July 19, 2010 | last updated May 29, 2012 8:51 pm

State's Utilities Eager To Power Electric Cars

As Connecticut's status as one of the leading electric car states revs up with each passing week, among the ultimate winners will be the state's electric companies.

Northeast Utilities and United Illuminating, who have worked hand-in-hand with the governor's office to make the state appealing to electric car makers, will benefit as fuel demand shifts away from gas stations and onto the power grid. The utilities will bank nearly $40 per month for every electric car charged in Connecticut.

"Most people are going to charge these cars at home," said Watson Collins, Northeast Utilities manager of business development. "It is really going to change the way customers interact with their cars."

The biggest win for the utilities and Gov. M. Jodi Rell came when GM announced the state will be among the first markets to receive its inaugural electric car, the Chevrolet Volt, in 2011.

Beyond that, the state continues to grow the number of electric vehicle charging stations. Rell this month has renewed her push to install a charging station in the Legislative Office Building parking garage.

As Connecticut's status as an electric car-friendly state grows, the importance of United Illuminating and Northeast Utilities grows with it.

"Your fuel provider is really your utility company," said Rob Peterson, communications manager for the Chevrolet Volt electric car.

The Volt operates on a 16-kilowatt-hour lithium-ion battery that takes about eight hours to charge from a 120-volt outlet. The battery gives the car a range of 40 miles before the gas-powered engine generator takes over.

Charging the car every day will use roughly 250 kilowatt hours per month. At 15 cents per kilowatt hour, an electric car driver will pay $37.50 every month to power their vehicle.

Since electricity is much cheaper than gasoline — drivers of gas-powered vehicles would pay $150 to drive the same distance each month — the owners of electric cars also save money in the process.

The July 1 rollout announcement by GM came after years of work by Rell and the power companies to prove the state had the infrastructure available to make Connecticut a viable market for the first electric cars.

A group of local power companies — including National Grid, Northeast Utilities and United Illuminating — launched the Regional Electric Vehicle Initiative to discuss the issues arising from the electric car, such as having uniform charging stations.

"As a utility, we want to show people that we will be ready for this new technology," said Megan Pomeroy, United Illuminating business development professional. Both utility companies are building electric car charging stations.

GM choose Connecticut as one of the first four electric car markets — Texas, New York and New Jersey are the other three — because the state had a distinguished interest in the Volt, said Peterson. Connecticut also will be an excellent proving ground to showcase the Volt's capabilities in cold weather.

"Connecticut is one of the more progressive states in the country in trying to bring in the electric vehicle," Peterson said.

Not that a sudden influx of Volts will overload the power supply. Even if 100,000 electric cars are introduced tomorrow — equal to 5 percent of the state's 2 million registered vehicles — the increase on the power grid will be 1 percent.

A 1-percent increase happens fairly frequently, Collins said, such as when people flick on their air conditioners upon returning home in the evening.

"We are not going to have to build a power plant to accommodate these cars anytime soon," Collins said.

Power companies' push for electric vehicles goes beyond dollars and cents, Collins said. Northeast Utilities ratepayers want new technology focusing more on renewable energy producing fewer carbon dioxide emissions, and the company wants to accommodate its customers.

"We're part of the energy industry, and the energy industry is a big part of CO2 emissions," he said. "We want to be part of the solution."

In the shift from gas-powered to electric, customers' fuel source will shift from oil to whatever generates the electricity on the power grid.

In Connecticut, 57 percent of electricity comes from cleaner energies — natural gas, nuclear power and hydro — while 40 percent comes from oil and coal. The state also is launching initiatives to rely more on renewable energy sources, such as solar, wind and fuel cells that run on hydrogen.

"Connecticut has always been the home for entrepreneurship and innovation," said Joan McDonald, commissioner of the Connecticut Department of Economics and Community Development, and co-chair of the governor's Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Council. "The electric car sends a message that you can mix that innovation with business."

The role of the governor's Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Council is to ensure the state had the infrastructure and contingencies in place to handle the issues that come with being one of the first electric car markets.

The Electric Drive Transportation Association — made up of automakers, charging station owners and utility companies including United Illuminating — is launching a Web site in September to educate consumers on electric vehicles.

The automakers are manufacturing a limited number of electric cars initially and studying how they sell before deciding how to make more, Collins said. If the Volt doesn't sell as expected in the Connecticut market, it could hurt the future production of the vehicle.

GM still hasn't identified the dealers in Connecticut that will carry the Volt in 2011, although dealer training already has begun on how to service the vehicle. The cost hasn't been announced either, although the Volt will be priced competitively with the electric Nissan Leaf, which is tagged at $33,000, Peterson said.

The important factor about Connecticut is there will be demand for the Volt, Peterson said, and the state is ready for its introduction. Northeast Utilities has three charging stations in place and will bring 25 more online in the next six months.

"We are a relatively small market, so that we will be one of the first to get electric vehicles really speaks to our infrastructure readiness," Collins said.


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