With electric vehicle adoption by consumers heading toward a tipping point, utilities and cities are busy planning just how to meet the power demands of millions of EVs. In an essay published today in Forbes, GE’s Bob Gilligan, who is the vice president for GE’s digital energy business, makes the case that the environmental and economical benefits of EVs will be stunted if their cords don’t plug into a smarter grid.

 

Grid ready: EV chargers like GE’s WattStation feature smart grid connections and faster refueling times.

With charging infrastructure still in the early development phase, “the novelty of a few electric cars can be absorbed by the current power system,” he writes. “But as more EVs replace regular cars, they could overtax the current power grid if they aren’t charged at off-peak times.”

“During peak periods — the time of greatest power demand — utilities are forced to activate additional, more expensive ‘peaker plants’ to meet spikes in energy demand. Those increased operating costs translate into higher consumption costs for consumers. Which means it’s more economical for EV drivers to recharge when the power is ‘on sale’ during off-peak periods.”

As Bob explains, the national EV infrastructure envisioned by industry players is more than just chargers in home garages. Rather, it’s nothing short of “electrified versions of gas pumps” that will be needed. He says that “by 2015 there will be an estimated 3 million EV charging stations installed worldwide; this year, a mere 20,000 installations are forecast.”

The net takeaway, Bob writes, is that the grid needs to be upgraded to support the new EV world. Not doing it will also “keep some consumers away until a comprehensive infrastructure is in place.”

To make this happen, he says, partnerships need to be forged to develop technology standards so utilities and tech companies can be on the same page and know how to invest. On the consumer side, increased awareness about exactly what a smart grid is – and how it’s needed for EVs, needs to happen at the same time. “Only then will we get the most out of an electrified transportation network,” he writes.

Learn more in these GE Reports stories:
* “Will the Cost of Electric Cars Come Down? We Asked A123
* “Drive an EV, Slash the CO2
* “How Far Will Your EV Go? It Depends How Fast You Charge It
* “The Real State of Electric Vehicles in a Billion-Car World
* “GE unveils residential WattStation EV charger
* “GE & Better Place to partner on EV infrastructure
* “GE teams with Nissan on electric car smart charging