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Electric car charging stations get powered up

24 July 2010 No Comment

By Helen Kaiao Chang

See original story on SDNN

Monday, April 27, 2009

Robert Noble imagines a day when across the nation, instead of car owners paying big companies for gasoline, the reverse happens: Car owners get paid for putting energy into charging stations.

It’s possible with a network of electric cars.

“We see it everywhere,” said Noble, the founder of Envision Solar, a La Jolla-based solar installation company.

Last week, his company kicked off this dream. Envision Solar International, which Noble started in 2006, announced the nation’s most advanced solar-powered electric-car charging station. The Capitol Hill event was done in collaboration with Bright Automotive, an Indiana-based company, which unveiled a breakthrough electric-hybrid van.

But in an interview given one day after returning to San Diego, Noble said he also wants to promote the concept here. He is talking to potential partners about installing such charging stations across the county.

“In San Diego, it’s completely feasible,” said Noble. “We absolutely would love to see the first project here in San Diego.”

At the charging stations just announced, electric car drivers can pay for electricity powered by the sun to charge their cars. But during peak hours, when energy is in high demand, they can also “draw down” their batteries and sell electricity back to the stations at a premium price, said Noble.

Envision is a solar installation company moving into the electric car market. Its solar-paneled parking lots have led the industry, with high-profile structures at Kyocera’s San Diego headquarters and the UC San Diego campus. It has other projects in Napa, Calif.; Albuquerque, N.M.; Golden, Colo.; and West Africa.

Bright Automotive was the first car designer to commission a hybrid-electric car charging station, to be promoted in conjunction with its electric utility vehicle. It chose Envision based on the company’s track record, according to press statements.

As the electric car industry grows, many companies are competing to have their technologies become industry standards, with a variety of battery types and capabilities being built. But Noble said that its new charging stations, officially called CleanCharge/Solar Tree Charging Stations, can be used with any type of electric cars.

“We are technology agnostic,” he said.

How the stations work

Envision’s charging station works by absorbing solar energy from the roofs of the structure. It turns the energy into electricity, which is downloaded through a pump, much like a traditional gas pump. The driver, who uses an electric car – 100 percent electric or a hybrid – pulls up and inserts a credit card into the machine.

The car owner is charged based on the amount of electricity used, and the time of day pumped. During peak hours, such as afternoons, the price would be higher. During non-peak hours, such as at night, the price would be lower, said Noble.

Get paid more during peak hours
Here’s the amazing part: car owners could actually get paid by utility companies to give back electricity through such charging stations. Instead of pumping electricity from the stations into their cars, owners with high battery levels could actually do the reverse and get paid for it.

“They would pay you a far higher premium for the energy, because it’s peak time,” said Noble.

Noble explains why. “When a peak load happens – summer, 2 p.m. — they have to generate the electricity or there will be a blackout. They can’t just cut back evenly on all appliances. If more air-conditioners are on than they can accommodate, they have to black out.”

As a back up, utilities use other generators, which are very expensive to build and maintain, said Noble.
But with an electricity “smart grid,” said Noble, the utility company can access additional energy through cars.

“If you have programmed your (electric) car to allow for a draw down of your battery, then the utility (company) can actually use that energy,” he said. “It will save the utility an enormous amount of money for not having to build another power plant, because they can draw down from the extensive fleet of electric vehicles that are in the parking lot.”

A “smart grid” allows solar electricity generated in one part of the network to be used in another part, he explained. It also is a renewable resource, because utility companies currently use fossil fuels to generate electricity. By using electricity created by the sun, the supply is infinite.

Challenges

The greatest obstacle to widespread use of such technology is education. The general public does not know about or understand how electric cars or smart grids work, Noble said.

Joseph Gottlieb, president of the Electric Vehicle Association of San Diego, notes that solar electric car charging stations is not a new concept and “totally feasible.” At least two other San Diego companies were working on similar projects, he said, but Envision’s seems to be the first to market, with a “smart grid” connection.
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About the company

Revenues 2007: $150,000

Revenues 2008: $3 million

Revenues 2009 projected: More than $5 million

Number of projects 2007: 2

Number of projects 2008: 9

Number of projects 2009 projected: 15

Number of employees: 8

Expertise in San Diego: engineers, designers

Manufacturing locations: California, Pennsylvania, and in future, Arizona and India.

Follow Helen on Twitter @HelenChang.

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