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Power Tagging: How EV Charging Without the Charger Could Work

An upstart company claims it can upend the increasingly competitive field of EV charging with a grid technology that does away with the need for an expensive, complex "head end." But it will have to get around companies with name recognition, contracts in hand, big-box tie-ins, and federal subsidies.

This is a field where better ideas should be welcome, but may not be. One of the biggest obstacles to getting electric cars on the road â€"- now and going back more than 100 years -- is the lack of coordinated charging networks. It's the classic chicken and egg problem, and it's bedeviled EV makers for a long time. Now there's finally some momentum to get charging installed by leading players like Coulomb, ECOtality, AeroVironment, Clipper Creek and others. They're even making "designer" charging stations that could make anyone proud to plug in. But suppose there was no need for complicated and expensive "smart" charging stations at all? What if all you needed was a simple outlet?

That's the premise Power Tagging Technologies (PTI) brings to the table. The company, which just signed up its first utility partner, doesn't make a sexy, designer charger. Instead, it makes what President and CEO John LoPorto describes as "an ugly gray box that sits inside your electric substation." You'll never see it, but it can "tag" a unit of electricity, providing a real time, schematic map of electrical grid usage, identifying the consumer who just plugged in, and billing them accordingly. It can tell the utility who's plugged in, and where they are.

PTI has a good idea, but it's going to have to overcome the considerable and building investment in conventional smart charging. Lots of good ideas never make it in the marketplace, and politics, social factors and investment are all factors. After all, maybe Beta was better than VHS.

The leading corporate players, many of which have benefited from federal subsidies in programs such as The EV Project and ChargePoint America, are fast locking in states, regions and even whole countries with their hardware, which concentrates the software in the "head end." And PTI's approach will still require extensive 220-volt wiring and the attendant municipal approvals â€"- no small part of the whole EV charging infrastructure.

LoPorto is fond of making analogies, and he points out that phone booths disappeared when cell phones came in. He also wants people to think of the SIM card in their cellphone, which does a similar job to his tagging box. Tagging is the new cell phone, he says, replacing the need for an easily damaged (by people backing into them, among other things) $5,000 charger.

PTI recently signed up Virginia-based Dominion Power, the country's fourth-largest utility, which will be installing the units next year and has invested $3 million in the company. Lockheed Martin is on board as the system integrator, deploying the system for utilities.

Last week, PTI joined the advisory board of the Rocky Mountain Institute's Project Get Ready, which advises cities on getting ready for plug-in cars. According to Matt Mattila, the project's manager, "We've looked at the technology, and we think it's feasible. They've demonstrated that they can send a signal through the substations. The hard part will be dealing with the market challenges and the existing players."

But Mattila points out that the EV market is still in the earliest stages, and there's still room for new technologies to triumph. "The momentum we've seen is a fraction of a fraction of what the market will become," he said. "We don't know who the winners are going to be. The companies that have gotten funding are in the lead, but it's probably a tenuous lead at this point."


Photo: Power Tagging Technologies