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Utilities to Scale Electric Cars and Distributed Solar

[fa icon="calendar'] Feb 24, 2015 9:46:16 AM / by Carol Pierson Holding

By Carol Pierson Holding

Electric Vehicles (EVs) aren’t selling because retail charging has stalled and people areElectric vehicle (EV) charging station afraid of being stranded with no power source. According to the US Census, there are 121,000 gas stations in the U.S. and just 9,124 charging stations. Refueling takes minutes with gas vs. 30 minutes to hours to charge. According to Plugincars.com’s Ultimate Guide to Electric Car Charging Networks, most public chargers are free for now, but those that are not free require subscriptions to be set up in advance; using regular credit cards for a single charge is possible but complicated. The West Coast’s ballyhooed “Electric Highway” is made up of six different charger providers, each requiring a different subscription and another card for your wallet. Some chargers don’t fit every vehicle (!) and customer service can be terrible.

It’s just too early. Not surprising, most adventuresome new car buyers are skipping electric cars for now and buying another gas-powered vehicle to tide them over until the problems of range and public charging are solved.

Clearly, the EV charging market requires standards. Despite utilities being widely reviled for high rates, they are trusted to distribute power and maintain the electric grid to fairly high standards.

Electric utilities’ reputation for providing overall reliability and consistency is well suited to win the confidence of potential EV drivers.

That may be why utilities in Kansas City, Missouri, Madison, Wisconsin and in cities across California and Texas are investing in charging stations. Existing charging companies, in addition to offering competing systems at the expense of consumers, have failed to proliferate the stations fast enough.  As a result, Public Utility Commissions have begun to open the charging market to electric utilities. Forbes described why regulators are allowing these giants into the market:

 (California’s Pacific Gas and Electric) designed the (EV charger) project to help the state achieve its mandate to reduce its emissions by 80% below the 1990s levels by 2050. …To achieve that, Gov. Brown issued an executive order in 2012 that calls for putting 1.5 million zero-emissions cars on the road by 2025.

Why should utilities take on EV charging at all, a tough retail distribution business that EV owners expect to be free? Shouldn’t the utilities be paying more attention to their core business, endangered by distributed solar energy provided by roof top solar panels? A 2013 report from Edison Electric Institute, the trade group for publicly-owned electric companies, warned about the disruption about to hit these utilities.

Not only will utilities lose about 10% of their customers to roof top solar by 2020, but that loss would require increasing charges for remaining customers by about 20%, making solar panels even more attractive by comparison. Utilities have been fighting “tooth and nail” to keep solar installers out, including shutting down access to the grid, adding grid fees, and lobbying to regulate and tax solar alternatives out of the market. As it turned out, that strategy has kept the market open until they were allowed to enter.

For example, NRG’s CEO David Crane announced plans to participate in the charging market a year ago, stating that his company would straddle both models just as telephone companies straddled landline and cellular for twenty years before cellular became dominant. And the market in its home state of Texas is ready and waiting.

Was it the boldness of their plans to move into charging stations that gave utilities the moxy to start installing their own distributed solar power? What caused utilities to act outside their staid character, whose normal instinct is to shut down innovation that threatens the status quo?

The fact is, utilities are not only innovating but changing their core business model to accommodate the cheaper and more ubiquitous solar power source, one already visible across middle class neighborhoods, and one that might just save the electric companies from extinction. It feels like it all happened overnight, that our most conservative institutions have become bet-the-business proponents of green technology. Who knew?

Photo courtesy of avda-foto via Flickr cc.


Carol Pierson HoldingCarol Pierson Holding writes on environmental issues and social responsibility for policy and news publications, including the Carnegie Council’s Policy Innovations, Harvard Business Review, San Francisco Chronicle, India Time, The Huffington Post and many other web sites. Her articles on corporate social responsibility can be found on CSRHub.com, a website that provides sustainability ratings data on 13,700+ companies worldwide. Carol holds degrees from Smith College and Harvard University.

CSRHub provides access to corporate social responsibility and sustainability ratings and information on 13,700+ companies from 135 industries in 127 countries. By aggregating and normalizing the information from 371 data sources, CSRHub has created a broad, consistent rating system and a searchable database that links millions of rating elements back to their source. Managers, researchers and activists use CSRHub to benchmark company performance, learn how stakeholders evaluate company CSR practices and seek ways to change the world.

 

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[fa icon="comment"] 1 Comment posted in Edison Electric Institute, Electric Highway, electric utilities, electric vehicles, EV charging stations, Uncategorized, power companies, Pacific Gas and Electric, roof top solar, Carol Pierson Holding, David Crane, NRG

Sex, Lies and the Electric Car

[fa icon="calendar'] Mar 27, 2011 8:38:06 PM / by Carol Pierson Holding

 

By Carol Pierson Holding

As though the merging of electric car and the Internet were already a well-known fact, BMW, a leader in CSR among automakers, dared to name its hybrid/electric car brand BMWi. “i”? Sure, thanks to Apple’s ubiquitous advertising campaigns, “i” is as well known as its predecessor “e” for electronic (email, e-commerce), and “x” for one level higher (xBox). Still, you have to wonder why BMW chose consumer shorthand for Internet, for innovation and cool, over eco or green, to signal environmentalism. Or even “e” for “electric car.”

Picture 4
Could BMW be doing what so many have failed to do—move the overall positioning of energy efficiency towards something, well, sustainable? At least when it comes to cars? Green appeal comes and goes. For many efforts, green positioning has given way to saving money — remember Energy Star’s transition in the 1990s? And more recently, the Prius’ push beyond celebrity environmentalists to mass market, cost-conscious consumers? But saving gas only goes so far, especially when gas is cheap.

KC Golden, the visionary behind the Seattle-based Climate Solutions, pretty much predicted an i-car evolution.  KC grew up in Los Angeles, the apex of the automobile worship.  He witnessed what having a cool car –a lot of horsepower under the hood —could do when it came to getting the girl. That link between horsepower and sex is permanently fused in youthful minds. And it never really goes away.

Today, KC lives in Seattle, where the major source of carbon emissions, about 40%, is from cars. To lower emissions, we must either get people to ride public transportation, which in the West is extremely tough, or more practically, get them to drive low-emission cars. What KC sees as the primary challenge is breaking our insistent connection, even in politically correct Seattle, between sex appeal and horsepower.

And what better voice to change attitudes about cars than the car companies themselves, starting just where you’d expect it to start, with Volkswagen—the first small car brand. KC sent me this typically counter-intuitive Volkswagen ad, which mocks drivers who still believe that horsepower enhances ego. Its tag line is “lowest ego emissions:” VW TV Commercial.

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I’ll bet this commercial is not all that funny to BMW drivers. It appeals to those whose ego is wrapped around environmentalism, the very group KC wants to enlarge. I’m not saying that KC is wrong about green being sexy one day. In fact, even BMW thought the time had come in its first and second tries at an electric car. First was the MiniE, an electric MiniCooper. Launched in China, it was positioned as the first of its MegaCityVehicle line— a luxury version of Indian car-maker Tata’s Nano. Then the company tried the ActiveE, a sedan that was “bringing sustainable electric mobility on the road” as their ActiveE spokeperson, a female sustainability consultant intoned on their website. The ActiveE does not look “muscular;” its spokesperson is not sexy.

But with BMW’s third try, the BMWi, I think BMW has found its answer. Even though the tag line for the BMWi is “Born Electric,” the message is about performance first. BMWi uses battery power not only to cut emissions, but also to boost performance. Sure, the women in the BMWi web video are good-looking, but not blatantly sexy. And someday, maybe just the energy savings will be enough.

With the BMWi, BMW returns to its roots. It’s a smart strategy and may take us right where we want to go. As smart branders know, a slow transition works best with consumers. German luxury carmakers promoting behavioral modification in service of sustainability? Now that’s brand evolution.


Carol Pierson Holding is a writer and an environmentalist; her articles on CSR can be found on her website.  

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[fa icon="comment"] 14 Comments posted in ActiveE, Apple, corporate social responsibility, CSR, electric car, electric vehicles, Energy Star, KC Golden, Seattle, Tata Nano, Uncategorized, Volkswagen, xBox, MiniCooper, sustainability, MegaCityVehicle, MiniE, Prius, BMW, BMWi, Carol Pierson Holding, Climate Solutions, CSRHub, eco

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