Navigant Research Blog

Solving the EV Charging Puzzle

— May 11, 2015

When Tesla, Nissan, and General Motors (GM) introduced plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) to the mass market, arguments against PEVs mainly cited weaknesses with vehicle cost, range, and limited publicly available electric vehicle supply equipment (EVSE). The first two weaknesses are difficult to solve, but their solutions are fairly straightforward: battery cost cuts through economies of scale and range increases through the development of better batteries. However, solving the third weakness is more nuanced. For instance, it’s been assumed that simply increasing public charging infrastructure will increase the adoption of PEVs, which has led to multiple government- and utility-funded initiatives on public infrastructure build-outs.

A Contradiction

Though it’s arguable that the public charge point build-out on behalf of the EV Project has been integral to PEV sales growth (most likely as passive marketing), data from these and other early infrastructure projects has suggested that PEV owners overwhelmingly charge at home rather than at the public points. This fact questions the practicality of these initial public infrastructure investments. Yet, data analyzed from a survey discussed in Navigant Research’s Electric Vehicle Geographic Forecasts report suggests that a lack of charging infrastructure still seems to be the biggest drawback to PEV ownership, as illustrated in the chart below.

Primary Drawback to PEV Ownership, United States: 2015              

(Source: Navigant Research)

What this contradiction appears to indicate is that yes, there is a need and likely a business case for public EVSE, but it needs to be in the right place. The trouble is that building owners are unlikely to invest in EVSE unless they see a need from residents, employees, or customers. And these groups are unlikely to ask for these services unless they have a PEV, which is unlikely if they don’t have places to plug in the PEV. What this all means is that the EVSE industry has to continue to find the right places for both the PEV owner and the building owner—or run the risk of placing infrastructure where it’s unnecessary.

Innovation

An innovative approach to solving this problem is underway thanks to the efforts of a San Francisco-based non-profit organization, Charge Across Town. In mid-April, the organization launched the Driving on Sunshine campaign, which showcases EVSE company Envision Solar’s integration of solar power and energy storage into a mobile EVSE unit named the EV ARC. The campaign places three EV ARCs at predetermined locations throughout San Francisco for 3-month periods and collects data on site usage. Findings on the data will be used to inform on public EVSE use and determine where units may be most effectively placed for consistent use; units will be donated to sites with the most use.

The charging stations are likely not inexpensive; however, it’s feasible to consider that a utility with big plans for infrastructure development (Pacific Gas & Electric, perhaps) would benefit greatly from a similar approach to siting public EVSE installations. Further, it would provide incredible value to potential host sites in actually determining the efficacy of EVSE placement without the added costs and embarrassment of a never-used public EVSE station.

 

California Utilities Look to Manage EV Charging

— March 27, 2015

Through multiple programs aimed at both supply and demand, California has developed the most vibrant market for plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) in the world. According to the forthcoming update of Navigant Research’s report, Electric Vehicle Geographic Forecasts, the total number of light duty PEVs in California is expected to surpass 140,000 by the end of this year and 1.5 million by 2023. The state’s electric power sector is taking note because the speedy PEV market growth may pose problems if PEV charging isn’t managed well.

The most likely problems will occur at the residential transformer, where a cluster of PEVs may outstrip a transformer’s capacity, requiring costly upgrades and/or repairs. To date, this issue has been fairly minor, with California’s three major utilities (Pacific Gas and Electric [PG&E], Southern California Edison [SCE], and San Diego Gas & Electric [SDG&E]) reporting that, of the 97,350 PEV customers in their combined service territories from July 2011 to October 2014, there have only been 126 PEV-related infrastructure upgrades.

Getting Worse

These problems are likely to worsen with the aforementioned 10-fold increase in PEVs in under 10 years. Looking ahead, the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) launched a PEV submetering pilot in September 2014 through the big utilities. The pilot is designed to lower energy costs for PEV owners through time-of-use (TOU) rates that incentivize off-peak charging and measure their energy consumption for vehicle charging apart from their overall energy consumption. By separating PEV charging, utilities could assess how best to influence PEV charging beyond TOU rates to avoid infrastructure upgrades.

Although TOU rates are effective at managing demand for a more efficient grid at the generation and transmission level, their effect on localized demand issues like transformer capacity is limited. Automated charging of PEVs based on TOU rates essentially creates a new spike in demand at the beginning of the off-peak period. This spike looks marginal at the grid level, but can be fairly drastic at the transformer feeding a cluster of PEVs.

Leading Edge

Thus, utilities, electric vehicle supply equipment (EVSE) manufacturers, and EVSE service providers are looking to create more dynamic and advanced PEV charging schemes to manage charging at all levels of the grid. Greenlots, for example, recently announced its partnership with EVSE LLC to demonstrate the company’s SKY Smart Charging system in 80 Level 2 workplace chargers at SCE facilities. The SCE project will examine how PEV owners respond to demand response events and dynamic pricing schemes for a number of purposes, including mitigating local transformer issues.

Outside of California, other PEV markets are expanding, too; utilities in these areas will need to begin testing and implementing similar technologies and programs soon. Companies competing for utility services in California now will be well served by expansion elsewhere and likely represent the leading edge of charging services development for years to come.

 

Making Sense of the Apple iCar

— March 23, 2015

Since early February, evidence has been piling up suggesting that Apple may develop an electric car to launch by 2020. Apple has yet to verify that it’s developing a car, but that has not stopped many from speculating what the Apple car might look like or how Apple might enter the automotive industry. Dan Akerson, the former CEO of General Motors (GM), weighed in on the subject, saying that instead of building cars, Apple should team up with automakers to develop operating and entertainment systems for vehicles.

As Akerson pointed out, the auto industry is dealing with heightened regulatory and safety standards alongside low profit margins in comparison to Apple’s other product lines, creating a grim outlook for any company looking to enter the auto industry. It should be noted, though, that Apple would be entering an auto industry that is significantly different than the one Akerson has known.

Beyond ICEs

For the last 100 years, the light duty vehicle hasn’t evolved much beyond the conventional internal combustion engine (ICE) with four wheels and multiple cup holders. To be sure, the established auto industry has made drastic improvements to this basic concept. But in the next 100 years, vehicles are going to look a whole lot more like smartphones, a category in which Apple has some expertise.

While plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) represent only a small fraction of the vehicle market now, their numbers are growing quickly and will continue to increase, as electricity is clean and cheap and batteries are getting cheaper and better. Already, automakers are displaying fully electric vehicles for the mass market with 200+ mile ranges, to be sold within the next 3 years. Much of the established auto industry’s expertise and capabilities still center around making cars with ICEs. When that technology becomes obsolete, space will open for new competitors to emerge, such as Tesla and, yes, Apple.

Connected Future

Even more quickly than vehicles are becoming electrified, they’re becoming connected. A white paper published by the Continental Automated Buildings Association (CABA) outlines the advantages of connectivity for motorists, primarily around safety and autonomous driving. Additionally, vehicle connectivity can lower the cost of electricity for PEV owners and help create a more efficient and cleaner grid infrastructure. These developments are detailed in Navigant Research’s new report, Vehicle Grid Integration.

Though Apple would encounter struggles entering the established auto industry, the war chest Apple has should be more than enough to overcome those struggles. Further, there is, arguably, no other non-automotive company better positioned to provide an electric/connected vehicle than Apple. In fact, if Apple isn’t planning to develop a car, it could be missing out on a big opportunity to enter the fastest growing segment of one of the largest global markets.

 

Oil Price Retreat Could Spur Government Action

— February 24, 2015

Although the oil market has been historically volatile, the circumstances of the latest price dive suggest that low oil prices may be the new norm. If that’s the case, it could negatively affect both oil companies and the markets for clean transportation technologies like alternative fuel vehicles (AFVs).

Because of U.S. and some state government policies that mandate automakers produce more fuel-efficient vehicles and/or AFVs, low oil prices mean that it’s more expensive for automakers to improve fuel efficiency and produce AFVs to make these vehicles competitive with less fuel-efficient, and less costly, conventional vehicles. If they don’t absorb these costs, they’ll likely wind up paying penalties for being out of compliance with fuel efficiency standards and AFV mandates.

Raise the Tax

Federal and state government subsidies and incentives for AFVs provide some insulation from these costs. Yet, these policies were designed in an environment where oil prices were 30%–50% higher than they currently are. More recently, two policies have been proposed that would be beneficial to automakers seeking to comply with stringent fuel efficiency standards and AFV mandates. The first is an increase in the gas tax; the second, an increase to the U.S. federal incentive for plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) and the inclusion of natural gas-powered vehicles in that incentive.

The federal gas tax is currently 18.4 cents per gallon of gasoline and 24.4 cents per gallon of diesel. The tax, which has not been increased since 1993, is used to fund the repair and update of U.S. roads through the federal Highway Trust Fund. In recent years, the fund has been on the brink of insolvency but kept afloat by stopgap measures that provide money from the U.S. general fund. The current proposal, which would increase the tax by 5 cents per gallon over the next 3 years, would provide $210 billion over the next 10 years. The following chart shows the effect the proposal would have on the average U.S. price of gasoline over the next 10 years if oil prices rise to $90/barrel by 2025.

Gas Prices Under Increased Tax Proposal, United States: 2002-2025

(Sources: Navigant Research, U.S. Energy Information Administration)

Getting Flexible

The federal incentive for PEVs currently maxes out at $7,500 per vehicle and is accessed by the PEV owner when they file taxes for the year they bought their PEV. Of note, a PEV owner has to accrue at least $7,500 of taxable income to receive the max incentive. The White House has proposed to increase the incentive to $10,000 per vehicle, provide it as a point-of-sale rebate, and include natural gas-powered vehicles as eligible. The point-of-sale rebate would enable AFV buyers to incorporate the incentive into monthly payments upon purchase and receive the full incentive irrespective of their income.

The effect of both policies would make AFVs more competitive with conventional vehicles on an energy cost basis and open AFVs up to a larger, lower-income market, making it much easier for automakers to comply with federal and state fuel efficiency programs. This is not the first time these policies have been proposed, and it’s likely they’ll meet similar fates as their predecessors. However, low oil prices do introduce a new dynamic that may provide some flexibility in Congress, as well as increased pressure from interest groups that may create the necessary support.

 

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