Ecotality, Cisco connect Internet-savvy EV charger

Tying an electric charger into Cisco's home energy-management network will let EV drivers tap into cheaper off-peak rates without the need for a smart meter.

Martin LaMonica Former Staff writer, CNET News
Martin LaMonica is a senior writer covering green tech and cutting-edge technologies. He joined CNET in 2002 to cover enterprise IT and Web development and was previously executive editor of IT publication InfoWorld.
Martin LaMonica
3 min read

Cisco Systems and Ecotality, an electric-vehicle charging station company, are collaborating to make EVs part of a home energy-management system.

Ecotality's Blink home EV charging station will connect to Cisco's Home Energy Controller, a touch-screen device for managing home energy, as part of early electric vehicle trials with consumers.

Blink Level 2 wall mount charger from Ecotality for home use Ecotality

The integration will let electric car owners schedule charging to take advantage of preferential rates offered by utilities for electric vehicles, typically after 9 p.m. From the Cisco home energy dashboard, there is an application to monitor and program how an electric car is charged, according to the companies.

Charging an electric car can pull as much power as an entire home consumes, utilities executives say, so consumers have an incentive to charge at off-peak times. But the system is sophisticated enough to communicate with utilities to get discounts beyond the EV tariff, Ecotality CEO Jonathan Read said in an interview.

For example, a consumer could program the car to be fully charged at 6 a.m. and the home charger could slow the rate of charging at times to get the lowest prices. Or consumers could program the system to ensure that the entire house is not consuming an amount of power that would put it into a higher rate bracket, he said.

"Interaction with the smart grid is imperative to make electric vehicles successful. It will reduce costs, increase efficiency, drive consumer acceptance, and allay utilities' fears with respect to load and load management," Read said.

With so few electric vehicles plugging in, the current U.S. grid can handle the added capacity. But there could be choke points on the local level if several drivers in a neighborhood charge all at once. That's why utilities are eager to give consumers tools to charge at off-peak times during the middle of the night.

Ecotality and Cisco plan to pilot test the combination in San Diego first as part of a Department of Energy program designed to get an EV charging infrastructure started. It could then be rolled out to other locations in the DOE program after that, Read said.

The home energy management system is designed to work either with or without two-way smart meters. The controller and EV charger will communicate using Wi-Fi and any data sent back to the utility, such as charge rate or charging patterns, can be sent using a home Internet connection.

Cisco, a networking giant, is testing its home energy controller, which effectively acts a network hub connected to a home router, with four utilities in smart-grid trials. But it views EV buyers as a potential channel for its home energy management system, said product line manager Larry O'Connell.

Cisco's home energy controller, a touch-screen display for monitoring energy and cutting energy waste. Cisco

Still, the cost for the home energy controller--at about $500 per unit--is a barrier to broad adoption, O'Connell acknowledged. Over time, Cisco could make a simpler device and have consumers access EV chargers and other connected home devices through a smart phone or PC. Some of the computing power and networking could move into Cisco's home networking equipment or a set-top box, O'Connell said.

There's an ongoing debate in the smart-grid industry over which networking protocol is best for the home-area network where smart appliances, home energy management systems, and EV chargers communicate. O'Connell said Cisco chose to work with Wi-Fi, rather than the low-power mesh wireless protocol Zigbee used in many smart meters, in this trial because it's already proven in people's homes.

The deal between Ecotality and Cisco was timed for the DistribuTech utility industry conference taking place this week in San Diego, where a number of announcements around home energy and electric vehicle management are expected to be announced.