Power shortage threatens to stall electric vehicle progress

Every week Techvibes republishes an article (or two) from Business in Vancouver. This article was originally published in issue #1077 – June 22 – 28, 2010.

When Richmond-based Novex Couriers’ unveils its two new electric trucks on June 24, the province will have moved a step closer to a future in which electric vehicles (EVs) rule at least part of the road.

In that future, EVs will have smart-grid technology that allows their owners to not only pull power from the grid, but also push unused electricity back into it.

That would make fleet operators initially, and consumers eventually, co-managers of B.C.’s power supply. They would be able to charge EV batteries when electricity prices are low and sell electricity back to the grid when prices are high.

It’s still a distant future, but one that a number of stakeholders, from governments to utilities to local startups in B.C., are helping to slowly realize.

There are a handful of EVs on the road now, and more on their way.

The real boulder that stakeholders are pushing uphill is infrastructure.

Novex has two charging stations: one at its headquarters in Richmond, the other at a partner’s facility in Burnaby.

Whistler has a charging outlet, and BC Hydro and City of Vancouver have outlets for their three electric Mitsubishis, but there are few others in Vancouver.

That means that EV operators like Novex, which is adding more EVs to its fleet next year when Vancouver’s first order of Nissan Leafs arrives, are limited in how rapidly they can increase their EV fleets.

“We’re looking for infrastructure to be available certainly in the downtown core,” said Novex president Ken Johnston. “[EV charging stations] have to be everywhere; they have to be like gas stations.”

Simi Heer, spokeswoman for BC Hydro, likens advancing an EV network to the chicken-or-the-egg conundrum.

“If the infrastructure’s here and auto manufacturers see that the infrastructure’s here, would they be more willing to push those cars in B.C.?”

Beyond installing charging stations, the technology behind the stations needs to be developed.

BC Hydro has applied for federal and provincial funding for a pilot project in which it will test different technologies and performances in a handful of EV charging stations in Vancouver.

It’s simple enough to install the 220-volt outlet required to charge an EV, but it can take up to eight hours to charge one.

“The charging infrastructure of the future would allow people to do that in 30 minutes to one hour,” said Heer.

And charging stations need smart meter technology to monitor and measure power and to allow drivers to push and pull power to and from the grid.

As B.C.’s utility, a key concern for BC Hydro is how hundreds or thousands of drivers suddenly plugging into the grid might affect the grid load and transmission.

Industry is doing its part both from a lobbying as well as a research and development perspective.

If Vancouver-based energy retrofitter Green.Switch Capital Ltd. had its way, owners of EV charging stations would be able to sell electricity to EV drivers. That would effectively make them mini-utilities.

Green.Switch, which is the primary division of publicly traded Greenscape Capital (TSX-V:GRN), finances and leads retrofits and new construction projects. It generates revenue through the resulting energy savings and offsets.

Once it’s collected a profit from a project over, say, a two-year period, it severs its relationship with the client, allowing the client to benefit solely from ongoing energy savings and offsets.

Its flagship project is a 4,200-stall parking facility in Denver that uses geothermal, wind and solar energy.

As part of BMW’s marketing efforts as it launches its own electric vehicle, the automaker will be putting its brand on the EV charging station being installed in the project.

According to Paul Clough, Green.Switch’s business development director, B.C.’s EV network would be developed faster if charging station owners were allowed to sell power.

The additional revenue stream would also provide another marketing point for Green.Switch’s retrofits.

Clough is the son of Impark founder Paul Clough Sr. – a familial connection that has helped Green.Switch get business from parking lot operators.

BC Hydro’s Heer noted that while the owners of EV charging outlets can’t sell electricity, they can still monetize their outlets. For example, a parking space with an outlet might cost more to rent.

With or without the added incentive, Green.Switch envisions developing an EV charging station network on the properties of its existing and future retrofit clients.

“We are very confident that our current clients – that’s with parking lots and commercial buildings – that we’re able to blanket B.C. with what’s necessary,” said Clough.

Last October, Vancouver introduced a new bylaw that requires 20% of parking spots in new multi-family developments, following an 18-month grace period, to have charging ports for electric vehicles. But there’s no concrete plan for a provincewide network.

That network would benefit Vancouver startup Rapid Electric Vehicles Inc. (REV), which rips out gas-powered engines in vehicles and replaces them with electric-power ones.

It’s done fewer than a dozen conversions to date.

REV is also developing advanced technology that would allow a network of EV charging stations to communicate wirelessly to a central command.

It’s largely targeting fleet operators whose vehicles can charge at predictable times (at the end of the working day and overnight) and consequently integrate well with utilities’ power management practices.

Said Jay Giraud, REV’s president: “If there were 100 or 10,000 vehicles plugged in at a number of fleet utility yards overnight for 16 hours, you have those 16 hours covering some of the biggest [electricity rate] peaks and valleys in any 24-hour period.”