While low gas prices have created a challenging environment for electric vehicles, year-over-year increases across nearly two dozen different EV models in all major metropolitan areas of the U.S. illustrate an obvious growth in electric consumption.

But it raises a pressing question for utilities and cities that want to stay ahead of the growth curve: Is our infrastructure ready to accommodate citizens’ growing interest in EV transportation?

Cart or h​orse?

The first challenge focuses on improving stability: How do we accelerate the EV demand curve? Certainly improvements in battery technology are critical to grow sales. While we’re breaking past the 200-mile battery barrier, range isn’t the only psychological issue impairing consumption. Availability of EV infrastructure may be a more critical concern.

Fast-charging plug standards have not been fully resolved in the light-duty sector, and key grid standards are still being debated -- underscoring the notion that EV growth is in many ways tied to who controls and monetizes the value of infrastructure rather than technology. 

As EVs attain more mindshare, more customer questions follow: Where can I charge my car, and will I have to charge every day? How long does it take to charge with a Level 2 versus a DC charger? Do I have to wait in line? How much will it cost? Are DC fast-charging stations equipped with dual standards? Who will I allow to control my charging? 

Range, model availability, customer education and easily accessible infrastructure will drive EV adoption. Drops in the price of batteries -- about 77 percent since 2011 -- and the lower costs of operation and maintenance compared with conventional vehicles are already hooking new customers. Utilities and municipalities, leveraging private-sector investment, can meet this enthusiasm by focusing on the grid. Partnerships among utilities and stakeholders to maximize the value and flexibility of increased electrification in transportation will be crucial as smart city initiatives gain traction.

More than 40 percent of respondents engaged in smart city initiatives ranked EVs as among the most important technologies in the advancement of smart cities, according to this year’s Strategic Directions: Smart City/Smart Utility Report survey from Black & Veatch. These players recognize EVs, and the related clean energy infrastructure, as essential components of a sustainable and livable city.

Selling investors on EV infrastructure

The next question is where the capital for infrastructure expansion will come from. Growing EV sales are already providing new potential revenue streams for electric utilities, as the business case for accommodating EV growth comes into sharper focus. 

Infrastructure success also requires municipal participation, at the very least -- if not state, regional or national participation. The business case for governments is a more complicated sale. Some of the most successful approaches we’ve seen involve public-private partnerships (P3s). Three-quarters of municipalities surveyed by Black & Veatch believe that P3s are the most effective financing model for smart city initiatives. Leaning on private partners to take on project risk also seems to be an attractive prospect for smart service providers, with 84 percent agreeing that P3s are most effective.

Proposing such infrastructure enhancements will require recognition of the importance of distributed energy resource (DER) management. DERs are affecting all aspects of utility operations and business processes, from resource planning to customer service, regulatory requirements and distribution system needs.

Through DER systems -- renewable energy production, storage and demand response -- cities and utilities will be able to effectively control EV charging impacts, lower charging costs and stabilize grid loads to help slash greenhouse gas emissions. More importantly, cities and utilities can exploit the benefits that grid-connected EVs offer -- the shoring up of revenue losses and the provision of low-cost access to a massive DER pool. 

Slimming the duck

Uneven growth curves aren’t the only graphs that make utilities and municipalities nervous. There’s also the matter of the duck curve. As Greentech Media has already reported, EVs -- if managed properly -- could offer a solution to the production and consumption gaps, just maybe slimming the duck a bit. The last question to tackle is how to make this a reality. 

Demand response programs can serve as effective alternatives to expensive “peaker plant” investments, and can help maintain reliability as aging coal and nuclear plants retire. While demand response programs focusing on energy efficiency through internet-connected smart devices are becoming a central point of customer engagement for utilities, they’re not the only tool available. After all, utilities’ demand-side management toolboxes don’t just include smart thermostats. 

It turns out that EVs can help with over-generation risks, reducing them by as much as 1.7 percent by 2020 according to GTM Research’s The Impact of Electric Vehicles on the Grid report. But, as the report indicates, they need to reach scale before this slimming effect will be seen -- and without a strong infrastructure investment, the effects may not be seen at all. 

Battery EVs and plug-in hybrids have become fixtures on roadways, and utilities can profit from this lucrative market. Key to this growth will be the development of the infrastructure that will allow these vehicles to fully realize their benefits. American EV infrastructure will likely make bold steps forward with Volkswagen’s Electrify America program, the automaker’s $2 billion commitment stemming from its EPA settlement over diesel emissions. The plan, which includes high-power charging stations in many U.S. cities and a high-speed, cross-country network of DC fast chargers, may give the nation’s EV infrastructure a major boost and encourage new surges in EV transportation.

Such investments provide a model for cities and utilities to consider and integrate with strategic planning. Cities can become smarter in reducing gas emission and enhancing energy efficiency, and utilities can profit from this expanding market. Key to that growth will be the infrastructure that develops around the vehicles to fully realize their benefits to the grid, people and the environment.


Maryline Daviaud Lewett is Director of Business Development for Black & Veatch’s Transformative Technologies business; Paul Stith is a solution lead for Black & Veatch’s Transformative Technologies business.