San Diego's EV "End Game" Includes 70 Cars and Clean Energy

By · June 17, 2011

San Diego Blink Station

SAN DIEGO -- I am sitting around a round table with the brain trust of CleanTECH San Diego—representatives of the University of California, General Electric, the mayor’s office, local utility SDG&E—and, surprisingly, Danny Sullivan, the 1985 Indianapolis 500 winner. The subject is electric cars, and Sullivan—who’s there to talk at that evening’s EV showcase—is a convert from 200-mph racers to green. One caveat, though: He thinks battery cars won’t do well in racing because, well, they don’t make enough noise—and racing’s all about a deafening roar.

San Diego is embracing EVs like no other city, even in electrified California. Some 10 percent of the Nissan LEAF reservations are in San Diego, and the university is leading the charge with a rollout of as many as 70 campus-based EVs (some sourced from GE’s big buy of 25,000 cars), plus renewably sourced electricity to charge them at ECOtality Blink and GE WattStations.

Byron Washom, who directs the school’s Zero Emission Vehicle Project, points to the school’s evolving microgrid, which will include an Energy Star award-winning combined heat and cooling natural gas plant, 1.2 megawatts of solar photovoltaic (plus Envision Solar EV charging stations at a campus parking garage,) 2.8 megawatts of fuel cell power running on surplus methane gas from a wastewater treatment plant, and big wind energy plans with GE. The university will generate 90 percent of its own power by the end of 2011, so it’s not vulnerable to charges that its EVs are just moving pollution from the tailpipe to the dirty grid.

This, says Washom, is the EV “end game”—optimizing the electric car by also optimizing the grid that charges it. “We around this table share a common idea,” Washom said. “It’s a remarkably unified and novel vision, and we’re moving forward really quickly.” CleanTECH appears to have brought together a coalition of the willing in San Diego, where Washom says 40 percent of the EV owners also own some form of home-based photovoltaics.

Sullivan and Washom height="442" />

Indianapolis 500 winner Danny Sullivan (left,) stands with Byron Washom, director of the University of California's Zero Emission Vehicle Project.

On June 16, ECOtality announced that it had installed 10 new public chargers in the city’s Balboa Park, and it has plans to install a total of 1,000 both public and home-based 240-volt chargers (plus 30 480-volt DC fast chargers) by the end of the year. SDG&E’s Josh Gerber estimates there are 400 charging stations installed in the city now, so there are presumably that many EVs, too. San Diego is one of the few cities where Chevy Volts and Nissan LEAFs are regularly spotted on the road. The utility is preparing the grid with an EV deployment map that shows where the likely clusters are. All those solar panels will help absorb the load.

According to Debbie Tatum, GE also donated 10 EV chargers to the university. The company recently unveiled a solar-powered charging system in Connecticut, and Tatum said, “We’d like to see the WattStation widely coupled with solar—we hope to deploy in San Diego very soon.”

I’ve been to the Gilman parking lot on campus, which has had Envision’s “solar trees” installed since 2008; the next step is adding EV charging. Professor Steve Mayfield, a biofuel advocate who runs the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology, told me he hopes to be one of the EV drivers. It makes sense—he can’t drive a car fueled by algae yet.

It’s very easy to get inspired by what’s going on in San Diego. There are caveats and asterisks in many parts of the EV revolution, but they appear to have erased them here in Southern California.

New to EVs? Start here

  1. Seven Things To Know About Buying a Plug-In Car
    A few simple tips before you visit the dealership.
  2. Incentives for Plug-in Hybrids and Electric Cars
    Take advantage of credits and rebates to reduce EV costs.
  3. Buying Your First Home EV Charger
    You'll want a home charger. Here's how to buy the right one.