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Tuesday
Jun202017

Roadblocks to an EV Centric World 

Image: Pexels.

Today, designers, developers and city planners who struggle to predict and prepare for an autonomous vehicle future – especially with an EV centric component – are overlooking the most obvious constricting factor: the accessibility of power itself. This fragile and archaic infrastructure’s life has been extended through building code modifications and public sector incentives to strike a more environmental way of living, but the result is simply treating the symptoms without curing the illness.

The intellectual allure of reforming cities and converting or repurposing spaces occupied and congested by cars is set for a head-on collision with the harsh reality that national dependency on an archaic distribution grid will undermine real progress in transforming the conventional methods of transportation we have now to widespread EV adoption.

Image Courtesy: Pexels.

The Grid

Everyone has a basic understanding of the power grid: contributions from wind, nuclear, solar, hydroelectric and coal/natural gas are funneled down and redistributed to consumers through a network of power lines and transformers until they terminate at the point where electricity will be used. But how much consumption, at what rate, how many connections contribute to and how much overall load is on in this system?

Regardless of environmental debates over these sources, their independent residual impacts on greenhouse gasses and pollution rates and on the landscape are inevitable as we march towards alternate sources to the combustion engine. Despite upstream pressure on energy generation and long term disposal concerns with the traditional EV battery system at the heart of this movement, the fact remains that we must bring power to the built environment that support them—that’s where the wheels come off.

Image Courtesy: Pexels.

Capacity

We know that the environmental impact of new construction is a heavy contributor in the overall equation of sustainability. In many major cities, the need to adapt and redevelop existing buildings rather than build new can present significant problems that underscore the fragility of this system.

Gensler recently designed an adaptive reuse of a Los Angeles industrial property into a modern automotive service facility for a brand which is progressively moving towards EV products. Outside of aging building systems, the power capacity and demands of the program point to one critical issues that cities will face: There simply was not enough capacity, and the timeframe and capacity for upgrade the service threatened to end the project before it could even begin.

Based on EV requirements in many green building codes and in this case, title 24, when combined with predictions of EV vehicle growth by the manufacturer, general operational loads and charging, our client needed between 1600 and 2400 KVA to support the business. The central issue became an existing 40-year-old building with only 800 KVA service. The timeframe or even possibility of upgrading service in a major city already bending under the pressure of demand and backlog was central to the viability of the project. In a pre-EV reality, even 10 years ago, 800 KVA would have been sufficient to operate the business. To meet this (3x) higher distribution requirement, the local energy provider was required to re-engineer the distribution system to determine capacity and replace transformers; ultimately our client was faced with an entire replacement of the internal electrical system of the building plus an estimated 18 - 24-month window without a guarantee of approvals that the power would be available. This was resolved by an agreement to bring multiple lines of service, a less desirable solution marrying a new and an old system, causing delays in redesign from an engineering perspective. In the meantime, our client must accept a reduced operational capacity based on available energy while the secondary system is being engineered and brought online.

Aside from the obvious financial impact, if we expand this single instance to the greater existing building inventory and compound the problem with a wholesale shift to EV adoption on a private and commercial level, the future may not be so bright.

Image: Pexels.

Catch 22

In major cities where pollution and congestion is the highest, the ideological demand for these EV products are the greatest. However, these very urban cores have some of the greatest backlog problems delivering stable and reliable energy solutions. Less an indictment of the energy providers, this is more a narrative about their ability to modernize and expand on the archaic backbone used to deliver energy.

Most developers’ private businesses have become accustomed to municipalities shifting infrastructure updates onto the backs of the private sector because of underfunded infrastructure programs, but no one appears to be addressing the energy lifeline in a meaningful way. While new companies have begun to develop independent energy networks such as national charging networks and fueling stations, this is only defraying a fraction of the demand we can anticipate.

As we envision the next evolution of transportation and its impact on our cities and the planet, perhaps our focus may need to be slightly more pragmatic than the romantic notion that we will be car-less entirely. While more predictions on the impact of car ownership versus some alternate shared economy for transportation is likely, the environmental problem is being redirected rather than solved, while our plans for future cities literally hang by a wire.

Deeg Snyder is a studio director and Automotive and Retail Centers practice area leader; his expertise is in prototype-driven models for national and international roll-out work and experience-driven hospitality environments for luxury automotive clients. With 18 years of experience at Gensler, contributing to numerous assignments with 10 Gensler offices, Deeg has developed a broad range of experience on both domestic and international projects. In constant pursuit of the highest level of design, Deeg approaches his work with intellectual and creative curiosity. Contact him at Deeg_Snyder@Gensler.com.