Idaho Power Looks at Boise's Readiness for Electric Vehicles

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This summer may be a watershed season for Idaho Power. With oil and gas prices slated to rise, and the introduction of several new electric car models hitting Boise’s market in June, the electricity provider is beginning to investigate the possible consequences of the mass introduction of electric vehicles on the power grid—and what can be done to ensure that new draws on Boise’s power supply won’t entail service interruptions.

The issue, says Kent McCarthy, Idaho Power’s point man on this project for a year and a half, is that EVs may become extremely desirable consumer appliances in coming years.

"The problem isn’t that someone in the North End is going to buy a Nissan Leaf,” McCarthy said. “If a clustering of people in the North End buy electric vehicles and they are all neighbors being fed off a single service transformer, that could be an issue.”

EV chargers work hard and fast, at 240 volts, and some Boise homes with older electrical systems can’t handle that kind of draw. The homes that can may pass the stress on to the transformers that regulate and supply electricity to homes, potentially damaging them.

Commercial electric appliances like clothes dryers, central air conditioners and big screen televisions have tested Boise’s electrical infrastructure before, which has given Idaho Power a sharp set of tools to evaluate potential threats to the electrical grid. McCarthy has recommended, and will implement in June, a number of programs and events that will gauge the effect of an influx of EVs in the Boise area.

First among these is the Time Of Day pilot program encouraging Boise users to reduce electricity consumption during the summer between the hours of 1-9 p.m. Members of that program sign up for a tiered system of charging, and the cost of electricity during off-peak hours will be $.1135 per kWh, and $.0626 per kWh.

“In the middle of the night, energy is cheaper,” McCarthy said. “It reduces load on the grid.”

McCarthy said that the use of electronic consumer products like EVs varies from region to region. Consequently, Idaho Power will encourage EV owners to install metering appliances to their charging stations so Idaho Power can monitor their use (and recharging cycles). In order to attract EV owners to the program, Idaho Power will distribute fliers to owners via car dealerships.

“We want a two-year profile of how the individual EV is being charged,” McCarthy said.

At the core of McCarthy’s plan is education. Besides distributing fliers and brochures, Idaho Power will participate in the electrical vehicle workshop at the Green Expo with the Treasure Valley Clean Cities Coalition and the Boise State Energy Policy Institute.

Topics that will be discussed at the Expo will include EV batteries, charging stations, and their effect on the electrical grid.

“We want to disseminate information about electric vehicles,” McCarthy said. “There are a lot of misconceptions about electric vehicles out there.”

Idaho isn’t unique in facing the challenges posed by EVs, and has been able to copy the effective strategies other states have used while avoiding the pitfalls of others. For McCarthy, having a stable of workable models of mass EV market saturation and a set of data about EV use are invaluable to Idaho Power’s successful negotiation of those challenges.

“We have the luxury of being a late-adopter state,” he said.

But are EVs a challenge—or a problem?

“We certainly don’t see EVs as a problem. I’d say we’re well-positioned for it,” he said.