More electric vehicles are coming, can cities power them?

A gas and electric company located in Spokane, WA, is temporarily giving away electric car charging stations, and cities across the nation are paying close attention to see how things go.

Spokane, a town with a population of about 200,000, located in the eastern hills near the Idaho border, has a flourishing market of electric vehicle drivers. Avista, an utility company, wants to help grow that market. With that being said, Avista has started a pilot to install more than 270 charging stations in homes, offices and public locations. The plan will cost about $3 million, a small fraction of its $1 billion annual revenue.

Cities throughout the nation are playing with their use of electricity in hopes to manage consumer interest as well as improve municipal electricity use at the same time — the “smart grid” approach. As consumers and companies continue to use more energy, cities are testing ways to use less energy whenever they can — “flash charging” electric buses, or dimming street lights in early morning hours, for example.

But, all of these ideas have consequences for the power grid. An important question for Avista: When will Spokane residents be able to plug in their cars?

In the case that electric cars do take off, Avista needs to be able to adjust to consumer’s needs. If too many cars are charging at once, it could very well drain all of Spokane’s power. For example, if someday 500,000 cars are all charging one afternoon, they would gobble up about 10,000 megawatts, figures Bryan Cox, the utility’s director of transmission and distribution operations. That is five times Avista’s current feed.

But if those cars plugged in at a variety of times throughout the entire day, and outside of peak hours, they would use more like 240 megawatts at once, which is not even a quarter of the utility’s current load.

“We need to better understand charging behavior,” Cox said. “And how we can shape behavior to fit in with the grid.”

Article written by HEI contributor Lydia Ezeakor.

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