California Welcomes Electric Vehicles

Petaluma has a small hi-tech industry, but is better known for chicken farming. In 1879, a Petaluman invented the first practical egg incubator and at the turn of the century, my hometown was the world’s egg basket.

A hundred years later, rather than asking which comes first, the chicken, the egg, or the incubator, let’s ask a more contemporary version of the age-old question — which comes first, the electric cars, the charging stations, or the right policies?

In Petaluma, and in the rest of California, we can be grateful that the arrival of all three is being coordinated. As my colleague Roland Hwang points out, “At This Critical Moment, California Will Be Ready.” Roland has been working collaboratively with automakers, utilities, charging companies, environmental and public health organizations, consumer advocates, and policy makers to ensure California serves an incubator for technologies that will reduce our dependence on foreign oil, save consumers at the pump, and clean up our transportation system.

The Nissan Leaf and the Chevy Volt (the LA Auto Show’s “Green Car of the Year”) are the just the first in a series of as many as 40 models that automakers will introduce within next several years. See our website for some information on seven of the models on the immediate horizon. As we prepare for this new wave of electric cars, some will ask:

1. Where can I charge my electric car?

Electric vehicles are capable of charging at any normal outlet. This may prove sufficient for plug-in hybrids, such as the Volt, which rely on secondary gasoline engines instead of large batteries to extend their range. However, drivers of pure battery electric vehicles, such as the Nissan Leaf, will likely prefer to charge with specialized equipment at 240 volts (the voltage required by many electric clothes dryers). If you buy a plug-in hybrid, you can take advantage of gas stations to extend your range.

If you opt for a pure battery electric, you’ll likely be able to cover nearly all your day-to-day driving needs with a battery range of between 60 and 100 miles per charge. Intelligent displays in battery electric vehicles will also play an active role in assuring that you don’t run out of juice. All-electric ranges will continue to improve as battery technology matures, but existing technology is more than sufficient to meet most daily driving needs. The average American drives less than 40 miles per day, within the all-electric range of a plug-in hybrid such as the Volt and well within the within the range most battery electric models will provide on a single charge. In fact, 90% of cars are driven less than 80 miles per day. When you’re driving on electricity, you never have to go to the gas station, but can charge up at the equivalent of about a buck-a-gallon gas, depending on local utility rates.

2. Won’t electric cars strain the electrical grid?

We do not need to build new power plants to charge cars anytime soon, but we do need to make sure charging is properly managed from day one. There currently is more than enough excess capacity to accommodate a significant amount of vehicle charging, as long as it’s done right. In California, this means charging when overall electricity demand is low, such as during the night when cars are also likely to be parked for hours at a time. If you want to buy an electric car, call your utility so you can take advantage of rates which reward you for charging during off-peak hours.

While actually charging, an electric car pulls an amount of electricity that is comparable to what typical home requires when it’s hot and the air conditioner is working hard. As a result, if not properly managed, charging could stress transformers serving neighborhoods in which there are multiple electric vehicles. If, however, utility companies are given adequate notice, they can accommodate this additional demand, just as they have accommodated hot-tubs, swimming pools, and air conditioners. Thankfully, in California, utilities, automakers, and charging service providers are collaborating and working with state regulators to ensure the deployment of electric vehicles goes smoothly.

The California Public Utilities Commission is leading the effort to meet the mandate contained in a 2009 bill sponsored by State Senator Kehoe to “overcome any barriers to the widespread deployment and use of plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles.” Commissioner Nancy Ryan’s office has been working hard to ensure these barriers are addressed while maintaining the integrity of the electrical grid, minimizing costs, and maximizing consumer and environmental benefits.

Once again, California is demonstrating that innovative policies and technology can lead the way to a more environmentally friendly, efficient, and productive future. Chickens and eggs brought prosperity to Petaluma. Electric vehicles and accompanying technologies offer America a similar opportunity to revitalize its economy while cleaning our air. The nation would do well to follow Petaluma’s example.

By Max Baumhefner,