Sustainable Energy Lecture: Electric Vehicles: Nightmare or Magic Bullet for LDCs?

Speaker: Raed Abdullah, Hydro Ottawa

Date: January 29, 2013

About the Speaker

Mr. Abdullah is a Strategic Planning Engineer for Hydro Ottawa presently focusing on Plug-In Electric Vehicle Readiness, Integration of Distributed Generation, and Smarter Grids.  After graduating from the University of Ottawa’s electrical engineering program, Mr. Abdullah has been involved in solar energy projects, energy management, and asset management and planning. He has been a contributing member of Ontario Smart Grid Forum Working Group, Centre for Energy Advancement through Technological Innovation’s Smart Grid Forum, Hydro One Networks’ LDC Distributed Generation Working Group, and the Standards Council of Canada’s Smart Grid Task Force.

About the Sustainable Energy Lecture Series

This presentation is part of an ongoing series of lectures on aspects of sustainable energy which are part of the Master’s program in Sustainable Energy, organized by the Carleton Research Unit in Innovation, Science and Environment (CRUISE) and the Carleton Sustainable Energy Research Centre (CSERC). The lecture series was established in 2010 and since then has covered diverse topics ranging from examinations of the sustainability of nuclear power, aboriginal energy projects in Canada, the ability to catalyze action on climate change, and wind energy controversies in Ontario.

Electric Vehicles and Local Distribution Companies

In the early 1900s, the first vehicle to be introduced onto the roads was electric. With the current dilemma of anthropogenic climate change and the need to reduce impacts through mitigation strategies, we are slowly reverting to consideration of electric vehicles as the gateway to a cleaner and sustainable future in the transportation sector. The ambitious goal set out by the Ontario government is to have 1 in 20 vehicles be electric by 2020, and the province has started introducing EVs into their fleet.  Presently, Toronto leads in having the largest number of EV sales; in the Outaoius there are approximately 200 EVs on the road excluding fleet vehicles and two-wheeled transport. However, with the introduction and increased use of electric vehicles, political, economic, and social quandaries arise among consumers, and also Local Distribution Companies (LDCs) such as Hydro Ottawa.

As outlined by Mr. Abdullah, there are three key government players for regulation and policies overseeing the use of electric vehicles and the grid, referred to as the politico: the federal, provincial, and municipal governments. The province regulates the LDCs to ensure they maintain the required standards for electricity distribution. Plus, the LDC must satisfy the city, its shareholder, and also its customers.

At present, there is uncertainty pertaining to how the electric vehicle will operate within the grid with respect to the added load and the additional supply which electric vehicles could add to the province’s electricity system. The type of vehicles, how they will behave in the system, and the location and quantity of chargers throughout the system will need to be determined since electric vehicle sales could increase at an exponential rate. These factors will directly influence incremental demand for EVs and the implications for the grid.

The electric vehicle would be both a load and a source of electricity supply on the province’s electric grid. The LDCs also have to simultaneously ensure the lights are kept on while taking advantage of opportunities electric vehicles will bring.  As such, the LDCs will need to increase monitoring, protection and control of the grid since electric vehicles will add unexpected and irregular load and may contribute surplus supply when not needed by the vehicle, causing balancing problems in the system. Control actions include shifting the load or offsetting the need for additional generation in peak demand periods, and providing new business opportunities for LDCs, in their role as the link between generators and customers.

The operation of the grid will have to be planned accordingly to respond to the expected increased flux of demand and supply once large numbers of electric vehicles are in operation. The current grid needs to be maintained and enhanced for the coming load through better use of data and communication using smart grid technologies.

Although the sale of electric vehicles will continue to increase, the extent of electric vehicle sales compared to regular gas vehicles remains a significant uncertainty. This is due to the fact that many customers maintain reservations about these vehicles. Battery pack sizing, costs of charging, charging station locations, and travel distance ranges remain questions. Only 0.1% (approximately 2200 cars) of recent new car sales in Canada are plug-ins, a third of the penetration rate of new car sales in the United States. The reservations that Canadians have regarding electric vehicles are further explored in the discussion section.

Discussion Period

After a thorough social, scientific, and political analysis of electric vehicles by Mr. Abdullah, a number of questions were raised during the discussion.

Skepticism arose regarding the electric vehicle’s battery and its unreliability of providing sufficient energy for longer driving ranges. To increase the travel range, a battery must be significantly larger.  The increased size leads to additional weight that translates to more energy needed per kilometre.  Currently, the maximum range by a mass produced EV was attained by new car maker Tesla, whose high-end model with a price tag of over $100,000 can reach a range of 400km on an 85kWh lithium-ion battery.  On the cheaper side, a Nissan Leaf costs approximately $40,000 and can travel 160km on a 20kWh lithium-ion battery. Comparing these two models reveals the correlation between battery, range, and selling price.

The electric vehicle is contingent on a battery design to meet the requirements of consumers. It has become of interest to car manufacturers and utilities to enlighten the misinformed public of the social, economic, infrastructure, and environmental benefits these vehicles provide. Introducing electric vehicles into society on a large scale will face continuous consumer barriers and criticism. Nonetheless, the speaker’s most resonating statement was that “fear of the consumer is the only thing that stands between the implementation of the electric vehicle and the death of the electric vehicle”.  The bright note is that EV penetration, though small, is exponentially rising despite the recent CAA member poll that showed stable interest and scepticism in these vehicles.

Several traditional car dealers such as General Motors and Ford are designing their own EV models with hopes of successful market penetration. They have gained a new battery perspective that anticipates the extension of battery life and the repurposing of the battery once it is no longer useful in the vehicle. This is currently being pursued by GM to achieve longer range and battery life in its future electric vehicles.

Although barriers will continue to persist, the sales of EVs will undoubtedly increase as technology improves in efficiency, gas prices continue to escalate, and progress is made on the province of Ontario’s goal of increasing Ontario’s use of electric vehicles. The influx of EVs into the grid will create an additional stress on the LDCs since these vehicles add incremental load. Utilities will typically monitor the distribution of loads twice a year to detect trends and risks, coupled with an 18 month outlook of supply and demand trends. However, distribution companies cannot adjust instantaneously since successful adjustments for supply and demand changes take approximately two to four years to complete. In contrast, making adjustments to match changes in demand affecting base load occur over a ten year span or more.

Though M. Abdullah was very sceptical on the net benefit (to anyone) in having electric vehicles give electricity back to the grid, the vehicle owner may derive additional profit that they currently do not receive without electric vehicles. Utilities may also derive benefit from the transportation of that electricity; however, utilities have a responsibility to either reduce rates, reinvest to make the grid better or return additional profits to shareholder (i.e., typically the city) in the form dividend increases. There is a lot of benefit and money to be made from electric vehicles, and the key players stand to benefit.

Lastly, the debatable question of where the lithium, needed for the manufacture of lithium-ion batteries, will come from in anticipation of increased battery demand and the location of future mining projects was raised. Many Canadian mining projects take place outside of our borders, primarily in South America. The environmental and social aspects of increased mining may pose detrimental impacts on both the land and residents. How will Canadian and international policies influence the hindrance or promotion of lithium supply for electric vehicles? This is one topic that has many political and social views and does not currently have a tangible answer for future activities.

Click here to view  Mr. Abdullah’s presentation.

Written by Patricia Majdanczuk and Mintcho Mintchev, Masters of Arts students in Sustainable Energy Policy.