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Valocchi: U.S. Infrastructure Needs a Major Tune-Up

One of the great pleasures of the warmer months is visiting the vintage car shows that sprout up in parks and parking lots around the country. It’s a treat to see the gangsterish lines of a ‘49 Mercuryor a block-and-a-half long Pontiac Bonnevilleup close.

But that era – exciting as it was – is long gone, and there’s no going back.

In its place, a new world is struggling to be born, a world of sustainable resources. Will the United States build the infrastructure necessary to stake a claim at the forefront of the transformation?

In the early part of the 20th century, the burgeoning auto industry made some initial forays into electric drive trains. Since then, scientists, entrepreneurs and dreamers have been trying to develop an electricity driven alternative to the internal combustion engine.

Now, for the first time, a solution seems to be in sight.

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VisionsofAmerica/Joe Sohm | Digital Vision | Getty Images

There is renewed momentum behind the research into the tricky problem of producing batteries capable of powering cars and trucks over suitable distances.

Major automakers are already beginning to roll out plug-in vehicles with increased range.

Last month, electric car manufacturer Tesla Motors announced a partnership with Toyota to build electric cars at a plant in California.

But it’s not just about how far you can drive. Figuring out how motorists will charge up their electric vehicles is a crucial issue that we must address now.

Consider, there are 254 million passenger vehicles on U.S. roads. As electric cars become more abundant, the burden on the power grid could become enormous. Imagine even a small portion of all those cars tapping in to the grid simultaneously on a hot July day when folks are turning their air conditioners up to eleven.

Today’s power grids weren’t designed to handle this kind of load.

But there is a solution. First, the grid must become intelligent. In a smart grid, digital sensors are deployed throughout the distribution network, and maybe even on the cars themselves. Powerful analytics software evaluates the torrent of information provided by the sensors to help utilities better understand and meet customer requirements.

Once a grid is smart, utilities can offer consumers a variety of plans to accommodate their needs – a capability that will be especially valuable as electric cars become increasingly common. For example, a customer who wants the flexibility to charge the family sedan at all hours of the day or night could be offered a premium plan. Another customer who agrees to restrict car charging to off-peak hours would pay lower rates. The intelligence built into the grid would balance all the requirements in real time.

But smart grids are just the first step.

We need also to start looking at the additional infrastructure required to support electric vehicles. Drivers will not always be charging up at home. During longer trips or if they do not have a garage at home, they will need access to public charging stations – especially as battery life improves and the time for a complete charge is reduced to a few minutes. Who will own these stations? How will they be integrated into an electrical grid’s distribution system? How will drivers pay for a charge?

This may seem like a futuristic dream, but other countries are already laying the groundwork. Israel is preparing the world’s first electric car network, complete with half a million recharging stations. The United Kingdom has also announced plans for an electric car infrastructure. Shouldn’t the United States — one of the most car-dependent nations in the world — be striving for a leading role in developing this promising transportation concept?

Getting this right could provide our nation with a tremendous and long-lasting competitive advantage in the form of energy independence and cost savings.

The U.S. government has already spent billions on electric car programsand has publicly stated that it would like to see one million electric or hybrid vehicles on U.S. roads by 2015. That’s a terrific goal. Now, our leaders must create the infrastructure – not just for those million vehicles, but the 10, 20 and 30 million vehicles that will follow.

Achieving these ambitious goals will require a broad nationwide vision and a plan. It will take the kind of boldness that culminated in the construction of the U.S. transcontinental railroad or the interstate highway system.

It will require sustained leadership.

Electric cars could represent the future, but an electric car without the supporting infrastructure is like a big old Pontiac Bonneville without a tankful of high-octane fuel. It might look good, but it won’t get far.

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Michael Valocchi is the global energy and utilities industry leader for IBM Global Business Services.