Electric Vehicles in the South: What's on the Horizon?

December 6, 2016 | 11:52 am
Solar and EVs synergies are seen in this charging station. Source: Envision Solar.
Peter O'Connor
Former contributor

posterIn coordination with the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) and Commissioner Tim Echols of the Georgia Public Service Commission (GA PSC), UCS convened an electric vehicle (EV) conference on November 9th to the 11th at Château Élan in Braselton, GA.

The agenda was developed in close coordination with these partners and with Southern Company. Key topics included investments in public charging infrastructure, the advancing capabilities of electric buses, and the issues to be considered in workplace charging. Participants discussed innovative technological solutions, policy suggestions, and strategies for communicating with potential EV buyers.

You can view all of the presentations here; my main takeaways are below.

The benefits of electric vehicles

A major benefit of electric vehicles is their reduced contribution to global climate change compared with internal-combustion vehicles (see UCS research on this topic). Dr. Marshall Shepherd of the University of Georgia provided an overview of climate science.

When charged with clean power, EVs can offer even greater benefits. Jeff Pratt of Oglethorpe Power discussed efforts underway in Georgia’s electric membership cooperatives (EMCs) to harness clean power for EVs, such as a system with photovoltaics, stationary storage, and EV charging.

Dr. Marilyn Brown of Georgia Tech, in her keynote address, touched on the intersection of these clean technologies. The Smart Grid Consumer Collaborative noted that, at the consumer level, there is a high degree of co-adoption of electric vehicles and solar power systems.

Electric vehicles can also significantly reduce emissions of other harmful pollutants that contribute to local air pollution and health problems. Reducing these pollutants is a major driver behind the adoption of electric buses. Proterra, BYD, and New Flyer discussed the advances in their technology and some of the applications.

Electric transit buses avoid diesel emissions in densely populated areas, and achieve even better efficiency gains over their petroleum counterparts than light-duty electric vehicles do, due to the stop-and-go nature of transit routes. Jason Hanlin of the Center for Transportation and the Environment discussed “smart deployments,” illustrating the factors that should inform selection of a vehicle and charging strategy for any given route. Don Walter of the University of Georgia spoke about that school’s procurement of an electric bus fleet. From a fleet operator’s point of view, the operations and maintenance savings of an electric bus are extremely valuable, as are the fuel savings. These can provide enough savings to warrant the higher capital cost.

Economic benefits of EVs, highlighted by Commissioner Tim Echols, include the fact that expenditures on electricity largely remain local and stimulate regional economic activity, while expenditures on gasoline do not have this effect.

Finally, electric vehicles may have operational benefits for the electricity grid. By providing a flexible load, they can enable more optimal use of assets by the utility, creating a smoother load profile. Influencing charging patterns in this way will require some sort of incentive or rate design, but there are numerous examples to look to.

Regional projects and initiatives

The South is home to a number of exciting research, development, and deployment projects. One such project that drew considerable attention from participants is The Ray, an initiative aimed at improving the sustainability of the transportation system.

Wireless EV charging research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Source: Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

Wireless EV charging research at Oak Ridge National Laboratory. Source: Oak Ridge National Laboratory.

In facilities along I-85, The Ray is demonstrating not only EV charging and photovoltaic power systems, but other cutting-edge technologies. These include wireless EV charging (also discussed by Oak Ridge National Laboratory scientists) and solar road tiles powering an intelligent tire safety check system.

The Tennessee Valley Authority is exploring a number of interesting ideas, such as solar-assisted EV charging stations and an EV car-sharing program in Chattanooga. Chattanooga has had a fleet of electric shuttle buses running a downtown route since 1992.

Duke Energy, with operations in several states in the region, conducts extensive research on emerging energy topics including solar power and storage. Stationary energy storage integrated with EV chargers may be able to provide multiple value streams, including reducing the infrastructure needs for supporting high-powered chargers.

Other promising local developments included Atlanta’s many efforts, such as installation of EV chargers at the airport (accelerated by the engagement of Mayor Kasim Reed and Commissioner Echols), and Jacksonville’s recent strides into EV leadership.

These innovative projects often bring together solar, storage, and other “distributed energy resources” (DERs). General Electric provided an overview of how these technologies can work together.

Charging infrastructure

The conference featured several panels on electric vehicle charging infrastructure. Experts considered questions such as the number, type, and location of public chargers, the role of utility investment, and the potential of workplace charging. John Halliwell of EPRI provided an overview of the current state of charging technology.

This "charging pyramid" suggests relative numbers of the various types of charging stations. Source: Argonne National Laboratory.

This “charging pyramid” suggests relative numbers of the various types of charging stations. Source: Argonne National Laboratory.

While certain stations may be used often enough to recoup their cost from the sale of power, many others do not have such high utilization. These still serve a vital purpose by creating range confidence, assuring EV owners that they can charge at these stations if needed.

Public charging stations can also raise awareness among non-EV owners. Although an EV owner may have an app such as PlugShare showing just how widely available charging stations are, few non-EV owners are aware of this fact. The Federal Highway Administration’s new designation of “signage-ready” alternative fuel corridors promises to help alleviate this issue, broadening awareness of the existing EV charging network.

Utilities have a role to play in EV infrastructure. The specific role is a topic of considerable discussion around the country, especially in California. Independent charging providers and ratepayer advocates have concerns about utilities installing charging systems and recouping the costs through billing all customers, including those who do not own EVs. However, some locations are not currently economical for a third party to serve, such as many low- and moderate-income neighborhoods. Utility investment might then serve a valid purpose.

Other solutions exist; for example, JEA has installed EV chargers with other sources of revenue (such as air quality funds), not billing its customers for these costs, and they work in cooperation with third-party charging providers. Greenlots, ChargePoint, and EVgo all talked about the opportunities they saw to work with utilities as partners. The utility’s knowledge of the distribution system is essential when siting new chargers, in order to avoid excessive costs of system upgrades. And, if there is value in providing grid services (such as demand response or frequency regulation, as several speakers discussed), these services would be sold to the utility in most of the South.

The "duck curve" caused by an abundance of solar power on the grid. Source: CAISO.

The “duck curve” caused by an abundance of solar power on the grid. Source: CAISO.

Workplace charging is an excellent option that can provide many benefits. It can raise awareness of EVs, establish range confidence, and mitigate “duck curve” situations with abundant solar power on the grid. This duck curve is not yet significant in the South, but given the cost reductions in solar power it may be wise to anticipate it. KC Boyce provided statistics on workplace charging showing which types of firms were most interested in offering it.

A major issue with workplace charging is managing the vehicles in a condition of saturated charger capacity; ChargePoint noted that its workplace chargers are very busy. A positive aspect of workplace charging is that it often leads to remarkable increases in EV ownership in a fairly short period, as shown by FPL. However, this means that the number of vehicles may soon exceed the number of chargers. The chargers may remain occupied for the entire day, even though the vehicle may be charged after only an hour or two. Consequently, many workplaces have developed customs or strategies for EV owners rotating their vehicles. Another idea suggested is the multiplexed charger, a single charger with four cords that rotates the charge without requiring physical movement of the vehicles or even any unplugging. One barrier to EV owners cooperating (such as by unplugging one vehicle when it is done to plug in another) is the lack of a common “full charge” indicator among the different models.

Electric trucks in the UPS delivery fleet. Source: UPS.

Electric trucks in the UPS delivery fleet. Source: UPS.

Commercial facilities may have EV charging not just for employees, but for their fleet vehicles. Mike Britt of UPS discussed how his company is using EVs around the world. As other presenters noted, fleets appear to be well suited to providing grid services.

Southern Company was interested in the speed with which higher-powered fast charging would become the standard. With batteries of 60 kilowatt-hours (kWh) or more becoming widespread in the Chevy Bolt and the Tesla Model 3, the typical 50 kW DC fast charger would not be seen as “fast,” taking over an hour to fully charge a battery. There is discussion about 150 kW being the new standard, but EVs with smaller batteries would not be able to handle that sort of power input. It was seen as more likely that some 150 kW DC fast chargers might play a role in intercity travel (like the 120-135 kW Superchargers), but the 50 kW stations will continue to exist.

An important issue to resolve is providing “home” charging for residents of multi-unit dwellings. Where such facilities have parking lots or garages, it is much more cost-effective to lay the infrastructure for EV charging when constructing or renovating those structures, rather than trenching into concrete for the sole purpose of laying conduit.


EV chargers are an emerging technology; work in recent years has rapidly reduced costs. Improving reliability is important; in this area, networked chargers have higher capital cost, but allow better monitoring of charger status.

Charging standards and protocols are continuing to develop, especially for “smart charging,” higher-powered DC charging, and induction (wireless) charging. This work often involves industry-wide collaboration.

Demand charges, where a facility pays part of its power bill based on its highest peak usage, are one way of designing rates to reflect the strain placed on the grid by electricity consumption. This method does raise the costs of operating high-powered DC fast chargers, so some alternatives were suggested. Building a stationary battery into the charger is a technical solution that lowers demand charges; this has been done by Tesla, Greenlots, ChargePoint, and others. Redesigning rates to account for the timing of the peak use is a regulatory approach that might also be effective.

There was considerable discussion about how consumers would prefer to charge. Is the right model that of the gas station, where an EV owner charges once a week or so for their total range?  Or is it closer to the smartphone model, where the owner (well, at least this smartphone owner) plugs it in every night and takes other opportunities to top off as available?  These two models were described as “gorging vs grazing.” Wireless charging has certain advantages but is a “grazing” solution only.

Consumer adoption

As noted by Advanced Energy, consumers view utilities as a trusted provider of information on EVs, and so that is a key role for power companies. Conversely, the utilities would also like information from EV owners. While the current chargers are not an overwhelming load on the grid, they can cause local grid impacts. Utilities would like to know when and where EV chargers are installed; there was interest in the example of the Salt River Project (in Arizona), which gave EV owners a $50 Amazon gift card for notifying the utility of this information.

A brochure from the utility might get a consumer thinking about EVs, but some other channels can help seal the deal. Workplace charging greatly increases EV adoption, not only because the prospective buyer now knows they can charge at work, but because they can discuss the technology with colleagues who already have EVs. Ride and drive events let people experience the performance and comfort for themselves. And, car-sharing programs such as in Chattanooga should increase familiarity with the vehicles even more—we look forward to seeing the effects of this program on the local EV market.

Automaker dealerships can be a source of information. Dealerships are not always knowledgeable about EVs, especially if there is only one model that does not have high volume sales; there is limited incentive for the retailer to become an expert on EVs in that case (although exceptional “EV champion” dealerships exist). Having more models of EVs tends to improve dealership familiarity and perceived legitimacy of the technology by consumers. The lower maintenance requirements of an EV do mean that a traditional service of dealerships is less valuable. Some efforts to increase EV deployment do feature incentives for dealerships, to encourage these key partners.

A major barrier to consumer adoption of EVs in Georgia was the loss of the tax credit combined with the introduction of an EV tax. Don Francis of Clean Cities Georgia showed that this tax appears to significantly exceed the foregone gas tax revenue from EVs. When discussing incentives for EVs, it is important to ensure that EV owners are not being unfairly subsidized by non-EV owners. However, the air quality benefits are real and do have economic value; this provides a foundation for utility investment in EV infrastructure (and/or EV rebates) in Kansas City, Jacksonville, and other cities.

Tesla sees EV adoption on a trajectory similar to cell phones. When Tesla started in 2004, the company made a list of barriers to EV adoption (such as range, appeal, performance, and charging infrastructure) and has worked systematically to address each barrier.


Participants shared their thoughts on the event and what they saw as the key needs going forward. One priority was finding ways to accommodate higher powered chargers without incurring exorbitant demand charges or unduly straining the grid. Integration of storage into chargers might be a good fit here, especially if the utility can operate the battery to provide other revenue streams and defer other costs.

Coordination between cities and utilities was seen as important, to reduce costs of infrastructure improvements. Funds from the Volkwagen settlement may provide an opportunity for cities and utilities to engage in long-term planning that would include EV infrastructure. The Atlanta airport installation of EV chargers grew out of collaboration between the city, the utility, and the PSC. This required the intervention of top-level policymakers to move the project forward. While it is great to have such champions, they do have constraints on their time and cannot directly shepherd every project to completion.

Other discussions featured the value of flexible loads, including not only EVs but also pool pumps, water heaters, and air conditioners. Utility representatives reiterated the importance of knowing where on the grid the EV chargers were being installed, including the specific feeder. Engagement with EV owners, as seen in the Salt River Project, could be helpful here.

Finally, there was an overall commitment to maintain the connections and the information exchange from this conference, and to continue to support EVs moving forwards. Bringing together diverse perspectives, replicating successes, dispelling myths, and highlighting innovative developments will drive change in the future.