Electric vehicles are the future. Can ComEd power the revolution while keeping the lights on?

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Liz Mosbach charges a Tesla at an electric vehicle charging station, Jan. 22, 2020, on the roof of a parking garage at NewCity in Chicago.

Liz Mosbach charges a Tesla at an electric vehicle charging station, Jan. 22, 2020, on the roof of a parking garage at NewCity in Chicago. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)

Electric vehicles are generating most of the buzz in the automotive industry these days, with sleek designs, sizzling performance and environmental benefits threatening to put gas guzzlers in the rearview mirror for good.

While still a fraction of total auto sales, demand for electric vehicles is projected to ramp up sharply over the next decade, with nearly 19 million of them streaking silently on U.S. roads by 2030, up from about 1.5 million vehicles today, according to the Edison Electric Institute.

But to get from here to there will require a major boost from a nascent player in the automotive industry — electric utilities.

From installing charging stations to fortifying the grid, ComEd is gearing up to power transportation electrification in the Chicago area, where upwards of 3 million drivers may trade gas pumps for plugs over the next decade, according to the utility. Meeting the increased demand while keeping the lights on and rates down for all customers could prove challenging.

A car is hooked up to a charging station in a downtown Chicago parking lot on Jan. 22, 2020.

A car is hooked up to a charging station in a downtown Chicago parking lot on Jan. 22, 2020. (Jose M. Osorio / Chicago Tribune)

“We’re pretty excited about the transformation of the transportation sector to more electric vehicles,” said Joe Dominguez, 57, a longtime Exelon executive who was named CEO of ComEd in August 2018. “That’s a technology that we see coming very rapidly that’s going to change the nature of our business.”

ComEd is a unit of Chicago-based Exelon Corp. and the dominant electric utility in the state, providing service to more than 4 million customers in northern Illinois.

The rise of electric vehicles seems a foregone conclusion. On Wednesday, Tesla, which delivered 367,500 electric vehicles last year and has yet to turn an annual profit, surpassed $100 billion in valuation — more than GM and Ford combined.

Not surprisingly, automakers are all in on EVs, from Detroit’s Big Three to startup electric truck manufacturer Rivian, which is set to begin production later this year in downstate Normal.

It is a crucial balancing act for ComEd — enabling the growth of electrical vehicles while not knowing how widespread adoption will become. Legislators, regulators, automakers and consumers will have a hand in the process, but nothing happens without the electric utility paving the way.

A study last year by Boston Consulting Group said transportation electrification, from the family car to electric buses and delivery fleets, could create $3 billion to $10 billion of new value for the average utility over the next decade, mostly from needed infrastructure investments.

“This is a big deal for utilities,” said Tom Baker, an energy industry consultant and partner with Boston Consulting Group’s San Francisco office. “It’s a growth opportunity for the utility, and it’s also, for most areas of the country, a policy objective.”

But utilities will have to carefully plan for the projected increase in demand from electric vehicles, which could require up to a 33% increase in peak capacity. Baker said those infrastructure investments could put upward pressure on consumer electric rates, as utilities fortify the power grid to handle the increased load.

Electric vehicle charging stations, Jan. 22, 2020, in a parking garage at NewCity.

Electric vehicle charging stations, Jan. 22, 2020, in a parking garage at NewCity. (Brian Cassella / Chicago Tribune)

ComEd has been investing $300 million a year since 2012 into the Smart Grid infrastructure improvement program, which includes digital switches that automatically route power around potential problem areas. During a recent interview at ComEd’s Chicago headquarters, Dominguez said the investments have improved reliability by 70 percent, reduced the frequency and duration of outages, and avoided more than 13 million interruptions in service.

“We’re investing a lot in the system. We’ve had to because, let’s be honest, we weren’t in a great place in 2012. We were not one of the best-performing electric utilities," said Dominguez, who is now steering ComEd through a different kind of challenge — a federal investigation into the utility’s lobbying activities.

Rates have been relatively flat over the last decade, according to Dominguez. But keeping that trend going may be more challenging as millions of electric vehicles come online in the Chicago area over the next decade, creating unpredictable demand issues on a neighborhood by neighborhood basis.

About 80% of electric vehicle charging takes place at home, Baker said, which could contribute to a power distribution bottleneck on any given block.

Peak demand for most utilities is between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m., when people return home from work, turn on the lights, the TV and the stove, and perhaps jack up the heat or air conditioning as well. If millions of people also suddenly plugged in their electric cars, it could overload the grid.

Joe Dominguez, CEO of ComEd, at his office in Chicago on Jan. 9, 2020.

Joe Dominguez, CEO of ComEd, at his office in Chicago on Jan. 9, 2020. (Zbigniew Bzdak / Chicago Tribune)

One way to solve that problem is through “optimized charging,” which would steer electric vehicle charging to off-peak hours to reduce the stress on the power grid. That could be done with pricing incentives and smart technology that keep the vehicles plugged in, but don’t flip the power switch on until the middle of the night, when demand is low.

A study published last year by the Citizens Utility Board pegged the relative cost of charging up an electric vehicle as the equivalent of paying about $1.00 per gallon of gas. Taking advantage of hourly pricing can further reduce the cost.

ComEd offers hourly pricing incentives to charge your electric vehicle at 2 a.m. The Citizens Utility Board wants to make it law.

“If you do it right, it can lower overall electric bills for everyone,” said David Kolata, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board. “You’re getting more usage when you need it, and less usage when you don’t.”

The nonprofit Illinois watchdog group is part of a coalition of environmental and consumer advocates that last year proposed the Clean Energy Jobs Act, which would push for electric vehicle adoption and 100% renewable energy in Illinois, among other goals. The measure stalled in Springfield last year, but Kolata is hoping the bill will get traction in 2020.

One aspect of the proposed legislation would create a “beneficial electrification” program that would encourage people to charge their electric vehicles at off-peak times. Such a policy would prevent a spike in demand, making the power grid more reliable and reducing electricity bills for all ComEd customers, Kolata said.

Another concern is making sure ComEd has enough clean energy — nuclear and renewable power like solar and wind — so that the environmental benefits of EVs aren’t lost through “dirty” energy generation.

“We have to ensure that the sources that are making the electricity aren’t producing air pollution either,” Dominguez said. “If we’re just using coal plants to make electricity to power electric vehicles, we’re obviously not going to get the same environmental benefit that we would if we had clean energy sources.”

Clean energy provides 92% of the electricity delivered by ComEd, but most of it comes from the state’s five nuclear plants, which are owned by the utility’s parent company, Exelon. Those plants will be phased out of production over the next two decades, leaving renewable energy as the only clean energy source down the road.

The Future Energy Jobs Act, which took effect in 2017, requires Illinois utilities to get 25% of their retail power from renewable sources like solar and wind by 2025. ComEd now gets about 7% of its electricity from renewable sources, and likely won’t hit that goal in five years, Dominguez said.

A Tesla electric vehicle charging station, Jan. 22, 2020, in Skokie.

A Tesla electric vehicle charging station, Jan. 22, 2020, in Skokie. (Erin Hooley / Chicago Tribune)

But the biggest infrastructure hurdle to widespread electric vehicle adoption is a shortage of public charging stations. With a typical range of about 200 miles, the calculation comes down to whether you can load up the family electric vehicle and drive to Ohio without running out of juice.

The 18.7 million electric vehicles projected to be on the road by 2030 would require 9.6 million charging ports — and a significant investment in charging infrastructure, according to a report by Edison Electric Institute and the Institute for Electric Innovation.

Currently there are 24,409 public charging stations in the U.S., including 563 in Illinois, according to the U.S. Department of Energy’s alternative fuels website.

“When you talk about owning an EV, the phrase ‘range anxiety’ keeps coming up,” said Mike Moran, spokesman for Electrify America, a Virginia-based company rolling out what it claims is the nation’s largest public fast-charging network. “We want to instill range confidence.”

Electrify America, which is owned by Volkswagen, is investing $2 billion in the charging network as part of the automaker’s massive 2016 settlement with federal and state regulators over its diesel emission testing scandal.

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The company expects to have 800 charging stations with about 3,500 chargers in 45 states by the end of next year. Currently, there are 390 stations up and running across the U.S., including seven in the Chicago area.

Locations include Target stores in Glenview, Woodridge, Hodgkins and Chicago, as well as shopping centers in Lincolnwood and Schaumburg. The company expects to add 12 more Chicago-area charging stations by December 2021, Moran said.

The chargers can accommodate any electric vehicle, and can be operated by an app. Most charging sessions take 20 to 40 minutes, allowing the driver to lock the vehicle and visit the nearby retailers while they wait, with updates on charging progress delivered on the app.

Moran declined to say how much it costs to build a charging station, but said it was a process that ultimately requires working with the utility provider to power up the location. ComEd, he said, is getting with the program.

“ComEd is becoming more familiar with our applications and it’s becoming more streamlined as we make more requests of them to energize our charging locations,” Moran said.


Robert Channick is a business reporter for the Tribune. A former broadcast consultant and radio station manager, he began freelancing for the Chicago Tribune in 2002, joining the Tribune staff as a business reporter in 2011. He has a bachelor’s degree in English from Kenyon College and a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University.

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January 24, 2020 at 05:14PM

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