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USA: PUC hears experts on alternative fuels and energy infrastructure

Mass acceptance of electric cars and natural-gas-powered trucks is still a few years away, but the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission on Thursday pondered the potential for alternative-fuel vehicles to overwhelm critical infrastructure like the electric grid and gas utilities.

“Should we be worried?” commission chairman Robert F. Powelson wondered at the end of a six-hour PUC forum at Drexel University. “Who pays for it? That’s a question as you make upgrades to the distribution system.”

A parade of panelists, including vehicle manufacturers and entrepreneurs building networks of stations to sell alternative fuels, urged the commission to design a fair system that allows competitive suppliers and consumer preferences to dictate the choices.

Most experts said existing distribution systems could accommodate the growing number of alternative-fuel vehicles that need to refuel or recharge. But if the market for electric cars and natural-gas trucks grows quickly and is not managed smartly, disruptions could occur.

Terry Boston, chief executive of PJM Interconnection Inc., the regional grid operator, said that if a million electric vehicles had attempted to tap into the mid-Atlantic system on a hot day similar to last July 21, when the grid labored under record loads, a massive blackout would have occurred.

“If all of those came home at 5 p.m. and plugged in, we would have a voltage collapse, and I would be seeking other business opportunities very quickly,” Boston said.

But the distribution system could accommodate 25 million vehicles if smart-grid controls were installed — they’re currently in the works — and all vehicles were remotely synchronized to recharge between midnight and 7 a.m., when there is an abundance of generation capacity.

Time-of-use rates, which allow suppliers to price electricity hourly to encourage customers to shift loads to discounted off-peak hours, would help manage a more efficient use of the electrical system, the experts said. Pennsylvania utilities are currently mandated to devise hourly-rate options for customers who want them.

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