Point of View

Electrifying opportunities

November 4, 2010 

— A 2006 documentary asked "Who Killed the Electric Car?" From what I see, the reports have been greatly exaggerated. We're not talking about the Model-T, after all, but the Model-E. With analysts predicting nearly 1 million electric vehicles on the roads by 2015, our country seems to be on the cusp of a revolution in the way we get around.

This week, local residents and business leaders got a chance to test the newest electric vehicle to hit the market, as General Motors brought the Chevrolet Volt to Research Triangle Park as part of a multi-city tour. There is a considerable amount of buzz surrounding the launch of cars like the Volt. The excitement level is particularly acute here, as Raleigh was rated by the Rocky Mountain Institute as one of the top 50 metropolitan markets for electric vehicles readiness.

Helping fuel interest in electric cars here and across the nation, beyond the desire for cleaner and greener transportation, are various tax incentives. North Carolina residents can take advantage of a $2,000 tax credit for the purchase or lease of an alternative-fuel or hybrid electric vehicle. Additional federal tax credits of up to $7,500 are available to consumers as well.

The transformation is truly an exciting vision - a whole new generation of clean, energy-efficient plug-in electric vehicles capable of running for long periods from a single charge at home overnight.

This vision is bringing into focus a major obstacle to the deployment and adoption of electric vehicles on a large scale. Fact is, the electrical utility grid, as it exists today, simply can't support large numbers of vehicles, or even monitor itself when a consumer loses power.

There are a number of innovation hubs across the country focused on improving the performance of these new vehicles. What is missing is a focused effort targeting the "charging infrastructure" required to make electric vehicle use feasible.

This is a leadership opportunity that North Carolina can grab and run with. We can take lessons learned locally and turn them into a national model, while also increasing North Carolina's role as an incubator for new companies in this field.

So what makes our state well suited to address the electrical grid and charging infrastructure challenges for the nation? First off, our several electric-vehicle charging stations are being built or are in the planning stages in Raleigh and in other locales, such as Charlotte. These stations provide a rich source of data we can use to improve the system.

One of the early assumptions about electric cars is that people would recharge the batteries overnight while their car is parked in their garage, paying for this electricity on their normal monthly utility bill. There's just one problem with that scenario: a lot of people don't or can't park the car in their garage.

For many people, it might make more sense to charge up their cars in a more central location, such as an employer's or a train station's parking lot. But this, too, raises questions: Who gets financially charged for that electricity? What if you travel outside your utility company's service region - how do you pay for that electricity you use? And how do all those cars recharge their batteries during the day, in what is already a peak usage period for electricity?

Answers to these questions all start with getting increased intelligence and information flowing side by side with the electrons. Central to all this will be having our local utilities investing in their infrastructure side-by-side with the innovations taking place in the charging side. Progress Energy is already investing a planned $320 million in smart grid systems designed to enhance its electricity delivery system, coupled with an additional $200 million grant from the U.S. Department of Energy.

Our state, and in particular Raleigh, has a rich concentration of higher education institutions we can align with this effort. Some are already engaged, like N.C. State University, which houses the Future Renewable Electric Energy Delivery and Management Systems Center.

Also, our region's deep expertise in software design is a vital part of the success equation. More and more cars and our electric grid require computer software to operate more efficiently.

North Carolina already has secured federal stimulus money, and with the right focused effort around charging infrastructure we could likely attract even more federal dollars. Making sure North Carolina is at the forefront of the new green ecosystem will be central to accelerating economic development, creating new high-paying jobs and entrepreneurial innovation locally. The Model-E is on the horizon.

Gina Poole is vice president of software programs at IBM, which has a large campus at Research Triangle Park.

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