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Electric cars: A universal plug for all models?

About the author

Jon is the presenter of Science in Action on the BBC World Service. He trained as a mechanical engineer (with automotive and aeronautic design) before becoming a journalist. He has worked at the BBC for over a decade and has reported from areas as diverse as war zones and technology shows.

How can we meet the demands more electric vehicles will put on our power supplies and grids? Jon Stewart visits the centre seeking answers through creating common standards for vehicles and charging stations.

Electric vehicles promise us a future of guilt-free travel. Replacing today’s gas-guzzling engines with electric motors means cars will no longer produce harmful emissions. They can be plugged in overnight at home, or in an office or supermarket parking space during the day, and be topped up with electricity that is generated more efficiently in a centralised power station, or even by renewable sources.

We are only at the start of the electric vehicle revolution, of course, with only a few models being offered by a few manufacturers. They are proving popular though. In some US cities (San Francisco, Seattle, Portland) the Leaf was Nissan’s top selling vehicle. Tesla appears to have a big hit on its hands with the Model S. Chevrolet has the Volt (known as the Opel/Vauxhall Ampera in Europe), and BMW has just introduced the i3. The number of new models being launched in the US and Europe next year is expected to be in the region of double figures.

The question is whether we have the infrastructure in place to cope with the swelling demand electric cars will place on our roads and cities. More vehicles demand more places to plug them in. And as they become one of the largest consumers of electricity people own, the network needs to be able to keep up to reduce the risk of power cuts when demand exceeds supply.

Launched last July, The Electric Vehicle‐Smart Grid Interoperability Center aims to ease the potential strain on our resources by developing common standards and systems worldwide that ensure vehicles and charging stations work in unison with the electric grid. It’s a collaboration between the US Department of Energy and the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre, with the first of its twin centres based at the Argonne National Laboratory, outside of Chicago in the US. The second site will open in Petten, The Netherlands and Ispra, Italy, in 2014.

Walking through the Chicago facility (see video above), you are greeted by several types of electric vehicles, from cars to delivery trucks, and dozens of types of chargers. “We work with multi-national manufacturers – General Motors, BMW, Ford, Audi,” says Keith Hardy. the centre’s director. “They want to sell their cars around the world, without having to worry about different standards, different communication requirements, different billing systems. It’s a big trade issue. We want to minimise any potential regulatory issues.”

The first order of business is perhaps the most basic: the physical plug to connect to the car. Often to our frustration, so many of our devices like laptops and phones have different chargers for different models, and cars are no different. There are three competing quick-charging standards for vehicles: CHAdeMO, in the Nissan Leaf and Mitsubishi MiEV; the SAE Combo Coupler, used by US and European manufacturers; and Tesla’s charger.

The centre has selected a universal design that might look familiar to petrol-powered car drivers, because it’s modelled on a fuel nozzle, with the same size inlet. “We thought through that a lot, mainly thinking of the automotive industry,” says Hardy. “They do not need to change their vehicle from the outside just to make it electric. From the consumer perspective, they’re familiar with this shape… of course it has to be hooked in a bit longer.”

That standard is just the first of many if the promise of the Interoperability Centers pays off. Global standards will mean electric car drivers can cross international borders for example, without worrying if their car will charge. The end goal is for the whole process to be almost invisible, according to Hardy. 

What also needs to be seamless is energy management. “If you live in a community where everyone, or even half the people on the block have electric vehicles, and they all come home from work and charge at the same time, that might need to be managed,” says Hardy. Fortunately there is technology available that can help – the smart grid. Electricity is currently fed over cables to homes and offices in one direction, but increasingly there is the ability to send back information the other way, on how much is being used, by what, and for how long.

Smart electricity meters are already being installed in many parts of the world, which can give a real time data feed of how much power is being consumed. Soon that could be expanded so that our devices, and vehicles, talk to each other and intelligently balance power draw.

“In the case of a vehicle, you’re interested in what condition it’s in,” says Hardy. “If you just drove a few miles, and your vehicle is almost charged, you don’t need a lot of energy.”

The centre is working on standardised devices that will be able to function with each other, and keep the driver informed of energy resources and demands without impacting the grid negatively.

“It’s going to take a lot of electric vehicles, probably millions, to influence the national grid,” says Hardy. “But it only takes a handful to impact your local, neighbourhood transformer.”

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