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NINETY EIGHT REGENCY

Utilities brace for electric cars

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Utilities brace for electric cars

Extra demand to test system, provide growth

Jonathan Fahey / Associated Press

The first mass-market electric cars, Chevrolet's Volt and Nissan's Leaf, go on sale this month, and the nation's electric utilities couldn't be more thrilled — or worried.

Plugged into a socket, an electric car can draw as much power as a small house. The surge in demand could knock out power to a home, or even a neighborhood.

Not since air conditioning spread across the country in the 1950s and 1960s has the power industry faced such a growth opportunity. Last year, Americans spent $325 billion on gasoline, and utilities would love even a small piece of that market.

The main obstacles to wide-scale use of electric cars are high cost and limited range, at least until a network of charging stations is built. But utility executives fret that difficulties keeping the lights on for the first crop of buyers — and their neighbors — could slow the growth of this new niche.

"You never get a second chance to make a first impression," says Mike Rowand, who is in charge of electric vehicle planning at Duke Energy.

Auto executives say it's inevitable that utilities will experience some difficulties early on. "We are all going to be a lot smarter two years from now," says Mark Perry, director of product planning for Nissan North America.

Electric cars run on big batteries that are charged by plugging into a standard wall socket or a more powerful charging station. A combined 30,000 Nissan Leafs and Chevrolet Volts are expected to be sold over the next year. Over the next two years, Ford, Toyota and every other major automaker also plan to offer electric cars.

Driving 10,000 miles on electricity will use about 2,500 kilowatt-hours, or 20 percent more than the average annual consumption of U.S. homes. At an average utility rate of 11 cents per kilowatt-hour, that's $275 for a year of fuel, equivalent to about 70 cents per gallon of gasoline.

"Electric vehicles have the potential to completely transform our business," says David Owens, executive vice president of the Edison Electric Institute, a trade group.

Nationwide, utilities have enough power plants and equipment to power hundreds of thousands of electric cars.

Problems could crop up long before that many are sold, though, because of a phenomenon carmakers and utilities call "clustering."

Clusters are expected where: Generous subsidies are offered by states and localities.

Weather is mild, because batteries tend to perform better in warmer climates.

High-income and environmentally conscious commuters live.

Austin, Texas; Raleigh, Cary and Asheville, N.C.; around Orlando and Tampa, Fla.; and Indianapolis are on utilities' radar as potential trouble spots.

Adding an electric vehicle or two to a neighborhood can be like adding another house, and it can stress the equipment that services those houses.

When plugged into a standard 120-volt socket, the electric car will draw 1,500 watts. By comparison, a medium-sized air conditioner or a countertop microwave oven will draw about 1,000 watts. But the car can be charged faster, and therefore draw more power, when plugged into a home charging station. The "nightmare" scenario, according to Austin Energy's Rabago: People come home from work on a hot afternoon, turn on the air conditioner and the plasma television, blend some frozen cocktails, start cooking dinner on an electric stove — and plug their car into a home charging station.

"It's like you're about to have a baby," adds Duke Energy's Rowand. "You know it's going to be good, but you also know there's going to be some throw up and some dirty diapers, and you just hope that it's something you are prepared for."

From The Detroit News: http://detnews.com/article/20101209/AUTO01/12090360/Utilities-brace-for-electric-cars#ixzz17ckvMICM

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