Navigant Research Blog

What’s to Be Learned from ECOtality

— September 26, 2013


In a move that had been expected since the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) suspended funding of the ECOtality-administered EV Project in mid-August, ECOtality filed for bankruptcy early last week.  The company’s collapse will serve as yet another talking point that media outlets will use to question the wisdom of federal government support for clean and renewable energy technologies.  While that debate is important, there is much to be learned from the wealth of information that ECOtality provided through its role in the EV Project to the national and global electric vehicle supply equipment (EVSE) industry.  Primary among these lessons is the currently weak business case for Level 2 alternating current (AC) public charging, an area in which ECOtality was a major player.

ECOtality made and installed charging units for residential and commercial (publicly available, workplace, fleet) applications.  Other companies in the same business have had success by partnering with plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) manufacturers to bundle EVSE costs with PEV purchases.  The first failing of ECOtality was its inability to gain a partnership with a PEV maker in the above manner, thus becoming dependent on the EV Project.

Additionally, ECOtality developed and managed the Blink Network, made up of more than 4,000 charging stations, including 87 direct current (DC) fast charging stations, most of which were in place because of the EV Project.  While other companies are also invested in this space – AeroVironment, NRG, Tesla, ChargePoint, etc. – it is currently not considered a significant revenue-generating enterprise (Tesla gives it away for free!).

As the 2Q 2013 report from the EV Project indicates, publicly accessible AC charge points were connected to a vehicle on an average of 4% of the time they were available.  During the course of the 91-day quarter, this amounted to 20 charging events per Level 2 EVSE, with the average connection being 4.5 hours.  At the Blink membership rate of $1 per hour, this equates to roughly $361 of annual revenue per installed unit.  Assuming an even split of charge events occurring at Blink member rates and guest rates ($2 per hour) and subtracting the cost of electricity taken at the average commercial electricity rate per the United States in July ($0.108 per kWh), any Blink Network site host could expect $430 per unit annually.  That is, of course, without network management fees, maintenance costs, and any profit-sharing agreement with the EVSE manufacturer.

Total installation costs of public Level 2 installations vary widely, as they depend on a number of variables.  Estimates fall between $3,000 and $11,000.  With those costs, it takes 7 to 25 years to pay back the investment.  At the lowest estimated installation cost, chargers need to be used more than twice as often to net a return on investment in 3 years.  Therefore, outside of government programs that pay for the station’s installation, there is not a strong case for property owners to install publicly accessible Level 2 AC EVSE based on direct revenue – especially not with the low number of PEVs on the road in 2013.  Instead, property owners must justify EVSE installations through the benefits of attracting more business to their locations and differentiating from competitors to attract EV drivers.  Additional value-adds are emerging in the form of utilizing the installed EVSE space for advertising.

EVSE manufacturers survive by selling their EVSE to service providers, property owners, and/or PEV drivers.  The commercial market is growing, but in most cases, publicly accessible Level 2 stations are used too rarely to make them financially viable for most property owners.  Installations at workplaces and for fleets make more sense, as the EV Project data shows these stations are used more than twice as often as publicly accessible stations.  While this market is growing, it is still a small market, and ECOtality was just one of many players.  ECOtality’s troubles may be a harbinger of things to come in the larger EVSE industry as it continues to mature.  However, PEV sales are just starting to take off and increasing densities of EVs per public charge point may significantly improve the business case for publicly accessible AC charging infrastructure.

Plug in Electric Vehicle Sales, World Markets: 2013-2020

Untitled (Source: Navigant Research)


On the Job, EV Drivers Say ‘Charge It’

— September 23, 2013

Both Siemens’ decision to cancel its public EV charging equipment program and electric vehicle (EV) charging station provider ECOtality’s bankruptcy filing highlight the challenges companies face in the public charging market.  However, while public EV charging receives an outsized share of attention in both the media and the EV charging industry, workplace charging is more likely to be the next forefront of charging deployment.

Most EV stakeholders believe that the workplace will be second to home as the place where most EV charging will occur.  One reason for this is the length of time spent at work.  Longer parking times translate into ideal opportunities to recharge a battery EV, or even a plug-in hybrid.  The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has made workplace charging the focus of its current efforts to promote electric vehicle supply equipment (EVSE) proliferation through its Workplace Challenge, which was launched in February 2013.

Within Range

Recent data on the habits of plug-in electric vehicle (PEV) drivers is confirming the importance of workplace charging deployments.  The EV Project’s 2Q 2013 report found that around 74% of Nissan LEAF drivers and 80% of Chevrolet Volt drivers charge their vehicles at home.  What’s more, according to the report, private charging units have almost twice as much utilization as public units.  This data confirms that the workplace is the second most likely place for charging after the home.

Another study, which examined the workplace charging habits of 40 LEAF drivers in North Carolina, provides additional confirmation.  The June 2013 report by Advanced Energy, Workplace Charging in the Real World, found that 52% of the participating drivers charged daily at their workplace – again demonstrating that real demand exists for workplace charging.

Of course, if you look at the glass as half empty, this study also shows that almost half of the participating drivers got through their daily commute without charging at the office.  But if workplace chargers become commonplace, consumers with daily commutes beyond the range of an EV will become potential EV buyers.

The Next Frontier

Indeed, the characteristics of the participants in the study confirmed this impression.  The study found drivers with only a Level 1 home charger, and no workplace charging, had the smallest commutes, less than 10 miles round trip.  Drivers with either a Level 1 home charger and a workplace charger, or a Level 2 home charger and no workplace charger, had commutes of 22 to 24 miles round trip.  Drivers with both a Level 2 home charger and a workplace charger had commutes of 32 miles round trip.  While the study had a very small sample size, it nevertheless suggests that more charging corresponds to more consumers with longer commutes who find that an EV meets their driving needs.

It appears that the DOE is right to be targeting the workplace as the next frontier for charging.  Unfortunately, the DOE is not able to provide offset funding, as it did for the public and residential units placed through the EV Project.  The reports mentioned here demonstrate to businesses that if they build charging stations, the drivers will come.


Why Utilities and EV Owners Need Demand Response

— September 9, 2013

As the electric vehicle (EV) market grows, so will the demands on the power grid.  According to the Navigant Research report, Electric Vehicle Market Forecasts, plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs), including plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) and battery electric vehicles (BEVs) – both of which use energy stored in the grid – will grow rapidly in many regions.  By 2020, 3 million PEVs are anticipated to be sold worldwide, resulting in a cumulative number of 13 million of such vehicles globally.

This robust growth is fueling concern among utilities about the additional demand for power when PEV owners plug in one or two cars at the end of the day, for overnight charging.  The extra need for electricity could be a huge strain on the grid when a large number of people charge their cars at the same time.  Therefore, utilities have begun to look into leveraging their demand response (DR) capability to manage the demand for power among these customers.

In or Out?

Austin Energy, for example, is testing an automated DR program for about 60 residential customers with PEVs to find out if it can effectively execute load curtailment in a fast, efficient, and reliable way.  The utility sends a message to the PEV owners to notify them of upcoming trials, so that they can decide whether to participate or to opt out. Relying on AutoGrid’s Demand Response Optimization and Management System (DROMS), with charging stations from ChargePoint, Austin Energy conducted multiple DR tests in July.  So far, the tests have been considered successful.  On July 12, for example, 90% of the utility’s DR customers with an ecobee thermostat and 100% of those with ChargePoint stations participated in the DR trial.

The Austin Energy trials highlight the power of DR in combination with electric vehicles.  All residential PEV charging will take place at rates from 1 kilowatt (kW) to 6.6 kW, as limited by both the PEV owner’s garage outlet and the PEV’s onboard charger.  Therefore, if 1,000 people in a given network decide to charge their PEV at the same time, rescheduling these charges can shed from 1 megawatt (MW) to 6.6 MW of power at a critical peak time.  Because of the concern about power disruptions, utilities will be more than willing to pay for the ability to monitor and manage electricity demand from PEVs on their grid.  They will reward customers for charging their PEVs on their own at off-peak hours as well.  Besides reducing peak loads, utilities will also be able to leverage PEVs in order to balance the grid when there is an excess supply of power from intermittent renewables like wind and solar power.  When a large number of PEV owners plug in their cars, they can dampen any major swings of electricity on the grid.

With the increasing adoption of PEVs, the deployment of DR to this market will become an essential strategy by utilities.


EPRI’s Chhaya: Smart EV Charging Ready to Launch

— August 13, 2013

Getting grid operators and automakers – powerful industries that have historically been staunchly independent with little reason for dialog – to work together on the integration of plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) into the smart grid has been the mission of Sunil Chhaya, the senior manager of OEM PHEV programs for electric transportation at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), since 2007.  I spoke with Chhaya to get a preview of his upcoming talk on the topic of the smart charging of PEVs at Plug-In 2013.  The annual Plug-In event, which this year runs from September 30 to October 3 in San Diego, provides a unique opportunity to connect with the leading figures in the PEV, utility, and charging infrastructure sectors.  Below is an edited version of our conversation.

Navigant Research: Where is vehicle charging occurring and why is it important to develop technologies that can make it smart?

Sunil Chhaya: Both EPRI research and actual operational data from automakers indicate that 60% to 70% of charging occurs at home, which means that anything that you can do to shift load when the cars are parked overnight will be beneficial to the power grid.  While low-power charging at 120 volts (or 3 kilowatts or less) is not a significant burden, at rates above 4-6 kilowatts, the potential impact on local power distribution gets interesting.  At 8-10 kilowatts, it becomes necessary to pay careful attention to how it is managed.  This means you need to have direct communications between utilities and the vehicles.  We are working on how to leverage technology that exists on the utility side and how to connect that to telematics and other systems in the vehicles at as little incremental cost to the vehicle owner as possible.

NR: What information is it necessary to share and what standards are being developed to enable the power grid and vehicles to communicate?

SC: We have been focused on enabling sharing of the electricity rates (the cost to customers), as well as the signals from utilities that can enable peak load reduction to avoid distribution system stress or critical peaks.  The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) has been active since 2008 in creating a family of recommended practices around information and method of communications, in the form of the J2931 (HomePlug GreenPHY) and J2836/J2847 family of standards.  There has been coordination between SAE, JARI (Japan Automotive Research Institute), and IEC (International Electrotechnical Commission) that will allow harmonizing of global standards.  In terms of physical media, we have been working on power line communications (PLC) and the HomePlug GreenPHY standards.  HomePlug GreenPHY is already starting to happen in PEVs in the United States and Europe, as every PEV (whether charging from an AC or DC supply) in Europe and every company that offers DC charging in the United States on its vehicles has to include it along with the SAE Combo Plug standard.

There is also interest in taking advantage of the Smart Energy Profile 2 (SEP2), which uses Internet-based protocols so that the communications protocol can ride on any Internet network, whether it’s wired  or wireless, including Wi-Fi, Ethernet, HomePlug, and ZigBee.  SEP2-compliant equipment can connect using any Internet connection, including cable broadband or wide-area wireless, and ultimately down to the PEV.

NR: Can a single connection be used for all grid-to-vehicle communications, or are there benefits to using one system or another?

SC: The utility industry is diverse, and in many cases, utilities are just getting started in implementing many of these standards.  This means that a one-size-fits-all (for a single communications path) approach is not practical.  We recommend an all-of-the-above approach that is open standards-based, so that utilities can choose whatever interoperable technology works best for them that can be bridged to their existing technology.  The customer doesn’t care about the underlying technology; they just want it to work.

NR: What has been the progress to date on developing fully functioning smart charging systems?

SC: We are now in our sixth year of working with car companies on pilot projects.  We have been working with Ford, GM, and Chrysler on implementing the standards-based technologies.  Soon we will begin working on a large pilot with 300 PEVs in a commercial fleet that is implementing SEP2 and HomePlug GreenPHY and connecting to AMI (advanced metering infrastructure, used in smart meters), broadband, and telematics systems.  We are starting a project with eight of the major automakers to unify the communications approach across the industry.

NR: Most EV supply (charging) equipment (EVSE) is already smart, so why is communicating with the vehicles necessary?

SC: Utilities like EVSE because they are fixed and are easy to manage by utilities or anybody.  But a link is missing here – this ignores the customer, and the customer is the one who has to drive someplace.  The system has to have the customer’s input so that charging can occur in a timely manner while factoring in grid stress.  Some charging stations allow for immediate charging, which may require customers paying a higher electricity rate.  The simplest approach is to let the customer set up his/her preferences in the car.  We are seeing most automakers enabling this feature.

NR: Are utilities ready to enable the smart charging of any PEV?

SC: Utilities have had traditional pricing tariffs for PEVs and the demand response programs primarily targeting commercial and industrial (C&I) customers.  We are now starting to see action, as requests for proposals are being issued for developing load management programs based on open standards such as OpenADR.  Many utilities have been piloting smart charging for some time.  They are learning what scales, what is cost-effective, and what gets the job done.  Utilities are taking a holistic approach, determining that perhaps the responsibility of whether only to manage just the charging of the car, or also manage consumption at the household level in the form of the kilowatts that are being consumed.  They are still developing the programs that enable the customers to have the final say in how this is orchestrated.


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