Paving the way for electric vehicles

While the electric vehicles are likely to generate more of a trickle of sales in the Kansas City area over the next two years than a surge, that’s not stopping KCP&L and other utilities from getting ready for them.

KCP&L hopes to open its first of 10 public charging stations next year in midtown Kansas City and is considering educational campaigns to tell customers about what’s involved in owning an electric vehicle.

The utility also plans to train employees so they’ll be conversant in topics such as the electric wiring needed to charge the electric cars and even have names of contractors that can do wiring upgrades, if needed. Electric utilities want to make it as easy as possible to own an electric car.

"The electric utility industry wants to enable (electric vehicles) and not hinder them," said Kevin Bryant, vice president of energy solutions for KCP&L.

The Electric Power Research Institute and a group of about 50 utilities, including KCP&L, have been working with automakers to do just that. General Motors, which is expected to begin selling its Chevrolet Volt in November, has been especially keen about a relationship with the utilities.

Other automakers also see the importance, including Nissan, which is expected to begin selling its Leaf electric car by the end of the year. Automakers are offering more models next year and in 2012.

But most of the attention is on GM, which is expected to be the first to offer an electric car intended for the mass market. The Volt’s purchase price hasn’t been released, but it could carry a sticker price of about $40,000. Making the cost more palatable is a $7,500 tax credit that Volt buyers will receive.

Volt sales will start slowly. GM is expected to produce about 10,000 Volts during the first year, and those will be directed toward California, Michigan and Washington, D.C

Some of those cars could end up elsewhere, however, as cars change hands and owners move. But it should be easier to buy a Volt by late 2012 when the car is rolled out nationwide, said Britta Gross, director of GM’s global energy systems.

By that time, consumers could have a choice of models — and some interesting decisions to make about the kind of electric car they want and the mileage range of the battery. Several automakers are shooting for a range of 100 miles or more before recharging is necessary.

But GM thinks there is a better way in part because an extended range will mean a more expensive battery. GM said its experience with its EV1 electric car, which was sold in small numbers in the 1990s, also showed that relying solely on a battery makes motorists uneasy. Drivers often worried about running out of power even when half of it remained.

So the Volt will rely on a smaller battery with a 40-mile range, which is enough for 75 percent of commuters driving to work and back. As for range anxiety, if the lithium ion batteries are depleted, a gas-fired generator will automatically provide electricity to continue the trip.

"We have done our homework," said Gross. "But the market is going to tell us real soon what makes the most sense to consumers."

The approach leaves GM less concerned about having public charging stations available, since it has backup power to keep from being stranded. GM believes that the priority for Volt owners will be charging from home.

The Volt will cost less than $1 to recharge, which will take eight hours with a 120-volt line or three hours with a 240-volt line. Because home garages are more likely to have 120-volt power, nothing more has to be done if you’re not concerned about the longer charging period. If you want a 240-volt line, GM will have a nationwide third-party installer you can hire as an option.

There will also be some cell phone applications that use GM’s OnStar satellite communications. One application will allow you to check the battery’s charge, and remotely start the car while it’s still connected to a wall outletl.

Although electric cars will mean more business for the utilities, there are concerns about the vehicles being charged on hot summer days when the grid is strained.

Owners will be encouraged to charge the cars at night, but eventually "smart" meters could offer an incentive of lower electricity prices if the recharging is done at non-peak periods.

Recharging at night could someday have more benefits for those wanting a smaller carbon footprint. KCP&L said wind kicks up at night, meaning more wind energy could be used for recharging electric vehicles. "We will look to use wind energy to power electric cars," said Chuck Caisley, a spokesman for the utility.

Steve Everly,

How Much Electricity Will Plug-in Hybrids Use? By EarthTalk

It is difficult to pinpoint the answer to this question right now since Toyota has not yet released its much anticipated plug-in hybrid, but most analysts believe the increase in your electric bill from overnight charging will be minimal. According to the blog, electric cars and plug-in hybrids (those that have been converted by owners) currently average about two cents per mile to recharge (electric rates vary greatly by region), while gasoline-only cars average about 10 cents per mile to refuel.

Plug In America, a California based network of electric vehicle and (self-converted) plug-in hybrid owners, estimates the cost to charge a typical plug-in hybrid overnight to be less than a dollar. So while your electric bill might go up $30/month due to recharging, your gas bill will decrease by somewhere between 80 and 100 percent depending on your driving habits and what you were driving beforehand.

Of course, it’s important to keep in mind that regular hybrids cost between $2,000 and $10,000 more than their gas-only counterparts, and that plug-in hybrids will likely cost even more due to their larger, better batteries and other more advanced technologies. It would take years and years of gasoline-free driving to make up the sticker-price difference between a plug-in hybrid and an equivalent-sized gasoline-fueled car. So while plug-in hybrids will help the environment, they’re not so much about saving money—unless you drive thousands of miles a week, in which case you’ll recoup your costs in fuel savings in a few years.

As to strain on the existing electricity grid, most experts agree that plug-in hybrids and all-electric vehicles, even in the unlikely event that all of us switched over to them eventually, wouldn’t compromise the ability of utilities to provide power, given that they are already scaled up to handle peak loads during heat waves when everyone runs energy-hogging air conditioning.

Furthermore, most of us would charge our cars overnight—typically a slow period for utilities otherwise and during which they could generate much more power if customers wanted it. A 2007 study by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Pacific Northwest National Laboratory found that off-peak electricity capacity could fuel the daily commutes of nearly three-quarters of all cars, light trucks, SUVs and vans on American roads today if they were plug-in hybrids. Plug In America adds that many utilities are upgrading local electricity distribution systems to accommodate plug-in hybrids and electric vehicles “just as they do when residents add more air conditioners and TVs.”

So if you’re interested in taking the plug-in hybrid plunge when the cars become available, don’t worry about increased electric bills, as overall you’ll be saving gobs of cash at the pump. And given the popularity of the current hybrids on the road, enough of us might go for the plug-in versions so as to reduce the cost disparity with traditional cars—meaning we could “save green” in more ways than one.

CONTACTS: Future Wheels,; Plug In America,; Pacific Northwest National Laboratory,

A good way to compute what you’ll spend for electricity for an EV is to look at your electricity bill and see what you’re paying for a kilowatt hour of energy (kWh). The national average is about 10 cents/kWh. In some areas, night time energy is as little as 6-8 cents.

The average EV will travel between 3-5 miles on a kWh. I get an easy 4 miles/kWh in my Toyota RAV4 EV, and it’s not all that aerodynamic. The Nissan Leaf should get even better efficiency.

By Paul Scott