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Smart Garage: Driving Change Faster

By Rebecca Cole

Exactly a year after RMI hosted the Smart Garage Charette in Portland, a group of industry experts convened at RMI2009 weighed in on where the U.S. stands in making an electrified vehicle fleet a reality.

The good news: the technology is already in use, the government is firmly behind the effort to make the grid as efficient as possible, and the electric infrastructure to do it is here.

The bad news?

There’s still a lot to be done, from scaling the technology to changing the mindsets of manufacturers and consumers in order to remove the barriers to an electric fleet. The basic concepts are working in pilot programs across the country, but the system is a long way from being ready for one million electrified vehicles by 2015.

“To make the grid more efficient is my overarching objective—reduce costs, reduce carbon, and make it better for consumers,” said Jon Wellinghoff, chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC).

Wellinghoff said that an electric fleet can have a positive impact on the grid when cars are plugged in both during the day and at night. The key, he said, is to view electric cars and hybrids as part of a whole system.

In 2007, FERC already proved it. Using a converted Toyota Scion, FERC engineers found they could share information between the car and the grid and deliver critical services that could help keep the grid stable.

Calling it the “cash-back car,” Wellinghoff said the new paradigm could turn transportation vehicles into grid appliances. “Ultimately, if you can do this at scale, to step it through a fleet on a megawatt scale, you have the ability to make payments back to the grid, up to $1,500 per year per car,” he said.

While federal agencies like FERC appear to be slowly making the leap, the gap in the minds of manufacturers and consumers may be a lot harder to bridge.

“There’s still a lot of space between concept and showroom,” said Chelsea Sexton, a co-founder of Plug-In America. While enthusiasm is high and “every automaker is working on a plug-in car,” she said, consumers, manufacturers, and policy are still not aligned enough to create large-scale transformation. “We’re getting almost into a constipated place of not doing anything,” she said. “But we have to start with the cars.”

Jon Ferris, the E-Flex Planning Manager at General Motors, said that consumers are still leery about electric cars’ capabilities.

“As great as the vehicle might be, we also have to ready the marketplace,” Ferris said. “We have to do the external enablers that ensure it’s a mass-market program and not just a niche product.”

For years, Sexton said, the auto industry pointed to a lack of consumer demand as evidence that electric or plug-in hybrid vehicles were unwanted.

“Wait a minute,” she said, “how many of us looked at a Walkman 20 years ago and said, ‘I wish that was the size of a deck of cards and I could watch TV on it.’ None of us knew to ask for an iPod then, but once we had one, we all got damn used to it.”

Rebecca Cole is RMI’s Online Editor

--Published in October 2009

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