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UC San Diego Gets Plugged In
Electric cars, charging stations coming to campus

Ioana Patringenaru | Feb. 7, 2011

From left: GE Vice President Bob Gilligan, SDG&E CEO Jesse Knight Jr., UCSD Chancellor Marye Anne Fox, San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders and CleanTECH Chairman Jim Waring.
Photos/Erik Jepsen

Coming soon to UC San Diego: 50 electric cars, 50 charging stations and several research projects to figure out how to use them best. It’s all part of a new effort that brings together scientists, city officials and business people to make San Diego a model for a smart electric grid and the use of plug-in vehicles.

Chancellor Marye Anne Fox announced the new initiative, dubbed Smart City San Diego, last week at the Birch Aquarium, along with Mayor Jerry Sanders, as well as officials from San Diego Gas & Electric, General Electric and CleanTech San Diego, a nonprofit organization focused on green technologies. The partnership aims to bring electric vehicles to the roads of San Diego first and to U.S. roads next, Fox said. It highlights the importance of partnerships with private industry for the campus, she also said.

“Each of us will bring to the table our own strengths,” Fox said.

Chancellor Fox answers a TV crew's questions.

UCSD and San Diego were chosen for their unique combination of a top research institution, a smart utility company, government leadership, green companies and progressive consumers, said Bob Gilligan, vice president of GE Energy Services’ Digital Energy business.

Smart City will lead to economic growth, energy independence, lower greenhouse-gas emissions and an improved infrastructure, said San Diego Mayor Sanders.

“San Diego is leading the way yet again in the field of energy innovation,” he said.

Customers need to be able to use this new technology whenever they want and wherever they want, said Jesse Knight Jr., chairman and CEO of SDG&E. That’s this new initiative’s ultimate goal, he added. For example, the effort aims to support neighborhoods where everyone can plug in their electric vehicles at the same time, which can’t be done now.

“The whole nation will be watching what we’re doing here in San Diego,” Knight said.

UCSD will become a laboratory where technologies can be tested and consumers’ behavior can be analyzed, said Byron Washom, the campus’ director of Strategic Energy Initiatives.

Electric cars at UCSD

Mayor Jerry Sanders talks about what Smart City means for the region.

Within the next six months, members of the campus community will have the opportunity to lease electric cars from a private company. The vehicles will be released in batches of 10 to 15 every six months, until a total of 50 are in circulation. Watch campus media, such as This Week @ UCSD, Blink and the UCSD Guardian, for the first leasing opportunity announcement.

But before they can get their hands on a Nissan Leaf, or a Chevy Volt, to name just two, UCSD faculty, staff and students will have to answer some questions. Researchers will be looking for a broad range of drivers, Washom said.

“We don’t want the early adopters,” he said. “We want everything from soccer moms to retirees.”

That’s because social scientists plan to analyze consumers’ behavior and are looking for a good representative sample. Studies will lead to a better understanding of how consumers prefer to pay for electricity; how the locations of charging stations influence driving patterns; and how drivers’ behavior impacts the grid, Fox said. To ensure realistic driving patterns, costumers leasing the cars will not get a discount rate and will have to pay when they charge up.

Smart grid research

Frieder Seible, dean of the Jacobs School of Engineering, said UCSD scientists are uniquely qualified to do research on a smart grid.

Also, a first batch of 10 charging stations will be coming to campus soon. They all will be connected to the traditional electric grid. But UCSD plans to do better. Within the next two years, campus officials hope to install up to 50 stations fueled by renewable energy sources only, such as solar panels and UCSD’s fuel cell. This would allow for cars to truly reach zero greenhouse gas emissions, Chancellor Fox said.

UCSD is the ideal place to conduct experiments and research on batteries and electric grid problems, said Frieder Seible, dean of the Jacobs School of Engineering. The campus already comes equipped with its own micro-grid, powered by both traditional and alternative energy sources.

Right now, the grid is a one-way street, delivering power only, Seible said. It needs to become a two-way street and receive power from other sources, such as solar panels on rooftops and, yes, electric cars.

Jesse Knight Jr., SDG&E's CEO talks about several improvements he expects from the initiative.

Scientists and technicians also will work on ways to feed energy back to the grid from vehicles’ batteries. They will investigate what happens when you charge batteries with direct current, also known as DC power, by using DC sources, such as solar panels, as opposed to the traditional grid, which runs on alternative current, also known as AC.

“We have a great test bed here,” Seible said. “But we still don’t have all the answers.”

But what happens when the electric cars leave campus? City of San Diego officials will work with SDG&E to streamline permits for the vehicles and for the stations needed to charge them.

City officials and members of CleanTech will try to determine the initiative’s economic impact on the region, including what kind of new jobs it can generate and what kind of training workers need to get these jobs. They will also try to determine how many businesses could be created around this new energy grid.

“San Diego is about to launch,” said Knight, SDG&E’s CEO. “We’ve done it before in telecommunications; we’ve done it in biotech; and we’re about to do it again.”

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