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Posted on July 14, 2011

PG&E Paving the Way for Expected Growth of Electric Vehicles

By Tracy Correa

Merit Herman and John Cusaac have never met but they share a common obsession: their new cars. And they aren’t gushing over muscle cars or luxury cars — they’re hyped about their plug-in electric vehicles.

For Herman it’s the sporty Chevrolet Volt. For Cusaac it’s the Nissan LEAF (which stands for Leading, Environmentally-friendly, Affordable, Family car).

Chevy Volt Owner

Merit Herman said he's surprised by how much he enjoys owning his Chevy Volt.

“I’m happily surprised. I was expecting it to be just a commuter car,” said Herman, who lives just outside of Fresno and works in Santa Cruz during the week. He drives his Volt everywhere and even got his first-ever personalized car license plate: Volt GM.

“I love the car,” said Cusaac, a Madera resident and college information technology instructor. His LEAF “feels like a regular car,” he said.

Customer outreach to EV owners

PG&E has prepared for the expected increase in the popularity of these vehicles by reaching out to customers with information on the best rate plans for home charging and by making sure that its electrical system can accommodate the increased energy demands.

“The good news is that we have been supporting electric vehicles since the 1990s,” said Dan Bowermaster, PG&E’s manager of electric & natural gas vehicles, on-bill financing, and emerging technologies. “But in 2010, we took a hard look and revamped all of our internal processes… Anything that would touch a customer – from calling a call center to asking about rates.”

Much of this year’s focus has been on external outreach and letting customers know that PG&E is available to help them with any questions they may have, said Bowermaster.

Right now, Bowermaster estimates there are 1,300 plug-in electric vehicles in PG&E’s service area — which stretches from the Oregon border to Bakersfield — and another 1,000 of these cars are on order but not yet delivered. He said projections show that between 219,000 and 845,000 of these vehicles might be in use in Northern and Central California by 2020. PG&E is working with cities and counties on adding electric cars to their fleets, installing public charging stations and applying for grants.

Popularity expected to surge

If the current order backlog for electric vehicles is any indication, those forecasts could come true. Officials at Lithia Nissan in Fresno and Hedrick’s Chevrolet in Clovis say there is up to a four-month wait to get the LEAF or the Volt. Other automakers have plans to start selling electric vehicles soon.

Chevy Volt Owner and Charger

Herman has had a charger installed in his garage.

The Volt and the LEAF hit the market late last year and are generally priced between $35,000 and $45,000 – but the price is tempered by state and federal tax incentives or rebates. Sales have continued to climb – and escalating gas prices will likely boost their popularity even more.

And performance is now catching up with these environmentally-friendly cars: the Chevy Volt was named this year’s Motor Trend car of the year with judges calling it “a game changer.”

Auto enthusiasts have compared the aerodynamics on the car’s front end to that of a Corvette’s – key to the car’s performance and efficiency.

Herman, an executive with a Santa Cruz-based food nutritionals company, agrees with the accolades. He says the car’s performance has exceeded his expectations.

Buying an electric car probably isn’t a stretch for the 45-year-old married father of twins. After all, the roof of his two-story home is covered with solar panels. But the self-professed “solar geek” says he’s not a tree-hugging environmentalist, he’s just a practical spender who was also committed to buying an American car.

A one-time owner of a hybrid Ford Escape, he said his reason for switching to the Volt was simple: “I was upset at the high gas prices.”

Ditto for Cusaac, a former Toyota Corolla owner, who says he was just getting ready to buy a Prius when he opted for the LEAF. “I had in mind it would be like a golf cart. But it’s very comfortable. It’s like a computer on four wheels,” said Cusaac, who like Herman is a home solar customer. Every amenity you expect in a traditional car is in the LEAF, he said.

Charging options

The Volt can operate all-electric, but can also use its gasoline-powered generator when traveling at higher speeds over longer distances. Meanwhile, the LEAF is all-electric. Both can charge on a traditional house plug, but higher voltage outlets are often recommended for those who want a quicker, longer-lasting charge.

For most customers, a Level 1 or 120-volt circuit – like those found in most homes — is sufficient. However, a Level 2 or 240-volt circuit, can cut charging time nearly in half (from 12-15 hours, down to about 8 ) but requires wiring upgrades. Depending on what a customer chooses, it may be necessary for PG&E to upgrade the infrastructure that delivers electricity to a property. Both Herman and Cusaac invested in the Level 2 charging systems.

Special rate plans are offered and encouraged by PG&E. The E-9 Time-of-Use rate is designed to help lower costs by encouraging charging during off-peak hours when energy is less expensive.

Electric vehicle owners are also expected to benefit from their SmartMeters™ and the coming smart grid as they’ll be able to track energy usage, plan charging times and even perhaps return power to the grid at some point in the future. PG&E is also taking part in an electric vehicle pilot project that will test solutions for the high demand of electricity without increasing peak power loads.

For PG&E, part of the preparation for more electric vehicle owners is checking to see what impact these plug in cars will have on the system, said Bowermaster. The load of one of the cars charging is about the equivalent of three homes in San Francisco. “It’s taking that much out of the system,” he said. This is one of the reasons PG&E is encouraging off-peak charging.

PG&E is expecting to be ready for this, but might have to upgrade transformers in neighborhoods where multiple electric vehicles are being charged. This is why PG&E is working closely with dealerships that sell the electric cars. With customer consent, dealers will provide PG&E with home addresses and contact information when an electric vehicle is purchased.

Experts suggest this new breed of environmentally-friendly cars with low to no tailpipe emissions are the wave of the future. In addition to cutting down or eliminating gasoline use, they are cheaper to maintain since they have fewer moving parts that can break compared to a traditional, complex-engine car.

Bowermaster insists that PG&E is ready – and the company is ready to work with its customers to ensure they are too, adding: “The more educated a customer is, the better.”

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