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Mulling the infrastructure costs of electric cars

Electric vehicles have utilities considering what infrastructure for cars will look like — and cost

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Jimin Liu, center, with her Nissan Leaf in PSE&G's parking lot.
Jimin Liu, center, with her Nissan Leaf in PSE&G's parking lot. - (Mark Lovretin / PSEG)

Jimin Liu has only had her Nissan Leaf for a few weeks, but she's already gotten used to answering the same old questions about electric vehicles.

"The questions that pop up most are where can I charge it, how long does it take me to charge it and how long can I drive it," she said.

The answers are: Anywhere with a power outlet; it depends; and roughly 75 miles, give or take.

The questions frequently posed to Liu are the same types of questions the nation's electric utilities, including those in New Jersey, are working to answer.

Mark Duvall, director of electric transportation at the California-based Electric Power Research Institute, said there are somewhere around 110,000 electric vehicles on the road today. They're mostly in California, he said; most other states only have a few thousand.

"I would say the industry overall is still maybe trying to understand what their mature role will be in this area," he said. "But nearly all are prepared."

EPRI is working with utilities on pilot programs and tests to understand the charging and driving habits of EV owners, and the implications of those habits on the grid.

Ralph Izzo, chairman and CEO at Newark-based Public Service Enterprise Group, said he's not expecting electric vehicles to cause a major shift for his industry.

"It's not something that would accelerate electricity use and create a huge business opportunity for us," he said.

PSEG is the parent company of Public Service Electric & Gas, the state's largest utility.

Izzo said growth in demand for power has been relatively anemic in recent years, so most of the system upgrades taking place aren't in response to a need for more capacity, but are instead part of an effort to strengthen aging infrastructure or beef up hardware near new power generation sources.

Still, Izzo said, utilities are trying to encourage electric cars, as they're better for the environment — they don't require burning fossil fuels, unless the source of the electricity is a fossil-fuel power plant.

Izzo said the industry's first focus will be convincing fleet owners to switch to electric. That's similar to the model being used by gas companies, who hope more companies will fuel their vehicles with compressed natural gas.

Chuck Feinberg, founder and chairman of the New Jersey Clean Cities Coalition, said there's room for both electric and CNG.

"There's very little overlap right now in the types of vehicles," he said. "Compressed natural gas is great for trucks and for heavier-duty (vehicles). Electric is great for the lighter-duty vehicles."

Ron Morano, a spokesman for Jersey Central Power & Light, said his company is also evaluating electric cars, and is testing a Chevrolet Volt as part of an EPRI study.

He said he doesn't know how electric vehicles might someday impact JCP&L's business, as "there's not enough data about use to draw that conclusion."

Other, larger questions remain. Aside from the potential impact on the power lines that deliver power, there's also a need for a charging infrastructure.

Liu's Leaf could charge to 80 percent in half an hour if she plugged it into a so-called "quick charge" outlet. But those are few and far between.

Duvall said building up a charging infrastructure wouldn't be particularly expensive. That's a good thing, since studies show drivers like the security of knowing a charging station is near, and tend to charge more often than needed.

For New Jersey, the preliminary infrastructure requirement would be "a few million dollars," Duvall said. "It's not a hundred million."

That's partly because quick-charge stations aren't necessary most of the time. Liu can charge her car at home — a normal outlet can fully charge a car in 20 hours; a standard car charger, costing $1,000, does the job in three hours.

She also can use the standard charger at her work, PSEG, which just opened 13 charging stations at its Newark headquarters.

Two of the 13 spots are for company cars, which are available for employees to test drive. The rest are for employees who own plug-in vehicles. As an incentive to buy electric vehicles, the company is offering those employees free parking and free charging for through 2016.

Feinberg said governments and utilities "should be transitioning their own fleets to use alternative fuels, whether it's electric or natural gas or anything else."

As for the infrastructure challenge, Duvall said regulators, utilities and third parties — filling stations and parking garages — likely will all play a role in developing the electric vehicle infrastructure of the future.

One major question is whether they'll build the necessary infrastructure first, or whether they'll wait for a critical mass of electric vehicle drivers. Duvall conceded it's a chicken-and-egg problem, "but you don't need a huge number of eggs."

E-mail to: editorial@njbiz.com

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