Navigant Research Blog

EVs: Too Quiet for Comfort?

— March 4, 2014

Originally thought to be one of the great benefits of electric cars, silent engines have become a major safety concern for governments around the world.  While the general population should be expected to look both ways before crossing the street, a legitimate risk is posed to blind people, not to mention children.  Electric vehicles (EVs) are mainly silent at speeds of less than 18 mph, when tire and wind noise is insignificant.  It is in this range that the U.S. Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is seeking to impose mandatory minimum sound standards for hybrids and EVs.  The standards would require automakers to produce detectable noises on these vehicles when traveling under 18 mph.  NHTSA offers recommended sound options for EVs, which are mostly modified internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicle sounds.  Although the proposals were made in early 2013, NHTSA has yet to formalize any mandatory noise-making regulations.

The Auto Alliance, which represents 12 automakers, has been openly critical of the proposed federal rules, arguing that the sound requirements should be cut off at 12.4 mph and that the costs of adding sound features have been vastly understated by the NHTSA.  The National Federation of the Blind has been highly supportive of the proposed regulations.

Sound Effects

Instead of waiting for binding legislation, some automakers have developed EV noises on their own as a safety feature.  Daimler, the parent company of Mercedes-Benz, is adding artificial sounds to its EVs.  For the company’s e-Smart city car, a “sonorous purring” has been added.  More powerful vehicles, like the Mercedes SLS AMG Coupe Electric Drive, receive huskier tones to show their muscle.  The electric smart’s sound comes standard in the United States and Japan, and is an option in Europe.  European automaker Renault offers a choice of several car tones on the ZOE hatchback – pure, glam, and sport.

What was once thought to be a competitive advantage for EVs has transformed into a contentious issue.  Although little evidence exists that the silence of EVs is a contributing factor in accidents, automakers should take the recent actions of regulatory agencies seriously, as sound standards for EVs could be instituted in the not-so-distant future.  Furthermore, sounds options for EVs present a potential market opportunity.  As discussed in a previous Navigant Research blog, EV sounds could eventually become a multimillion-dollar market consisting of ringtone-style car sounds.


The FACTS about Distributed Wind and Renewable Generation

— March 4, 2014

Since the mid-1990s, during my annual pilgrimage to DistribuTECH, I’ve always picked up a new emerging trend or a newly released technology.  This year’s show in San Antonio, Texas was no different.  I went to Texas to learn more about flexible AC transmission system (FACTS) technologies and had the opportunity to talk to many of the major vendors and some interesting new companies.  My focus started with traditional FACTS technologies (i.e., series compensation [SCs], static VAR compensators [SVCs], and static synchronous compensators [STATCOMs]).  These are almost always complex engineered systems designed to correct voltage drops in long-distance, high-voltage AC lines to perform power factor correction in areas where generation stations have been retired.

Smaller-scale SVC and STATCOM technologies were typically used to correct voltage sag, power factor, and flicker at large industrial sites such as steel mills, large-scale mining, crushers, pumps, and other inductive loads.  At DistribuTECH, vendors like S&C Electric, ABB, and AMSC talked about the use of D-SVCs and D-STATCOMs to stabilize the megawatts produced by distributed renewable sources on the edge of the grid.  These new, downsized versions of transmission grid-scale SVC and STATCOM technologies are now being modularized in familiar 8’ x 40’ containers that can be delivered quickly for any application, sometimes coupled with modular battery storage, to smooth out the intermittency of distributed renewables.

Small and Scattered

This move to smaller-scale distributed FACTS solutions has other implications as well: they can be added quickly to both transmission and distribution substations, with minimal space requirements. They can also be deployed near the edge of the grid at distribution substations or even on local feeders where renewables and electric vehicle charging installations are stressing the local grid in ways that were not imagined when the distribution grid was originally installed.  Startup companies like Varentec Inc. are now introducing pole-mounted mini-FACTS systems.  These systems are wired into the transformer with wireless communications, enabling edge-of-grid corrections in near real-time, far beyond the local centrally controlled substation.

When I started my latest research on FACTS technologies, I imagined that they would be limited to the big iron at thousands of high-voltage transmission system substations where SC, SVC, and STATCOM technologies have been traditionally used.  It was eye-opening to see the emergence of FACTS technologies deployed on the distribution-level grid, where they are opening significant new markets for both traditional and emerging FACTS vendors.  Transmission system designs and technologies are covered in detail in Navigant Research’s report, High-Voltage Direct Current Transmission Systems.  In addition, recent Navigant Research reports, such as Emerging Wind Markets Assessment and Distributed Solar Energy Generation, cover the rapid adoption of distributed renewables in all regions of the world.  Over the next year, our Smart Utilities team will release a series of in-depth reports on the high-voltage transmission grid, starting with my upcoming report, Flexible AC Transmission Systems, which is expected to be released in 2Q 2014.


In the Real World, Smart Grid Programs Proving Themselves

— March 4, 2014

Two utilities on two continents are demonstrating the value of the latest technologies for helping residential customers reduce energy consumption and lower their costs.  This is important because often the benefits of smart grid technology have gone unnoticed or under-reported while stories highlighting the negative aspects of smart grid deployments gain attention.

In the United Kingdom, British Gas says that 9 out of 10 customers report that smart meters have helped them better manage their energy consumption, according to a survey.  Results of the survey also show that 54% of respondents with a smart meter are saving money, in some cases up to £75 ($125) per year.  Also, data from smart meters has motivated 40% of customers to take some type of energy efficiency steps, such as adding insulation.  British Gas has deployed smart meters to about 1 million of its customers so far.  The mandated widespread deployment of smart meters is set to begin in the fall of 2015.

Low Overrides

Here in the United States, Nevada’s NV Energy says customers enrolled in its mPowered program reduced air conditioning use by 12% and whole-house electric consumption by about 6% per year.  Program participants receive an EcoFactor smart thermostat that connects the home’s AC system to a cloud-based efficiency and demand response (DR) service.  Participating households reduced their load by 3 kW to 3.5 kW in the first hour of DR events last year.  Customers can override a bump in temperature settings during a DR event if they want to not take part, keeping the home cooled at a level they prefer.  However, the rate of overrides has held steady at about 11% in the first hour and 7% in the second hour since the utility has been tracking this metric since 2008.

These examples represent the latest evidence of smart grid technologies making a difference to customers after years of utility deployments and somewhat murky results.  Pilot programs and eager vendor hype have indicated savings of up to 20% on a given customer’s bill.  These two examples are noteworthy for being more realistic.  They’ve been normalized over time and over a wider customer base – plus, they’re similar to results from OGE and BGE.  What’s missing are similar normalized results from dozens of utilities that are using smart grid technologies to create greater efficiencies and provide ways for customers to control costs.  Those results will eventually come, but until then, many customers will remain skeptical.


The Climate Change Gap Narrows on Policy

— March 3, 2014

That Americans are polarized on issues around energy, the environment, and climate change is not news.  What’s interesting is the degree to which the gap between those views narrows when it comes to actual policy and funding decisions – in other words, to what should be done.

Former The Wall Street Journal Washington, D.C. bureau chief Alan Murray, now president of the Pew Research Center, kicked off the Vail Global Energy Forum with a discussion of the center’s recent polling data on energy and the environment.  The decline over the last 2 decades in the percentage of Americans who support stricter environmental laws and regulation, who view the environment as a top priority for the nation, and who see global warming as a major threat to the country’s security and prosperity has been striking.  In 1992, 90% of Americans favored stricter environmental regulations; by 2012, that number had fallen to 74%.  Much of this change has happened in the last decade.  In 2006, 79% believed global warming is a serious problem.  That percentage fell to 65% in 2013.  Today, the economy and jobs are the highest priority for most Americans; climate change ranks at or near the bottom of the list of problems demanding attention and resources.  Most of these declines have occurred among Republicans, Murray said; Democratic responses on these questions have stayed remarkably consistent.

Untapped Opportunity

In general, these findings correlate with those of Navigant Research’s Energy & Environment Consumer Survey, which has tracked a small but noticeable drop in favorable attitudes toward clean and renewable energy concepts in the 3 years the survey has been conducted.  (That decline, however, reversed in 2013,  as favorability ratings for a number of these concepts, particularly solar energy, wind energy, hybrid vehicles, and electric cars, rebounded significantly from their 2012 levels.)

Also not surprising is the Pew data comparing attitudes in other countries to those in the United States.  In Western Europe, 54% of those surveyed ranked global warming highest on their list of major threats in the 21st century.  It’s at the bottom of Americans’ lists.

More noteworthy was the data Murray presented on policy questions.  By wide majorities, Americans support more federal funding for wind, solar, and other forms of clean energy; better fuel efficiency for all classes of vehicles; and more funding for public transit.  Somewhat surprisingly, that’s true on the Republican side of the aisle.  While the majorities are smaller, most respondents identifying themselves as Republicans support each of those policies – a result seldom reflected in media coverage of news related to these policies.

Theories about the causes of this split between relatively low and falling concern over climate change on the one hand and support for clean energy, fuel efficiency, and public transit on the other amount to speculation.  As Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper said in his opening remarks at the forum, “In the modern world, we don’t all have the same facts.”  But the degree of agreement that government should do more to bolster the development of clean energy and energy efficiency technologies suggests a political opportunity that, for the moment, remains largely unexploited.


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