Developing the Transportation Grid of the Future

UCF’s Solar Energy Center Eyes Electric Vehicles

By Sherri Shields


As plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs) continue to roll out of factories and onto the streets, the nation is strategizing how to best integrate them into our power grid and highways.

Consider also the steady growth of the solar energy market and the grid interconnectivity of photovoltaic (solar electric) systems, and the necessity of a “smart” grid and a “smart” transportation system becomes apparent to ensure power and vehicle reliability and efficiency.

Recognizing this need, the U.S. Department of Transportation recently funded its first university transportation center with a focus on electric vehicles. UCF’s Florida Solar Energy Center (FSEC) is leading the four-year, $9 million Electric Vehicle Transportation Center (EVTC), a consortium combining UCF’s College of Engineering and Computer Science with transportation and energy experts from the University of Hawaii and Tuskegee University in Alabama, to help create the nation’s electric-vehicle transportation network.


Electric Vehicles Rebound

Electric vehicles (EVs) date to the late 1800s, but limited battery capacity and the less-expensive, mass-produced internal combustion engine were the EV’s demise. In recent years, however, electric vehicles have been making a comeback due to increasing gasoline prices and rapidly decreasing production costs. The nation’s desire to be less dependent on the import of foreign oil and for greater fuel economy, improved battery capacity, and fewer emissions are also contributors to their resurgence.

“Today, electric vehicles – using Florida utility power – operate at an equivalent gasoline price of 99 cents a gallon,” explained FSEC director James Fenton. “With fuel costs that low, it’s no surprise projections indicate that Florida will have as many as 500,000 electric vehicles on its roads within 10 years, placing an unprecedented demand on today’s utility grid.”

According to a recent analysis by Pike Research, sales of PEVs in 102 of the largest cities in the U.S. will total more than 1.8 million vehicles from 2012 through 2020 – a clear indicator that the U.S. transportation system must begin to meet the challenge of integrating electric vehicles on its highways.



Still plaguing the electric vehicle industry, however, are a lack of a comprehensive charging infrastructure and high initial costs.

The PEV market has suffered from the chicken-and-the-egg syndrome: which one comes first, vehicles or charging stations? Potential buyers of PEVs need to be free of “range anxiety” – a fear of driving long distances without being able to recharge in close proximity – yet construction of an “electric highway” is expensive and depends on substantial market demand to be cost-effective.

High up-front vehicle costs have also posed challenges for consumers. Production costs are rapidly declining, however, initial costs still exceed $5,000 more than a comparable internal combustion engine vehicle. And although PEVs have lower operational costs – maintenance and “fuel” costs are cheaper – consumers sometimes have difficulty evaluating the total cost
of ownership.

Just as it has been challenging to transition from incandescent to compact fluorescent light bulbs and to see the long-term value of installing photovoltaics on a home’s roof, once consumers start considering the total cost of owning a PEV – rather than just the up-front costs – the market is expected to surge.


An Electrified Transportation System

Widespread adoption of PEVs will require electrical power throughout the entire transportation network. The new paradigm will be one with both a “smart grid” and a “smart” transportation network. PEVs will be charged at a residence, workplace or shopping center. This will place additional demand on the electric grid, and yet it will also provide a unique energy storage solution for distributed power systems such as photovoltaics and wind energy.

Since a fully charged electric car battery can power a typical new home for one day, PEVs offer the potential to store excess solar or wind-generated energy for later use when the sun isn’t shining or the wind isn’t blowing. This “vehicle to grid” concept is being explored by researchers around the globe and is an example of just one of the projects to be undertaken by the EVTC.

The EVTC will set the stage for an electric vehicle future by building off FSEC’s expertise in solar electric project deployment of emergency shelters. This now includes demonstration programs at more than 100 Florida sites that currently use photovoltaic electricity and stationary battery storage equipped with data monitoring systems. These demonstration sites offer the opportunity to add EV charging stations that can be powered by the sun, offering yet another dimension to the research agenda.

FSEC’s expertise in building energy use, including extensive monitoring and energy optimization strategies, will provide a backdrop to addressing the EV grid challenges. Finally, FSEC’s role as the Clean Cities Coalition host for Central Florida, a U.S. Department of Energy program promoting the use of alternative fuel vehicles, will provide a strong base of education, outreach and industry collaboration for the EVTC.

Through a comprehensive mix of research, development, demonstration, technology transfer and education tasks, the EVTC will enable the transportation system to integrate the next generation of electric vehicles while accommodating the modernization of the country’s electric grid.


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