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How to plan for the future of electric vehicles

April 18, 2019

By Mike Voll

Incorporating smart technologies to future-proof your charging infrastructure investments

The era of electric transportation has arrived. Battery costs are dropping, the technology is proving itself on a larger scale, and there is strong public support and political will to move forward in many jurisdictions. But there are some challenges to overcome. Transit agencies need to consider electricity demand in their routing plans—something they’ve never had to think about before. Along with transportation patterns, agencies also need to consider electricity supply and facility constraints. Those agencies, and their planners, need experts to steer them in the right direction.

An electric vehicle charging station parking space, pictured in Rochester, New York.

Building momentum

Searching for signs that the electric transportation era is here? Look to China, a country that accounts for 50% of the world’s electric vehicle (EV) market. Helped by aggressive government subsidies for EV manufacturers and pro-electric transportation planning, annual sales are nearing a million vehicles, accounting for more than 3% of all vehicles sold in 2018.

Globally, many traditional automotive companies have electric vehicles in their lineups. Some, such as Volvo and Volkswagen, are staking their future on EVs, with Volkswagen now rolling out plans to install electric chargers at all of its dealers and suppliers, as well as on major transportation routes and corridors.

Momentum is also building in jurisdictions across North America, particularly those with strong renewable energy mandates such as New York, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and Ontario. California is driving the most growth, however, both in passenger vehicles and electrified transit. The latter is anchored by the state’s Zero Emission Bus (ZEB) initiative, which mandates that all buses in the state be emissions-free by 2040. Current technologies available for this transition are battery electric buses (BEB) and Fuel Cell Electric Buses (FCEB) based on hydrogen fuel cells.

Planning challenges

While exciting, these trends also bring new challenges for all stakeholders—local governments, transit agencies, developers, utilities, manufacturers, and service providers—as they try to plan, manage, and finance the transition from fossil-fuel to electric.

The only constant in the world of electric transportation is that demand is routinely exceeding forecasts.

California’s ZEB program is a case in point. Never have utilities teams had to be at the table during the planning process as they do now. They’re having to look at their grids and consider where transit agencies want to charge their buses to determine conditions like demand periods and if they have enough capacity to allow the required charging.

Utilities elsewhere face similar challenges—not just for transit but even where people are looking to add EV chargers at home. A typical Level 2 charger requires seven or eight kilowatts of power. That’s about the same load as the entire typical household. Add a few of these in a neighborhood and the electricity provider may have to upgrade the transformers feeding those houses. Add a few more and the entire local grid may need an upgrade.

From a planning perspective, the transit scenario is at least somewhat predictable. But transit agencies have never had to consider electricity demand in their route planning. This is where they need help from experts. Not to mention, estimating consumer demand for EVs—both the volume and locations where the buyers live—is much more difficult.

The only constant in the world of electric transportation is that demand is routinely exceeding forecasts. While that’s good news if you’re an electric transportation advocate, industry stakeholder, or just someone who wants to see climate change reduced, it’s vexing for planners who do not currently have visibility of the electricity grid and its underlying constraints.

Flexibility is key

One possible solution—whether working with developers, governments, utilities, or equipment manufacturers—is to promote the use of flexible planning tools that incorporate disruptive and game-changing smart technologies, so that the electric revolution does not catch our clients by surprise.

We know that mass charging infrastructure needs to be installed in order to accommodate this revolution. However, the question that is top-of mind is: Who will pay for it? Some transit agencies in California can access funding from several streams to help fund their transition to ZEB. Passenger EV charging is another story. Tesla is a leader in this space with their ‘if you build it, they will come’ approach as they have been quietly rolling out Tesla charging infrastructure globally to service their EV owners. Other recent automotive-funded companies launching similar programs are Electrify (funded by VW settlement funds) and GreenLots—both of which are well into similar programs themselves.

Beyond these initiatives, many other stakeholders are struggling to determine how they can participate. Utilities stand the most to gain from increased electricity sales, but this has proved not to be as straightforward as you might think.

A rendering from one of our projects in Edmonton, Alberta, showing how we’re implementing connected-vehicle technology into the existing transportation infrastructure.

A plan for Nova Scotia

In 2017, Nova Scotia Power announced plans to install a dozen fast-charging stations along its main highways for all models of electric vehicles. A portion of the cost is to be borne by the utility’s ratepayers. But the provincial energy regulator denied the proposal, saying it wasn’t in the ratepayers’ ‘best interest’ given how few of them currently drive electric vehicles.

The incident highlighted a chicken-and-egg dilemma that contributes to the need for flexible planning in the EV market, considering not only transportation patterns but also electricity supply and facility constraints. Without the charging infrastructure, people are less likely to buy electric vehicles—but without more EV drivers, public agencies are reluctant to foot the bill. It also underscored a dilemma common across most jurisdictions: Who pays for the new infrastructure? In the case of Nova Scotia, the Power provider worked out an alternative-funding plan.

What can other communities do?

In another example, we worked with a smart city developer who needed to enable mass vehicle electrification, including passenger EVs, BEBs, connected autonomous vehicles (shuttles), autonomous and electric freight (robots and drones), and even e-scooters and e-bikes.

The anticipated demand on the electricity system would be unprecedented and therefore required a creative solution. So, we proposed an innovative approach in collaboration with the developer, the utility, and other smart technology companies, incorporating modular stationary battery storage to mitigate grid constraints. The batteries charge from the grid during periods of low demand and then discharge when demand is highest to help provide the additional energy needed to charge vehicles all day long.

The answers are out there. Finding them is easiest when stakeholders are willing to—and have the means to—adapt and react. It is also imperative to have planning partners who are creative, innovative, and experienced, and who can lever sophisticated tools to expedite decisions.

  • Mike Voll

    Mike Voll has a deep passion for innovation and creative application of engineering principles.

    Contact Mike
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