget talks may introduce delays for this showcase project, underscoring risks linked to a sole focus on the federal microgrid opportunity.

Further down the food chain, government support is rare. The only two states investing in microgrids in any substantial way are California and New York. Municipal utilities scattered throughout the country are pushing forward with microgrid-like projects, but political uncertainty can also wreck havoc with these plans at the local level. One of the leading private microgrid developers just had to delay its lead showcase project in the Northeast due to last November’s election results changing priorities at the local government level. At last count, over 25 different microgrids under development by this same single developer have been canceled, some with signed power purchase agreements in hand!

Despite these perils, large players such as GE, Lockheed Martin, Honeywell, and Eaton are now active in the government microgrid opportunity, but mostly at the federal level. In order for microgrids to offer a truly compelling alternative to the top-down smart grid programs being pushed by investor-owned utilities, these monopolies must too play a role. To date, only a handful (San Diego Gas & Electric and American Electric Power being the best examples) see the light. Rather than viewing microgrids as a threat, they see them serving as valuable demand response resources and complementary to efforts to integrate better storage options into our grids.

Smart, investor-owned utilities will offer a wide range of smart grid options, including distributed microgrid networks.


Letter from Washington: Fuel Cell Envy

— February 24, 2011

Last week, I attending the Fuel Cell and Hydrogen Energy Conference held in Washington, D.C. A few things struck me. First, there are innovators all over the world doing interesting work and, more importantly, working to commercialize products. Second, people came from far and wide. Many did not come to exhibit, but rather to talk to people like the analysts at Pike Research about their plans, their product, and their outlook on the market. This was great to hear and I really appreciate being given a chance to hear firsthand how successful these businesses are becoming.

Finally, for the first time, I had fuel cell envy. Yes, it’s true. For the first time since I’ve been attending these conferences, I saw a product that I wanted. Right now, in fact.

The culprit was the Horizon MiniPAK. The MiniPak is a fuel cell charging device that is suitable for mobile phones, MP3 players, and other small consumer electronics requiring up to 2 W of power. I already have a similar product that charges using a USB wall connection or a USB connection on my computer. The MiniPAK, however, is fuelled using a metal hydride cartridge the company calls a HydroSTIK. Conveniently enough, the HydroSTIK looks just like a large battery. The company also offers a home refueling “station” for the cartridges that uses a small solar panel to electrolyze water and fill the cartridges. That unit is pricey, however, and is currently tagged at $500. The company’s website says that the station could be used for other fuel cell devices, but I am not entirely sure how that will work out.

Why the fanfare over another fuel cell powered charger? After all, Horizon is not the only company to announce that it has developed a product like this. Toshiba sold 3,000 Dynario devices in Japan just a couple years ago. That unit used a direct methanol fuel cell and required liquid fuel cartridges. The company envisioned that corner grocery shops everywhere would eventually distribute the methanol cartridges. That has yet to happen and it’s unclear where the company is in terms of final product development.

First, Horizon has a reputation for commercializing fuel cell products. The company’s education kits and fuel cell cars have done very well. Second, the metal hydride fuel cartridge will make refueling less challenging for consumer who are accustomed to batteries and not to methanol fuel cartridges. This will also be simple to use and carry aboard aircraft. Third, I like that the company offers a mail-in refueling service for people who accumulate ten cartridges. Finally, I saw the MiniPAK in action – it charged my smartphone while I chatted with the company’s representatives about not only the MiniPAK but also Horizon’s aerospace, light duty vehicles, toys, and education kit fuel cells.

Horizon is currently in the process of getting CE marking and UL listing for the MiniPAK before it can sell it at big box electronics retailers. In the meantime, the company is offering evaluation units at $99 and I still have fuel cell envy.


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