Free car charging stations planned

Staff WriterFebruary 7, 2011 

About 300 homeowners in the Carolinas this year will receive the technology they need to charge electric cars, courtesy of Progress Energy and Duke Energy.

The free charging stations will mean a savings of several thousand dollars for the early adopters of the Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf and Ford Focus.

For the state's two biggest power companies, the giveaway is an opportunity to study the long-term effects of charging electric cars on the state's power grid. The system was not designed to handle plug-in cars that can drain as much electricity as a central air conditioning system.

Similar studies are planned around the country. With mass-market electric cars just months away, the nation's electric industry is anticipating a societal shift that has been compared to the widespread adoption of air conditioners a half-century ago.

"We could make a lot of mistakes," said Tom Turrentine, director of the Plug In Hybrid Electric Vehicle Research Center at the University of California. "There's no infrastructure in the world that tells us: This is how to do it properly."

Electric cars represent a tremendous economic opportunity for power companies nationwide.

Duke officials estimate that the Carolinas will be home to 220,000 electric cars by 2020, largely clustered in Charlotte and other affluent communities. Progress projects that electric car buyers will concentrate in Raleigh, Cary and Asheville, the areas most likely to require equipment upgrades to handle the increased electricity demand when car owners recharge through 240-volt outlets.

Effect on transformers

"You've got to consider the size of the load," said Ken Dulaney, vice president of Advanced Energy, a nonprofit in Raleigh that focuses on energy issues. "What you're talking about when you put in a charging station is almost like adding another house to that part of the grid."

Duke's filing with the N.C. Utilities Commission states that charging an electric car after a power outage could cause transformer fuses to fail. A surge in power demand from a single neighborhood could wear out transformers that were not designed to handle high loads.

Duke estimates the cost of system upgrades could be $400 million if electric car charging is not managed, but as low as $100 million if the company can encourage customers to recharge at night, during off-peak hours.

"By doing this study, we can better understand how the vehicles will integrate into the grid [and] what amount of charging will occur during our peak demand times," said Duke spokesman Paige Layne.

In California, for example, customers who charge cars at night pay a discount rate for the wall outlet that feeds the charging station.

Passing on the cost

Duke needs approval from state regulators to give customers the free car charging stations, a $1.2 million dollar program. It expects to pass on the cost to customers through monthly rates.

Raleigh-based Progress plans to propose a similar program, but details have not been worked out, said spokesman Scott Sutton. It would use federal stimulus money to cover the cost of its study.

Both companies are working with auto dealers to notify customers about the charging stations when they buy electric cars.

For those who don't buy or lease their cars in time to qualify for the free stations, the federal government offers a tax credit to defray the cost of such stations, but the credit covers only 30 percent of the total cost.

Duke is planning to distribute 150 "intelligent" charging stations for private homes with a retail value of $1,500 to $2,000. The stations will capture usage data and transmit the information to the company for analysis. They come with a pre-programmed charge time that customers can override if necessary. It will also pay customers up to $1,000 to have the chargers installed in their homes.

Progress plans to install 150 chargers in private homes and 150 in public areas.

To participate, customers will have to agree to sign a two-year contract and own or lease a Volt, Leaf or electric Focus. After two years, Duke will remove the equipment at no cost, but customers will have the option of buying the equipment for $250.

john.murawski@newsobserver.com or 919-829-8932

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