Imagine circling your glistening new Tesla Roadster around a downtown parking lot looking for a charging station, but to no avail—the spaces are all full, and then click, your car is dead.
If Palo Alto doesn't start planning soon for the expected surge in electric vehicle sales in the coming decade, this may be a likely scenario.
The number of electric vehicles in Palo Alto is expected to more than double in the decade ahead, so the Utilities Advisory Commission Wednesday night started setting the wheels in motion to ensure that the City's electricity infrastructure and supply will be ready.
By 2020, there will be 1.5 million EVs on the road in California, sucking up about 1.3 percent of the state’s total electrical supply, or 4.3 Terawatts, according to the California Energy Commission.
In Palo Alto alone, the CEC anticipates there will be between 2,000 and 5,000 EV residential drivers, and just as many on the commercial side. By this summer there will already be nearly 100 EV drivers in town.
There have been twelve permits issued for charging stations so far, but in order to deal with the increased demand, many more stations will have to be approved throughout the city.
One of the many questions city leaders will have to answer, then: who will pay for these stations?
Early sentiment expressed by members of the UAC suggest a reluctance to ask residents to shoulder those costs, because private enterprise may be more than willing to do so.
“Do we want to own and operate electric charging stations? I think the answer is unequivocally no,” said UAC Vice Chair John Melton. “One true thing about our economic system is that government does not compete with private enterprise. I think this is the perfect example of that.”
Indeed, with , , , Volkswagen, Stanford and SAP Labs focusing on EV technology in Palo Alto, there may be many eligible contenders to build and operate a network of charging stations here.
Geoff Ryder, the lead EV researcher at SAP Labs, said he went to his management and asked where they wanted to test their technologies, and they told him to look no further than their own back yard.
“We have 16 charging stations and a fleet of 25 electric cars this year on campus,” said Ryder. “I’d encourage the commission to make it as easy as possible for EV cars [in Palo Alto].”
Ryder said that SAP Labs presently has three big deployments of EV cars around the world. Here in Palo Alto, they are using the Nissan Leaf. Their technology, he says, will help allow a seamless experience for an EV owner, starting at the moment a car is purchased.
“As soon as they buy the car,” he said, “the city is alerted, hey, this is coming. And so we know that this sub-circuit of our utility distribution system is going to be affected, and they figure out if there’s any more support they need.”
The permitting department would also be notified, Ryder said, so that they could turn around approval for a home charging unit in as short a time as possible.
“This is my vision,” said Ryder. “I would like to see the City of Palo Alto, and the utility as part of that, be as petal-to-the-metal as possible because this is a global showcase for electric vehicles.”
UAC Member Steve Eglash, who is also Executive Director of Stanford’s Energy and Environment Affiliates Program, echoed that sentiment in suggesting that whatever plan is adopted, it is done so in a way that can grow quickly.
“We’re going to have a whole lot of cars charging before long,” said Eglash. “Let’s think of this in a scalable way in which we’re planning for 20 years from now, when perhaps 20 percent of all the cars are going to be electric in Palo Alto.”
In addition to the Tesla Roadster, Nissan Leaf, and Chevy Volt, numerous other EV models are slated to come online this year, including the Ford Focus and Toyota Prius. Tesla’s sedan is scheduled for production late next year.
Early adopters of EV charging stations in Palo Alto include and , in addition to SAP and ten residential customers. Five more charging stations are coming online this summer thanks to $25,000 in Department of Energy grants plus about $10,000 more from the Utility. Those will be installed at , Bryant and Alma Street Garages.
The Utility will have to figure out how best to charge for these stations, given the increased load. UAC members seemed favorable toward a model in which the city leases property to private companies that own and operate charging stations and recoup costs via a time-of-use rate.
Now it is up to the UAC to reach out to the many other city departments that would be involved in a citywide EV support system and develop a policy framework for review by the Commission and City Council this fall.
Before long, there may be electric vehicle charging stations sprinkled throughout the city, and being green won't have to mean towing your dead Roadster back home when the battery dies.